The Heat Is Online

Evangelicals Prepare to Speak Out on Climate Change

Evangelicals direct clout at global warming

 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dec. 27, 2005

What does the Bible say about global warming?


Some evangelical Christian leaders hope to answer that question next year with a statement on climate change that could lend moral authority and political power to a smaller number of environmentalists pushing the issue.


It's a sign that U.S. evangelicals are flexing political muscles strengthened in battles over domestic issues such as abortion, gay rights and school prayer on a broader array of topics, from human rights and religious freedom to global poverty and AIDS  issues on which they've already scored legislative victories in Washington.


The climate change statement, being crafted by several evangelical leaders nationwide, could call for curbs on emissions of greenhouse gases. It also could put evangelicals  who make up 1 in 4 voters and are a key support base for President Bush, with 78 percent of white evangelicals voting for him last year  at odds with the White House and business interests that form another key Republican constituency.


The emerging debate among evangelicals on "creation care"  as they dub environmental stewardship  may also sharpen differences within a group sometimes perceived as monolithic.


About 70 percent of white evangelicals favor Republicans, while 83 percent of black evangelicals lean Democratic, according to a poll done last year by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Washington consulting firm.


Yet opinions vary on a number of issues.


The National Association of Evangelicals, which says it represents 30 million people in 45,000 churches, has recently accused the president of doing too little to stop mass killings in Sudan's Darfur region. It backs the International Criminal Court, which Bush opposes.


The movement's grass-roots strength enhances its lobbying efforts in Washington despite smaller budgets and staffs than other lobbyists, said the Rev. Richard Cizik, the association's vice president of governmental affairs.


"We go to members of Congress and say, 'You want to be on the right side of history? Then join us. You want to do something to save people's lives, such as in Darfur? Then join with us,' " he said. "We're not buying support with favors. We're saying 'Do what's right.'"


He said he recently discussed a "conservative environmental" idea with Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).


Two prominent evangelicals  former President Jimmy Carter and Jim Wallis, founder of a Christian magazine  landed on bestseller lists this year with critiques of the Iraq war and other Bush initiatives.

Evangelicals do not always speak with one voice, of course. Richard Land, head of Southern Baptist Convention's public-policy arm, warned that the emphasis on climate change and the International Criminal Court puts the National Association of Evangelicals "in danger of being out of touch with ... large segments of their constituency."


The White House has gone to great lengths to court evangelicals. Shortly after Bush took office, he initiated weekly conference calls for a handful of evangelical leaders to talk politics with White House aides.


It's a change of pace for Land, who participates in the calls. He said President Ronald Reagan's advisers usually returned his calls and he often got through to the first President Bush's aides, but the Clinton White House "wouldn't even take our calls" after relations deteriorated.


"In this administration," he said, "they call us."


Land said recent topics of the calls included the Iraq war, AIDS in Africa and killings in Sudan.


The Bush presidency has given evangelicals access to power in an era of heightened awareness of world affairs among all Americans, an interest triggered by globalization and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. He described an "unusual moment when just about all religious communities in the United States are interested in foreign policy."


For much of the last century, a strain of isolationism permeated the evangelical world view, particularly in rural churches, said Allen Hertzke, a University of Oklahoma professor of religion and politics. He sees the evangelical engagement as a natural progression by some elements of the movement that advocated for abolition of slavery, for women's suffrage and for Prohibition.


During the Cold War, evangelicals supported Israel and opposed communism, lobbying Congress to admit Soviet Jews as refugees. In the early '90s, around the time of the Soviet Union's fall, the evangelical focus on domestic priorities like abortion began to change with a realization that domestic battles had yielded few substantive victories, Cizik said.


The shift also came amid growing awareness of what Hertzke calls a "tectonic shift," with 60 percent of the world's 2 billion Christians living in Africa, Asia or Latin America, compared with 20 percent in 1900. One reason for the awareness: A boom in short-term mission trips that put U.S. churchgoers in contact with counterparts in poorer nations.


That rings true with Dr. Walter McBride of Marietta's Eastside Baptist Church, who said he senses increased global awareness in his church.

"There are so many people who are hurting and being abused all over the world," said McBride, a 68-year-old retired physician who has gone on mission trips to Nigeria, the Philippines and Russia.


In the mid-1990s, evangelicals focused on persecuted Christians in places such as Algeria, Iran, Pakistan and Sudan at the urging of Michael Horowitz, a former Reagan administration official who became so influential in evangelical circles that a Baptist magazine named him one of its 10 prominent Christians in 1997, though he's Jewish.


Evangelicals helped pressure Congress to pass the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which led the State Department to monitor religious freedom worldwide.


Then, evangelicals joined feminists to support the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. It seeks to help girls and women smuggled into the country and forced into prostitution.


Meanwhile, evangelicals in Bush's Texas hometown worked for peace in Sudan with human rights advocates, civil rights and Jewish leaders. The work led to the Sudan Peace Act of 2002, which pressured Sudan's Muslim regime to negotiate with a non-Muslim rebel group. They signed a peace deal this year, though the regime is now blamed for killings of Muslims in Darfur.


Last year, evangelicals helped secure passage of the North Korea Human Rights Act, which pressured the Communist regime for reforms and set aside millions of dollars to aid North Korean refugees.


Definitions of "evangelical" can be fluid, with some mainline Protestants holding evangelical beliefs. Scholars say evangelicals emphasize a personal conversion experience, share their faith and see the Bible as the authoritative word of God.


Their growing chorus has made them a lobby group with real clout even among politicians used to dealing only with the power-brokers and elites of the secular establishment.


"What's in a church bulletin has become more important than what's in the New York Times in terms of getting some members of Congress' attention," Hertzke said.