POLITICS DECEMBER 30, 2008
The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins was gleeful after Richard Cizik, chief lobbyist of the 30-million member National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), was forced to resign on December 11. Perkins and other “family values” leaders had been trying to get rid of Cizik for two years, ever since he launched a campaign to add environmentalism to the evangelical “values” agenda. Though Cizik lost his job over comments endorsing civil unions, not because of his attention to what evangelicals call “creation care,” Perkins still claimed his ouster as a repudiation of the green agenda. "This was a long time coming,” Perkins said on his weekly radio show. “When you walk through that green door of environmentalism and global warming, you know, you risk being blinded by that green light and losing the sense of direction.”
Cizik’s adversaries can easily find election data to argue he had diverged from the evangelical grassroots. While Barack Obama performed better among born-again Christians than John Kerry--Obama won 26 percent of white evangelicals, Kerry won 21 percent--Obama still won less than Al Gore’s 30 percent in 2000. The environment ranked twelfth on a list of 13 issues important to white evangelical voters in an October poll. And 2008’s most conspicuous evangelical, Sarah Palin, lead cries of “Drill, baby, drill.”
But it would be wrong to conclude that the evangelical grassroots have rejected environmentalism. Instead, evangelical environmentalists at the grassroots level simply conceive of the problem in different terms. Cizik envisions a politicized environmentalism to stop climate change, while the grassroots have been cultivating a consumer-focused green movement that intentionally steers clear of politics. Cizik’s resignation certainly doesn’t announce the death of creation care--but it does suggest it may evolve in a new direction.
In 2006, Cizik helped turn the environment from a marginal subject into the focus of a bitter evangelical leadership fight when he helped launch the Evangelical Climate Initiative. Signed by more than 80 high profile evangelical leaders, including superstar pastor, best-selling author, and controversial inaugural speaker Rick Warren, the Climate Initiative declared, “Love of God, love of neighbor, and the demands of stewardship are more than enough reason for evangelical Christians to respond to the climate change problem with moral passion and concrete action.”
Perkins, along with Focus on the Family’s James Dobson and other “family values” leaders, launched an all-out war on Cizik, who had been a longtime ally. They feared that his work would dilute the values message that had made evangelicals such a central part of the conservative coalition. In March 2007, 25 leaders sent a letter to the NAE board alleging that “…Cizik and others are using the global warming controversy to shift emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time, notably the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage and the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children.”
In an e-mail last January, Cizik wrote, “Frankly it was the first-ever instance in which anyone [who was part of this leadership] would stand-up to the Religious Right and disagree with them. That's why they went after me … as they did. They knew if I survived, others would break ranks too.” (Cizik’s e-mail was off-the-record at the time, but he subsequently agreed to allow me to quote from it. He declined my request for an interview following his resignation.)
Cizik did survive, with a unanimous gesture of support from the NAE board declaration and the organization’s new president, Leith Anderson. And others did follow his example, including Joel Hunter. Hunter is senior pastor of the Northland Church, a massive megachurch in the Orlando, Florida, suburbs. Soon after he starred in a commercial announcing the Evangelical Climate Initiative, in early 2006, he was tapped to lead Christian Coalition. But Hunter eventually declined the position, citing his desire to work on creation care and other “compassion issues” on which evangelicals could form partnerships with former progressive adversaries. (In August 2008, Hunter delivered the closing benediction at the Democratic National Convention.)
Hunter, a national figure with a 12,000-member congregation, was uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between the leaders of creation care and their evangelical parishioners, many of whom remained skeptical of the movement. At his suggestion, a group of Northland parishioners, most of whom had little background with environmental issues, started Northland’s Creation Care Taskforce. Though he began the conversation with his church by showing a film about global warming that features Cizik and other faith leaders, The Great Warming, Hunter allowed the group to chart its own direction. And that direction was explicitly apolitical from the beginning: Though one member pushed for the group to support environmental policy, the taskforce largely shared the opinion of its chairman, Raymond Randall, that environmental stewardship “really isn't a political issue--it's a personal responsibility issue.”
