Evangelicals Go Green -- Will Conservative Candidates Follow Suit?

Christians swayed by the environmental movement may rethink their votes.

February 10, 2009, 11:37 PM

Aug. 23, 2007 — -- Nearly one-quarter of the nation's voters are evangelical Christians, and since the 1980s most of them have endorsed Republican candidates. They helped elect President George Bush to a second term, constituting more than one-third of his votes in 2004.

But today some evangelicals are saying their votes can't be taken for granted. Looking beyond traditional litmus test issues such as abortion or gay marriage, some young Christians say they are no longer calling themselves Republican.

"I'm ashamed to say it. ... I had a yard sign for 'Bush-Cheney 2000.' I was really going for those guys," said Brandon Rhodes, a 23-year-old graduate student at the Multnomah Biblical Seminary and an evangelical Christian.

Rhodes, who considers himself part of the emerging church, said he and his peers are rejecting an individualistic "Marlboro Man spirituality" in favor of a more inclusive faith. "Whereas maybe the fundamentalist in 1980 said, 'We can't do social programs for the poor…that sounds like communism,' this generation is like, 'So what?' If it's the right thing to do, we have to do it," he said. "It's politically ambidextrous."

This newfound communal faith doesn't just include people, but the environment as well.

"The first time I broke ranks with the right it was about the environment," Rhodes said. "What good was it to the unborn if my Republican votes saved them from the abortion clinics, only to deliver them into a resource-scraped world of want, devoid of wild places?"

John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, has spent decades studying American religion and politics.

Green said the number of young, white evangelicals between the ages of 18 and 29 who identify themselves as Republican remained fairly consistent from 2001 to 2005. Since then, however, the data show a steep decline. Fifty-five percent of young, white evangelicals self-identified as Republican in 2005, while in 2007, only 37 percent consider themselves members of the GOP.

Compared with the rest of the population, the difference seems even larger. Republican Party identification fell among older white evangelicals by five points and by a mere four points among the general public, according to the Pew Forum.

But so far young evangelicals show no signs of swinging toward the Democratic Party. Data collected this year by the Pew Forum indicate the majority of young evangelicals still describe themselves as either conservative or moderate. Their newfound party identification? "Most became independents," Green said.

Ben Lowe, 23, describes himself as an "issue by issue voter," who often leans towards the Republican Party. But as the presidential election looms, he anticipates a difficult decision. He is anti-abortion but also deeply concerned about the environment. "As Christians we must always be reevaluating our relationship with politicians based on what the Bible teaches us," he said. "Right now, no major party out there represents my values as a Christian."

Lowe developed a deep concern for the environment at Wheaton College where he was one of the original members of an environmental stewardship club. For Lowe, protecting the planet is much more than an extracurricular activity. It's a calling. He is currently writing a book about the Christian student environmental movement to be published by InterVarsity Press. He also recently accepted a position as outreach director with A Rocha, an organization aimed at building what evangelicals call "the creation care movement" throughout the world.

"Saving this planet isn't a partisan issue and it needs to go beyond partisan politics," Lowe said.

Despite a flurry of recent press, the evangelical environmental movement originated decades ago. Calvin DeWitt, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and president of the Academy of Evangelical Scientists and Ethicists (AESE), is widely considered one of the founders of creation care, or a Bible-based environmentalism.

In 1979 DeWitt founded the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies in response to Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. The Institute was connected with several Christian schools that were receptive to DeWitt's message about science and the environment, but the greater evangelical community still needed convincing.

"We began to hear the question, 'What is more important, people or the environment?'" DeWitt said.

Leslie Wickman, director of the Center for Research in Science (CRIS) at Azusa Pacific University in California, will be starting a local chapter AESE at her campus this fall. She finds inspiration in the book of Genesis where God called everything he created good, and instructed Adam to tend the garden of Eden.

"If we look at ourselves as God's appointed caretakers, it's a high calling as opposed to 'We're all in this together and part of environment,'" Wickman said. "In the Christian community ... there has been a historically large segment who look at the physical world as not being important or good."

Although Wickman considers several factors when deciding who to vote for, a candidate's position on environmental stewardship would influence her vote significantly. "The public opinion in the Christian community is ahead of the political candidates," she said. "I feel my best way to influence policy is by educating students and the community."

The Rev. Tri Robinson, who leads the Vineyard Boise evangelical megachurch in Idaho, said his children, now in their 30s, won't blindly align with the Republican Party. "They say there's nobody to vote for. On one hand we're voting for the sanctity of life and on the other hand we're voting against the environment," he said. "And that really challenged me as a father but also as a pastor with lots of young people at my church in that generation."

Robinson said he too is looking for a candidate that supports life both in and out of the womb. "Evangelicals are really, really going to have a problem in the next election unless someone stands up and is for both," he said.

The Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), agrees. As a conservative leader in an organization representing 30 million Christians, Cizik seems an unlikely advocate. But while attending a 2002 climate change conference in England he had an epiphany about creation care that he said was similar to his conversion to Christianity in 1972.

This comparison drew protests from colleagues who believe that nothing compares to one's religious conversion.

