In recent weeks, some environmentalists have taken aim at Christian fundamentalists as, environmentally speaking, the anti-Christ. Among the charges is the belief among some Christians “that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed -- even hastened -– as a sign of the coming apocalypse,” as Bill Moyers pointed out in a recent speech. Similarly, Glenn Scherer noted in Grist that legislators backed by the Christian right are “united and unswerving in their opposition to environmental protection.” And numerous critics have summoned the 1981 comment by former Reagan interior secretary James Watt, considered the godfather of today’s anti-regulation fundamentalists, that "After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.”
But that’s not the whole story, reports Blaine Harden in the Washington Post. There is growing evidence -- in polling and in public statements of church leaders -- that evangelicals are beginning to embrace environmentalism. Writes Harden: “Despite wariness toward mainstream environmental groups, a growing number of evangelicals view stewardship of the environment as a responsibility mandated by God in the Bible.”
This isn’t entirely new. Since the early 1990s, Christian religious leaders having been calling for a new environmental ethic. In 1991, 32 Nobel laureate and other eminent scientists widely circulated an Open Letter to the Religious Community stating:
"Many of us have had profound experiences of awe and reverence before the universe. We recognize that what is regarded as sacred is most likely to be treated with respect. Efforts to safeguard planetary environment need to be infused with a vision of the sacred and as a universal moral priority."
Two years later, an alliance of major faith groups and denominations across the spectrum of Jewish and Christian communities and organizations in the U.S. formed the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. It “seeks to weave care for God's creation throughout religious life in such a way as to provide inspiration, moral vision, and commitment to social justice for all efforts to protect habitat and human well-being within it,” according to its mission.
"The environment is a values issue," the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals, told the Post’s Harden. "There are significant and compelling theological reasons why it should be a banner issue for the Christian right."
Last fall, the association's leaders adopted an Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility that, for the first time, emphasized every Christian's duty to care for the planet and the role of government in safeguarding a sustainable environment.
Signatories included some of the religious right’s major domos, including Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship Ministries (and Watergate fame). “Some of the signatories will meet in March in Washington to develop a position on global warming, which could place them at odds with the policies of the Bush administration, according to Richard Cizik, the association's vice president for governmental affairs,” reports Harden.
Also last fall, the influential evangelical magazine Christianity Today weighed in for the first time on global warming. It said "Christians should make it clear to governments and businesses that we are willing to adapt our lifestyles and support steps towards changes that protect our environment." The magazine also supported the McCain-Lieberman bill aimed at curbing global warming -- a bill vehemently opposed by the Bush administration.
And so, while it’s easy (for some, at least) to hold religious fundamentalists up to ridicule for what seems to be a moral authority to plunder the planet, there are two sides to this story. And those seeking to tap into the environmental concerns of Red-state Americans -- whether activists seeking new adherents or companies marketing environmental awareness and products -- ought not to write off this constituency. There’s a potentially large congregation out there concerned about the fate of the earth and about how they, and we, should be caring for the Creation.