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July 31, 2008 11:20 AM

Evangelicals' newest political movement: environmental stewardship

Posted by Richard Wagoner

University of Washington professor David Domke, an expert on the intersection of faith and politics, writes today about evangelicals embracing environmentalism.

By David Domke

In the late 1970s, white evangelical Protestants changed American politics. For decades these citizens had largely sat outside the mainstream culture, believing that their role was solely to preach the Christian gospel and not to engage in social issues of the day.

That changed in the 1970s.

In response to civil rights clashes, urban upheaval, sex and drugs, governmental lies, economic recession, and U.S. Supreme Court decisions banning prayer in public schools and legalizing abortion, conservative religious leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Tim LaHaye (who later co-wrote the multimillion-bestselling Left Behind books) led a political revival.

In the minds of these leaders, salvation was no longer just a personal matter; instead, it had become a national issue. Falwell declared that his reading of Old Testament prophets prompted him to see personal sin as tied to a nation's character, and in his view the United States had become "one of the most blatantly sinful nations of all time." In decades since, white evangelicals have sought to persuade the majority of Americans that they should adopt traditional - that is, politically conservative - positions on issues such as abortion, school prayer, flag burning and same-sex relationships.

These issues have now been joined by one that might transform American politics anew, beginning with this November’s election. And in this case, it is white evangelicals who are adopting the mainstream opinion.

The issue is the environment.

White evangelicals have traditionally held a "dominionist" perspective, in which nature and animals are thought to exist for the pleasures and pursuits of humans. In recent years, some leading conservative evangelicals - yes, conservatives - have discarded this view and embraced a "stewardship" outlook, in which humans are called to preserve and care for God's creation.

Perhaps the most important voice for this movement is Richard Cizik, a vice-president and chief governmental lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals, which through its member organizations represents more than 60 denominations. Cizik in 2002 attended a conference at Oxford University and had what he describes as a "conversion experience" on global warming and the environment. Since then, he's declared loudly and unflinchingly that evangelicals have a moral responsibility to become stewards of the Earth.

In 2007, in a special Newsweek issue on global warming, Cizik said this:

"The protection of the environment is a Biblically rooted epic task straight from God... Instead of looking at global warming as Jerry Falwell has called it, 'Satan's diversion,' we should see it as a note from God that says, 'I said to be a steward, my children. Sin has consequence, and if you pollute this earth there will be a price to pay. But it's not too late, and with my help you can restore Eden.' Environmentalism is the civil-rights issue of the 21st century, and one doesn't have to look too far back to see that evangelicals sat on their hands when it came to civil rights for blacks. I refuse to sit on my hands and allow the evangelical heritage to be sullied again, because the very reputation of the evangelical witness is at stake. It's crucial that we not make the mistake of our fathers."

That's throwing down the gauntlet. Or in Cizik's view, the gospel.

Cizik has received enormous criticism from James Dobson and other power-brokers of the religious right, who have tried to get the NAE to fire Cizik. But Cizik is unbowed, and he is taking his message far and wide - including to Seattle, where he spoke last week as part of a panel tied to the "Last Polar Bear" exhibit at the Burke Museum (full disclosure: my wife, a Presbyterian minister, also was on the panel). As part of his visit, Cizik said that addressing global warming will be difficult, and will "necessitate a cultural and spiritual transformation."

That transformation appears to be underway - at least among evangelicals.

Exhibit A: In early 2006, presidents of 39 evangelical colleges and dozens of other evangelical leaders - many of them residing in the western part of the United States - created the Evangelical Climate Initiative, which declared:

"For most of us, until recently this has not been treated as a pressing issue or major priority. Indeed, many of us have required considerable convincing before becoming persuaded that climate change is a real problem and that it ought to matter to us as Christians. But now we have seen and heard enough... 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."

Exhibit B: A massive, landmark study of the religious beliefs and outlooks of Americans was released recently by the Pew Research Center. On abortion and same-sex relationships, Americans who attend evangelical churches continue to hold positions that are much more conservative. But on the issue of environmental protection, 54 percent of evangelicals agreed that "stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost."

They were not alone. Among every single religious grouping in the survey - from devout to "unaffiliated" - a majority of respondents adopted the same position. This is nothing short of an emerging environmental consensus.

Whether it impacts voting patterns is something we'll soon know.

David Domke, a former newspaper journalist, is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. His latest book, "The God Strategy: How Religion Became A Political Weapon in America," was published in January. He can be reached at domke@u.washington.edu.


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