Preaching for Change
Shortly before giving his election-night victory speech, President-elect Barack Obama prayed by phone with Joel Hunter, who heads a 12,000-member megachurch in Orlando, Florida. Hunter’s relationship with Obama, which represents a break with traditional evangelical leaders often associated with issues like abortion and marriage, is partly a result of their shared dedication to environmental stewardship. That same conviction spurred Hunter and others to lobby senators this past spring to support America’s Climate Security Act. The bill, which aimed to decrease greenhouse-gas emissions, ultimately failed. But the push by these conservative Christians highlights the emergence of a surprising environmental constituency. Unlike the fiery old guard, a new generation of leaders is intent on championing broader political causes, some with green hues.
“There is a whole other agenda that’s begun to emerge, and I think that global warming was the wedge,” says Barnard College religion professor Randall Balmer.
This push by evangelicals to combat rising temperatures began in 2006. That year Jim Ball (above left), director of the advocacy organization the Evangelical Environmental Network, and Richard Cizik (above right), vice president for governmental affairs of the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), helped launch the Evangelical Climate Initiative. The coalition’s more than 100 evangelical leaders endorse the initiative’s assertion that “Christian moral convictions demand our response to the climate change problem [because] any damage that we do to God’s world is an offense against God Himself.” This stance initially provoked a massive backlash from old-guard “family values” leaders like Focus on the Family’s James Dobson. In fact, a survey revealed that NAE members identify “creation care”—the label many eco-minded evangelicals prefer to “environmentalism”—as a top priority, along with “culture” (e.g., social issues like marriage), aiding the needy, and evangelism, or leading people to Christ.
Polling suggests that evangelicals, nearly a quarter of the electorate, aren’t universally embracing the green gospel. Obama won only 26 percent of their votes, five points better than John Kerry in 2004. But Christian leaders are laying the groundwork to bring their followers to the calling, often in apolitical ways. Matthew Sleeth, author of Serve God, Save the Planet, estimates that 10 percent to 15 percent of churches have environmental ministries, many concentrating on promoting eco-friendly consumption. Groups like Restoring Eden are active on Christian college campuses, organizing the demographic most supportive of environmental legislation.
Though the environment seemingly wasn’t a major issue for evangelical voters in the 2008 election, evangelical activists have been gearing up for the climate change showdown expected under the Obama administration. Ball and Cizik say they are expanding their database of grassroots activists, coordinating efforts between the groups, and have identified moderate Republicans, including Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, they believe they can convince the next time around. “Climate change [legislation] opponents can’t avoid what’s occurring,” says Cizik. “They can run, but they can’t hide.”—Lester Feder
Back to Top