"Well that's true," Cizik said. "But the reality is that to do what creation care requires of the evangelicals of America -- 100 million of them -- is conversion. There's a new way of living."

Cizik joined forces with Harvard researcher Eric Chivian, world-renowned climatologist Sir John Houghton and Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, among many others. In a short time he came to represent evangelicals nationwide who care about climate change.

Cizik encouraged leaders to sign the Evangelical Climate Initiative, which said global warming is man-made, and declares it is everyone's moral responsibility to care for the environment. He appeared in documentaries about evangelical environmentalism, including Bill Moyers' PBS special "Is God Green?" and "The Great Warming." In January Cizik held an unpublicized meeting between evangelicals and scientists who pledged to work together to defeat global warming through policy change.

"The destruction of nature comes about because of bad stewardship, stupid economics and the betrayal of our biblical responsibilities. And so a lot of healing is going to have to occur," Cizik said.

He believes ignoring God's gifts is blasphemous, and that God will hold political leadership accountable if the Earth isn't properly cared for. "You have to be the biggest riverboat gambler in history to say that [global warming] is the greatest hoax perpetrated against the American people," Cizik said, referring to a statement made by former chairman of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee James M. Inhofe in 2003. "I just think the administration has acted like riverboat gamblers."

Cizik's words and actions have generated passionate opposition. In March dozens of well-known evangelical leaders sent a letter to NAE chairman L. Roy Taylor calling for Cizik's resignation, demanding that he stop talking about global warming so as not to divert attention from abortion or same-sex marriage. Signers included Focus on the Family chairman James Dobson and American Family Association chairman Don Wildmon. Then, in July, Citizen magazine, a Focus on the Family publication, featured a scathing criticism of Cizik, accusing him of pushing evangelical voters toward the Democratic Party.

But Cizik remained unfazed, saying, "Never in my Bible did it say I have to be an economic or a political conservative, although I happen to be both. The irony of the irony."

Although opponents of evangelical environmentalism are prominent and public, they represent a minority. Pew Forum data from 2006 show 68 percent of white evangelicals view global warming as a serious problem.

They are only slightly less likely than the rest of the population to believe global warming is caused by humans, or that the Earth is getting warmer. Forty-seven out of every 100 white evangelicals surveyed said stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost. Thirty-eight percent said such regulations would hurt the economy.

"Evangelicals as a whole, along with the general public, have been moving in a pro-environment direction," Green said.

Cizik attributes the trend to grassroots efforts. "It is so important that our evangelical leaders come forward as they have to say 'We believe in creation care,' and that's what's occurring, leader to leader, preacher to pastor to parishioner."

Despite outcries for Cizik's removal, the evangelical environmental movement continues to gain momentum. Suellen Lowry, director of the Noah Alliance, said some resistance is to be expected. "People get attacked when they speak the truth, because when the truth says, 'Hey, we maybe need to change our ways,' there will be people who resist," she said. "The Bible is full of that and the history of humankind is full of that."

The Noah Alliance attracted media attention in 2005 for being an unusual collaboration between Jewish and evangelical groups that came together to block former California Rep. Richard Pombo's proposed amendments to the Endangered Species Act. The bill didn't pass, in large part due to the alliance's efforts.

Now Lowry will ask scientists across America to meet locally and talk about regional solutions to the global warming crisis, especially as it relates to endangered species. She envisions their expertise traveling from the bench to the pulpit and eventually, to the politicians. "You need to have public policy as part of the solution," Lowry said.

Individual churches are also doing their part to spread the word. And there is perhaps no better example than the Vineyard Boise Church in Idaho. When Robinson first preached creation care to his congregation they gave him a standing ovation. "They were just cheering, like it's about time someone said something about this," Robinson said.

After that, they immediately went to work. Robinson encouraged his parishioners to "tithe" their trash, or, in other words, recycle. He found volunteers to tend a sprawling organic garden yielding a huge harvest of vegetables for the homeless. He even incorporated environmentalism into the church's missionary work.

Today Robinson is talking to contractors about powering church facilities with solar panels, and he is also researching a new kind of coffee cup made from corn husks. "We have about 2,000 people show up on Sunday and the church is big on coffee," Robinson explained. Rather than sending a bunch of paper or Styrofoam cups to the landfill, the church would use the corn husk cups to create mulch for their garden.

Robinson's environmental stewardship has become a model for the more than 1,500 other Vineyard churches worldwide. Earlier this year Bert Waggoner, national director of the Vineyard, USA, called upon every pastor to follow Robinson's example and preach creation care.

"We're really trying to create a national Christian movement," Robinson said. In September his church will host an environmental stewardship conference. Their keynote speaker will be Cizik, who is currently busy planning an event of his own. In the hopes of persuading nonbelievers, Cizik will travel to Alaska this month along with five scientists and several evangelical leaders to produce a documentary about climate change and its impact on America.

"The scripture says the Earth is the Lord's," said Cizik. "We will not stand by silently and allow our Christian faith to be willy nilly, the religion of the status quo on these subjects. No way. And as Churchill said, 'Never give in, never, never.' And we won't."

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