Evangelicals preach climate change

A few Christian activists are working hard to convince their communities about the threat of global warming

Rev. Jim Ball founded the Evangelical Climate Initiative
Kara Ball

The Rev. Jim Ball was a doctoral student at Drew University in New Jersey in the early 1990s and deeply devoted to social causes like extreme poverty and hunger when he met a classmate who was studying Christianity's relationship to nature.

"Why would you waste your time on that?" Ball remembers thinking, until he began looking at the Scriptures himself with the environment in mind. He was transformed by the experience. Verses he'd long known in the Bible took on entirely new meaning.

He became convinced that climate change -- the warming of the Earth widely blamed on carbon emissions from oil, fuel and gas -- and all of its calamitous effects, from rising floodwaters to devastating droughts, were just as much an imminent threat to the poor and vulnerable as any other social ill.

"That's when I realized, 'Ha! All of my concerns about hunger and justice and peacemaking, all that's really connected to this issue of global warming,'" says Ball, the executive vice president of the Evangelical Environmental Network. "I had that conversation, I read the Scriptures, and I saw the connection to the things that I already cared deeply about."

Now he finds himself among a small but dedicated group of evangelical activists who are on an often lonely mission to prove to their own communities that not only is climate change real, as supported by scientific consensus, but that there is a Christian imperative to mitigate its effects and reduce humans' carbon footprint. They have learned that it is anything but an easy sell. 

Matthew Sleeth, a former emergency room doctor and director of the medical staff at a large hospital in Maine, was vacationing with his wife on the barrier islands off Florida when she asked him what he thought was the world's greatest challenge.

There, on a breezeless summer night, without the sound of cars rumbling down the freeway or light pollution obscuring the stars, Sleeth came to believe the planet was dying and that climate change was a significant factor. He quit his practice, became a devout evangelical Christian, and radically changed his lifestyle to reflect his new beliefs. No more rearranging the deck chairs while the whole ship -- the Earth -- was going down, as Sleeth puts it.

The Sleeths and their two children moved into a house the size of their old garage, reduced their electricity use to a tenth of the national average, and cut back on their overall consumption of fossil fuels. "Don't feel too sorry for me," Sleeth said. "Have you ever seen a doctor's garage?"

The Sleeths founded Blessed Earth, a nonprofit organization dedicated to their message of caring for God's creation. They have spent the past decade lecturing at more than 1,000 churches, encouraging people to take steps in their own lives to be better stewards of the planet.

Then there's Richard Cizik, who was the top lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals -- an influential organization representing several hundred congregations -- when he was invited to a climate change conference in 2002 at Oxford University. Friends and colleagues urged him not to go; climate change was already a deeply divisive issue, and they told him his presence would inevitably be used as propaganda by left-leaning environmental activists.

He went anyway, and presented with what he says was overwhelming scientific evidence supporting climate change, came back a believer.

"I came away persuaded that the issue was so important that it deserved the full attention of the evangelical world, myself included," Cizik says. "I say that I was converted because it was just a wholesale change. I didn't use to regard it as an important issue; I was skeptical about the scientific arguments."

Cizik says he was asked to resign from the National Association of Evangelicals six years later, in part because of his vocal advocacy for climate change.

"There was constant badgering in the press, publicly and privately lobbying by the religious right to get me fired," Cizik says. "My point is, you have to stand up for what you believe in against all the opposition -- if you're going to be an evangelical leader in America, you have to be willing to do that."

Lonely battle

In 2006, it seemed that evangelical leaders who ascribed to that view were on the cusp of a breakthrough. Ball and Cizik spearheaded the Evangelical Climate Initiative, or ECI -- a commitment by 86 prominent religious leaders to combat climate change, with a lengthy explication of how that obligation conformed to Christian values.

The document also called for a federal cap-and-trade policy to regulate carbon, as well as other "market-based solutions," and netted big-name religious leaders including mega-church pastor Rick Warren, the presidents of 39 evangelical colleges, and the leader of the Salvation Army.

"We are proud of the evangelical community's long-standing commitment to the sanctity of human life. But we also offer moral witness in many venues and on many issues," the statement read. "Sometimes the issues that we have taken on, such as sex trafficking, genocide in the Sudan, and the AIDS epidemic in Africa, have surprised outside observers."

