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Preaching the gospel of green. Evangelicals embrace environmentalism

Preaching the gospel of green
Increasingly, evangelicals are embracing environmentalism.

By Paul Nussbaum
Philadlephia Inquirer Staff Writer

PHILADLEPHIA (5/27/2004)--One of Calvin DeWitt's favorite Bible verses is Revelation 11:18:

"... The time has come for judging the dead... and for destroying those who destroy the Earth."

DeWitt, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, is a leader in a growing evangelical Christian movement to protect the environment in the name of God.

"This comes right out of the Christian calling of how we should live our lives on Earth," DeWitt said. "Christians are coming on board more and more because there really is an interest in seeking the kingdom of God beyond just individual needs."

On such issues as global climate change, endangered species, and mercury hazards to the unborn, many evangelical Christians are parting ways with conservatives. They are embracing environmental protection as "stewardship" of God's creation.

One such expression came yesterday, when President Bush gave the commencement address at Calvin College, a small school in the Reformed tradition in Grand Rapids, Mich. A third of the faculty of the college signed an open letter to Bush, citing "conflicts between our understanding of what Christians are called to do and many of the policies of your administration."

Among the concerns, the faculty wrote: "As Christians we are called to be caretakers of God's good creation. We believe your environmental policies have harmed creation and have not promoted long-term stewardship of our natural environment."

The environmental awakening among evangelicals has prompted some to seek common ground with other faiths. A group of evangelical Protestant scientists is working with Jewish scholars and scientists to form a "Noah Alliance" to protect endangered species - and the Endangered Species Act.

"Ours is the time for a concert of religious voices to proclaim our privilege and responsibility for not allowing the great lineages of God's living creatures to be broken," says a draft statement being circulated this month among Christian and Jewish scientists.

Broadly defined, evangelicals are Christians who have had a personal or "born-again" religious conversion, believe the Bible is the word of God, and believe in spreading their faith. Millions of Americans fit the definition, although estimates vary on exactly how many: Forty-two percent of Americans described themselves as evangelical Christians in a 2003 Gallup poll, while only 19 percent said they met all three criteria in a 1995 Gallup poll. The National Association of Evangelicals says about 25 percent of adult Americans are evangelicals.

Evangelicals - especially white, Protestant evangelicals - have been considered reliable supporters of a conservative agenda that focuses on "values" issues such as abortion and gay marriage. In last year's presidential election, Bush received 78 percent of the vote of white evangelicals, according to the National Election Pool exit poll.

Historically, many evangelical Christians have been suspicious of environmentalism as a liberal, godless movement more interested in scenery than souls.

But in recent months, a number of evangelical leaders have advocated for strong measures to protect the environment, based on biblical teachings of stewardship, helping the poor, and loving one's neighbors.

A group of 30 prominent evangelicals - including the Rev. Ted Haggard, chairman of the NAE; David Neff, editor of Christianity Today magazine; the Rev. Jo Anne Lyon, executive director of the aid organization World Hope International; and the Rev. Dwight McKissic, senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas - met last summer to pledge to "motivate the evangelical community to fully engage environmental issues in a biblically faithful and humble manner, collaborating with those who share these concerns, that we might take our appropriate place in the healing of God's creation, and thus the advance of God's reign."

"We are persuaded that we must not evade our responsibility to care for God's creation," the evangelical leaders wrote after a three-day retreat at Sandy Cove, Md. "We recognize that there is much more we need to learn, and much more praying we need to do, but that we know enough to know that there is no turning back from engaging the threats to God's creation."

The group said it would seek by this summer to find a consensus among evangelical leaders on how best to tackle global warming.

Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs of the NAE, said recent polling showed 48 percent of evangelicals rated the environment as an important priority, nearly as high a proportion - 52 percent - as those who cited abortion as a priority.

"That's an amazing statistic, considering that we've been talking about abortion for 30 years and we haven't even begun to make a case to a lot of our folks about environmental issues," Cizik said.

John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and coauthor of The Bully Pulpit: The Politics of Protestant Clergy and Religion and the Culture Wars: Dispatches From the Front, sees a steady growth in environmental consciousness among evangelicals.

"Historically, evangelical Protestants have been slow to pick up the cause of environmentalism. The more traditional they were, the less interested they were. And some fundamentalists were, in fact, quite hostile to environmentalism.

"In recent times, though, evangelicals have developed an interest in the environment.

"Part of that may be that as more evangelicals have attained middle-class status, they have grown more interested in middle-class issues, and one of those is the environment."

In polling by the Bliss Institute last year, 52 percent of evangelicals agreed with the statement, "Strict rules to protect the environment are necessary even if they cost jobs or result in higher prices."

The Rev. Jim Ball, a Baptist minister who is executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network and organizer of the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign, says evangelical Christians are more receptive to environmental messages "when we talk about things in terms of family and kids."

So one powerful environmental topic among evangelicals has become the threat of mercury, emitted by coal-burning power plants, to the unborn.

And environmental messages resonate more loudly when they are addressed in Christian language, he said.

"I quote the Golden Rule. I remind people that reducing pollution is loving your neighbor. I quote [the Gospel of] Matthew: '[W]hatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.' I remind people that if something we're doing impacts the poor, we're doing that to Jesus."

Some evangelicals remain leery of associating with environmental activists, concerned about what they regard as liberal solutions to environmental problems: big government and oppressive regulations.

The conservative Focus on the Family organization reacted warily to the NAE's attention to global warming, saying in a statement, "Focus and the broader evangelical movement have viewed such issues as the protection of marriage, the sanctity of human life, and the related issue of judicial reform as paramount. Our friends at the National .Association of Evangelicals, with whom we agree on these and so many other issues, have now staked out a position in the very controversial area of global warming. This is despite the fact that significant disagreement exists within the scientific community regarding the validity of this theory... . Any issue that seems to put plants and animals above humans is one that we cannot support."

Evangelicals should not be taken for granted by any political party or movement, said Paul Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, in Amherst, Mass.

"Religion isn't red or blue and it isn't green, either," Gorman said. "Engagement of the religious community can be a powerful force for the common good."

END

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