What do you envision when you hear the term "environmentalist?"
Perhaps a long-haired, sandal-wearing, granola-eating someone comes to mind. But in recent years, people from much different, traditionally more conservative groups have been speaking out on behalf of green causes -- including the Bible-thumping, khaki-wearing kind.
It's a development that established environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council, are quietly celebrating since they say a greater diversity of voices pushing environmental issues, particularly from the political right, can only have a positive effect on policy.
At the same time, these historically liberal and conservative groups have been keeping a respectful distance from each other. Don't, for example, call evangelical Earth advocates environmentalists.
"We prefer the term 'creation care,'" said Rich Cizik, vice president of governmental affairs for the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals. "It's not because environmentalist is a bad word, it's simply that there are those on the political right who will attempt to smear and discredit us if we accept the mantle. Plus we, as evangelical Christians, need to develop our own voice on this subject."
From Anti-War to Pro-Life
The face of environmental advocacy has evolved significantly since Earth Day was first celebrated 35 years ago today. Commemoration of a day recognizing the importance of environmental issues was originally pushed through by a democratic senator, Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, who had been partly inspired by teach-ins opposing the Vietnam War.
"I was satisfied that if we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force this issue onto the political agenda," Nelson later wrote.
Rather than anti-war causes, Cizik and his group consider abortion among their other main concerns. In fact, while Nelson sought to steer anti-war sentiment toward environmental concerns, Cizik sees a clear link between opposing abortion and cleaning up the planet.
"It is inconceivable to me that you can accept the mantle of pro-life and then say I'm not going to do anything about mercury poisoning that contributes to hundreds of newborns being born every year with high levels of toxicity in their blood," he said.
While it may seem unusual to hear a conservative Christian touting environmental causes, polls suggest that people like Cizik may be very much in synch with the American public.
Call to Worship Earth
In 1995, the MIT Press published an extensive survey on how Americans think on environmental issues and found that a substantial majority of respondents justified environmental protection by evoking God as Earth's creator. And a 2004 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Reports found that 55 percent of those surveyed in religious groups back strong regulations to protect the environment.
Melanie Griffin, director of the Land Protection Program at the Sierra Club and a self-described "committed Christian," says such findings aren't so surprising. Despite past claims from Cizik that groups like hers tend to support abortion rights and "kooky" religions such as pantheism, Griffin says nearly half of Sierra club members attend formal religious services at least once a month.
Recently, the traditionally crunchy Sierra Club has been trying to tap the potency of this link by sending Griffin to give presentations to religious groups and guest speak on conservative programs such as Oliver North's syndicated radio show.
Griffin says people are often taken aback by what they hear.
"Many come up to me afterwards and say, 'I have a whole new impression of the Sierra Club. I'm not used to seeing a Christian speak on these issues,'" she said. "My response is 'Get used to it.' There are a lot of walls coming down and that's a good thing."
While the Sierra Club seeks to broaden its identity to include more of the country's religious communities, some religious groups are increasing their efforts to recruit more of their own toward environmental causes. In October, the National Association of Evangelicals' leader, Ted Haggard, adopted an "Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility," which stressed every Christian's duty to care for the planet.
"We affirm that God-given dominion is a sacred responsibility to steward the Earth and not a license to abuse the creation of which we are a part," the group's statement reads.
Last fall, the evangelical magazine Christianity Today urged its readers to support steps toward protecting the planet. Meanwhile, Jim Ball, of the Evangelical Environmental Network, who became well-known in 2002 for his "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign against SUVs, has joined forces with the Natural Resources Defense Council in a campaign to improve energy conservation.
Environmental Republicans: 'Where Have You Been?'
Robert Perks of the NRDC says his group and Ball's are certainly "not lockstep on every issue," but rather both realized they would have more impact if they joined voices. Perks says while such alliances might have been unheard of in the past, the urgency of environmental concerns under the current administration is forcing a broadened environmental movement.
He and others in the environmental movement have argued the Bush administration has weakened a number of regulations protecting the planet, from easing carbon dioxide and mercury control requirements under a proposed cap and trade system to supporting oil drilling in the Alaska Wildlife Refuge.
"It's the issues that are bringing groups together," Perks said. "They're of concern to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons and now they are coalescing into a perfect storm."
Martha Marks, president of the 10-year-old group Republicans for Environmental Protection, is pleased to see a more organized effort by those on the religious right to support environmental causes. Her group has never shunned the term environmentalist and has stayed clear of religious messages in its advocacy work. Still, she says she welcomes any new voices to the cause, particularly those belonging to a group whom many credit with boosting re-election efforts of President Bush.
"We want to get back to the days when environmentalism was a bipartisan issue that both sides cared about," she said. "So hearing new voices from the religious right on these issues is welcome news to us. My only question is, where have you been?"