The ECI was heralded as a watershed moment, portending the day when evangelicals in the United States would use their formidable political clout to make real inroads on the climate change issue, just as they had with the anti-abortion movement.

Seven years later, those aspirations might seem quaint.

Action on climate change by evangelicals hasn't subsided completely: Last month, a different group of evangelical Christians, including academics and scientists, addressed a letter to members of Congress again urging passage of legislation to reduce carbon emissions and help "the least of us," as Jesus directed Christians to do.

But Washington has gotten, if anything, even more hostile to the possibility of federal climate change legislation, with the rise of the tea party and its suspicion of all broad-based government action; the recession and a tepid recovery making the up-front costs of cleaner energy unpalatable to many; and unprecedented levels of spending by the fossil fuel industry on lobbying efforts.

Republican Party lawmakers who were once open to putting climate change on the agenda have backpedaled. Even embracing the broadly accepted scientific consensus on it is controversial among many conservatives.

And although the ECI has grown to include more than 300 signatories over the years, the backlash from certain quarters of the evangelical community was fierce and swift. Prominent evangelical Christian leaders like James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, and Jerry Falwell, the televangelist and Southern Baptist pastor, denounced the efforts. Faced with the pressure, two signatories withdrew their names. Today, the ECI is a standing article of faith among some religious leaders -- but little else.

Joel Hunter, pastor of the 15,000-member Northland Church in Florida, was one of the leaders who signed on and was taken aback by the fervor of the opposition, not only from other evangelical leaders around the country but from his own congregation.

"That's where it hurt the most," Hunter says. "My own people, they were listening to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck; they were so afraid that this was a radical movement, some sort of conspiracy from the Sierra Club, but I would say 'No, this is biblical.'"

Keeping up the good fight

Warring theologies are also partially at play in evangelicals' different approaches to climate change. The Cornwall Alliance, an organization that arose to combat the evangelical environmental movement, contends that God created the Earth to be perfectly self-regulating and suited for human habitation -- and that any ideology countering that is blasphemous. Some opponents also cite the Bible passage in which God promises Noah that the Earth will not be destroyed by another flood as proof that man-made climate change is a secular fantasy.

Despite the strong headwinds, the small cadre of evangelical activists presses on where it is sure it counts: at the grassroots. Although they have retreated in some ways from Washington, they spread the message from church to church, congregation to congregation, doing their work in the trenches.

It is an issue deeply rooted in identity, many activists say.

In the more than 1,000 churches he has lectured in, Sleeth says he has never led with climate change specifically, but has instead stressed the Christian virtues of simplicity and generosity when making the case for behavior change.

"It comes with a whole host of baggage. Believing in climate change means you have to believe in all these other things," Sleeth says. "Instead, I say that my faith tells me that I'm responsible for the planet; God left us to be in charge, and being in charge means you can't abdicate your responsibility."

Ball has spent much of his career making the issue accessible to the evangelical community. In the early 2000s, he spearheaded an educational campaign called "What Would Jesus Drive?"

"Our community still has concerns with scientists, environmental activists and Democratic politicians, so that's why we have brought forward new messengers and put forward biblical understandings of everything we do," Ball adds. "This is not about politics -- we want to say, 'Here are the facts on the ground, here's what it's doing to people who Jesus called us to care for.'"

The activists say their greatest hope lies in younger evangelicals, who are less tied to the traditional conservative orthodoxy about suspicion of science and mistrust of governmental action. Last year, some of them formed the Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, an organization that sends advocates to Christian colleges to speak about climate change. Members recently went on a trip to Malawi, whose agricultural economy has been affected by changing rainfall patterns and droughts in recent years, to see the effect of climate change on the world's poor.

Hunter, of the Florida church, meanwhile has focused on sustainability efforts in his own church, as well as advocacy campaigns. That involved getting a group of congregants zipped into hazmat suits and picking through all of the trash generated by the church to see how they could reduce their consumption.

As concerns mount about irregular weather events and patterns closer to home, evangelicals -- and Americans -- are finding climate change a harder problem to ignore.

"You can run but you can't hide. These things inescapably will impact the United States; to sit on our hands and act like nothing's happening is to be the embodiment of 'hear no evil, see no evil,'" Cizik said. "Most evangelicals are looking out their kitchen windows and saying 'something is happening to our planet.'"

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