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."
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.
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.