In January, I traveled to the outskirts of Orlando to catch the taskforce’s first major effort to educate parishioners on ways they could take responsibility at home, the “Creation Care Expo.” Following services that Sunday, roughly 2,500 parishioners crossed a parking lot separating the brand-new sanctuary from a former rolling rink where services were once held. Out front of the old building were a pick-up truck that a parishioner had converted to run on batteries and a Salvation Army donation station. Inside, members of the taskforce collected pledges from people to switch to low-energy compact florescent light bulbs. Home remodeling companies displayed racks of low-flush toilets and non-toxic paint. A local wildlife organization caused a great deal of excitement when it briefly brought out a small falcon.
As I talked to parishioners at the Expo, I realized the extent to which their gentle promotion of a greener lifestyle diverged from Cizik’s passionate call to action on global warming. Randall, a fan of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, told me he avoids talking about global warming “at all costs.” His experience at Northland convinced him that when “you mention global warming to most evangelicals or most Christians … they laugh and they run off.” Instead of talking about global warming, taskforce members discuss the Biblical mandate to environmental stewardship they find in Genesis. Whether climate change is real, Randall says, “really doesn't matter. My obligation as a Christian is to be obedient to scripture.”
A few weeks later, the two approaches to creation care collided when Cizik addressed a conference organized by Northland’s Creation Care Taskforce. Before Cizik’s speech, the Taskforce performed a skit in which a man spots his neighbor taking out her recycling, and attacks his neighbor for being a “granola-eating tree-hugger.” This was one in a series of performances during the day aimed at dispelling environmentalism’s liberal baggage.
By contrast, a crowd of granola-eating tree-huggers would have cheered for Cizik’s speech: “Evangelical recycling is … a Hail Mary pass. It’s the right thing to do, but for a global problem you have to have a global solution. We can’t do this with our own individual actions.” He called global warming “today’s civil rights issue” and suggested that evangelicals who failed to combat it would be repeating the sins of their forefathers who tolerated slavery. “I would be lying to you if I did not speak the truth,” he concluded. Unless the United States takes political action, “we as a nation will face judgment from God.”
The speech was rousing, but even members of the Creation Care Taskforce found Cizik’s approach problematic. Taskforce member Dan Hardaway said, “If you want to divide the church, lead with global warming.”
Following Cizik’s resignation, Hardaway’s prediction seems to have come to pass. But the grassroots work of the Creation Care Taskforce--mostly projects to share Northland’s model with other churches--continues nonetheless, its apolitical approach, if anything, encouraged by the events of the last year. Randall says, “I'm probably more hesitant to talk about climate change now [because] I've seen that we have much greater success when we focus on the common ground, and that's scripture.”
Still, Hunter is still hopeful that evangelicals will become a constituency supporting global warming. “My sense is that we aren't to the place yet where we're going to really effectively mobilize the hundreds of thousands of Christians" around climate change, he said. “But I see that coming,” he added, claiming there is good news for evangelical environmentalists buried in the election data.
And there is. Yes, McCain walloped Obama amongst evangelicals, but the Democrat president-elect performed twice as well as Kerry did amongst evangelicals under 30 winning one-third of the demographic most enthusiastic about environmental regulation. (Student activism at Christian schools has helped create environmental initiatives at roughly half of the member institutions of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, says CCCU’s media relations manager Mike Plunkett.) And, yes, the environment did come in twelfth out of 13 in the Pew Forum’s study of evangelical priorities, but gay marriage came in dead last, with abortion ranking only ninth. Energy, which will be intrinsically linked to the environment in a Democratic administration, came in second. This political climate creates an opportunity for environmentalists to link public policy to consumer choices, appealing to both ends of the evangelical environmental spectrum. If the creation care leaders can win over skeptical grassroots activists like Hardaway, they could have a coalition to be reckoned with.
J. Lester Feder is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Columbia Journalism Review’s Campaign Desk. He is currently working on a book about the creation care movement.
By J. Lester Feder