Winter 2008, Vol. 10, No. 3

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From the Editor:
Apologia pro bloga sua

Men in Green

Turning Over the Bowl in Burma

When Germans Convert

Show Me the Money 


The Faith Factor
by John Green

Faith-based Environmentalism

Men in Green
Andrew Walsh

Floating just off Greenland’s ever less icy shore, a boatload of religious leaders, alongside scientists, environmentalists, and politicians, gazed meditatively at the rapidly melting Ilulissat glacier. “Surrounded by icebergs, Sunni, Shiite, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, and Shinto leaders committed themselves last Friday to leave the planet ‘in all its wisdom and beauty to the generations to come,’” Colin Woodard wrote in the Christian Science Monitor on September 12.

The unlikely ringleader of this gathering was the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, the senior bishop among the world’s Orthodox Christians, who has emerged as a point man in a surging and remarkably varied religious movement against environmental degradation.

Over the past decade, Bartholomew has led a series of floating ecumenical seminars that have highlighted key global trouble spots—the Black Sea, the River Danube, the Baltic Sea, the Amazon River. In 2007, the focus was on global warming.

Way out front of most of his peers on the environment, Bartholomew began to capture attention when, on one of these journeys in 1997, he condemned pollution as a clear-cut human sin against God and creation. Since then, he has basked in the glow of his European tabloid nickname: The Green Patriarch.

Journalists aren’t yet accustomed to the notion of religious leaders, least of all Orthodox ones, as environmental crusaders. (“Environmental saviours do not normally appear in black robes and ecclesiastical finery, nor do they often deliver their message from the deck of a multistory car ferry,” the London Independent’s David Howden wrote on June 11, 2002, when Bartholomew steamed into Venice to sign an environmental concordat with Pope John Paul II.)

The Green Patriarch’s success—he is now courted by the United Nations, the European Community, and even environmental groups in the United States—has given the tiny and struggling Greek Orthodox remnant in Turkey the sort of attention it rarely gets otherwise. But, in this decade, it is not simply men in black who are going green.

In California, there are Redwood Rabbis; both of the most recent popes have given much attention to environmental issues; and mainline Protestants have been working this issue hard. The Dalai Lama always has a green message, as do an increasing number of imams. And, over the past few years, a new generation of evangelical Protestant leaders has embraced environmental causes in ways that leave some asking whether at least some American evangelicals are moving toward a new moderate style of politics.

Journalistic surprise over green religion persists largely because the environmental movement seemed so pervasively secular for so long. From the mid-1960s to the late 1980s, the scientists and activists who spoke for the young movement were far more likely to blame religion—and especially Christianity and Judaism—for environmental degradation than to the seek alliances among the religious.

The almost universal touchstone of this skepticism is a celebrated 1967 article in Science, the house organ of the American scientific establishment, by Lynn White, a UCLA historian of technology. White blamed attitudes rooted in the Bible for humanity’s arrogance, sense of superiority, and entitlement to subdue and control the environment.

The key text was Genesis 1:28, which immediately follows the creation of man and woman: “God blessed them, and God said unto them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth on the face of the earth.’”

Christianity, White snarled, was “the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen.” The only Christian thinker he exculpated was St. Francis of Assisi. “We shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis,” he wrote, “until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve us.”

And so, for most of the next two decades, environmental activists paid no attention to religion. But by the late 1980s, as evidence appeared of global climate change, scientists and activists were looking for ways to bridge the divide.

“Environmentalism is really the intersection of science and ethical principles,” Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, told the Monitor’s Woodard. “I was part of the generation that made the choice—the horrendous strategic blunder—of situating ourselves outside the institutions of faith. Now we have a chance to repent for and reform from that error.”

The first big public push back toward religion came when a group of 34 prominent scientists, led by the astrophysicist Carl Sagan, appealed “for religion and science to join hands in preserving the global environment,” Peter Steinfels of the New York Times reported on January 16, 1990. “Efforts to safeguard and cherish the environment need to be infused with a vision of the sacred,” the scientists said.

It turned out that plenty of religious leaders were eager to reject axioms about exploiting the earth. Immediately, 100 prominent American religious leaders welcomed the scientists’ appeal.

In fact, much had changed in religious thought since the mid-1960s. Surveying the trends in a piece published in late 1989, Betsy Carpenter of U.S. News and World Report cataloged the growth of “small planet theology,” noting powerful currents of environmental concern at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and in statements by the American Baptist Church, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), American Catholic bishops, and Pope John Paul II.

By 1991, articles with headlines like “Organized Religions Look Earthward,” were popping up all over America. “There’s a melody playing inside all people—to protect the environment—calling all faiths to wake up,” Robert Edgar, president of the Claremont School of Theology told Richard Kahlenberg of the Los Angeles Times on November 28, 1991. Theological seminaries were abuzz with theologians crafting replies to Lynn White’s barrage.

Many of them turned to another passage from Genesis—chapter two, verse 15: “And the Lord took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden, to dress it and keep it.” The Bible in other words, commands humans to care tenderly for the earth, as if it were a garden. Care for creation, not “dominion theology,” was the new watch word.

In the early 1990s, mainline Protestants were the clear leaders in the campaign to galvanize religious support for environmentalism. New York City’s Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine was a particular launching pad, both as a center of innovative worship and because it supported staff like Paul Gorman, who would become director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment in 1992. The organization would eventually grow to include the National Council of Churches, the U.S. Catholic Conference, the Evangelical Environmental Network, and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

In this phase, journalists were fascinated mostly by the openness and inclusivity of the religious movement. In 1991, the Boston Globe’s Dianne Dumanoski published a breathless account of the very broadly ecumenical celebration of the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi at St. John the Divine.

“During the three-hour Earth Mass,” Dumanoski wrote, “the cathedral throbbed with life. Mixing whale sounds and African drumming with the medieval pomp of the high Episcopal Church, the ceremony mustered the power of ritual, the resonance of ancient symbols and the transporting beauty of dance and song.”

At the climax of the service, “the congregation fell silent and the cathedral, in an act both literal and symbolic, threw its huge brass doors open to the rest of creation. Down the great central aisle they came in procession: an elephant with a garland around its neck; a mouse carried by a child; an elegant barn owl, a furry spider, a camel, a cedar tree, rain forest orchids and bromeliads, a hive of bees, and a 3.5 billion-year-old rock from Australia bearing the fossil imprint of blue green algae—one of the most ancient forms of life.”

Evangelical Protestants and Catholic leaders were involved from the beginning—but they often harbored reservations about the St. John the Divine school of environmentalist ritual. Open collaboration with neo-pagans also made more conservative Christians nervous.

In these years, Catholic leaders were expressing strong reservations about figures like the Rev. Matthew Fox, a Dominican theologian who would eventually leave the Catholic Church to become an Episcopal priest. To many Catholic watchdogs, Fox’s “creation spirituality” seemed pantheist.

Many articles on the new alliance from this period include a section in which evangelicals are quoted expressing grave reservations about religious environmentalism. “Some conservative Christians are afraid that Earth Day has been co-opted by New Age environmentalists who worship the earth instead of its creator and de-emphasize the issues of redemption from sin and the need for personal salvation,” Russell Chandler reported in the April 19, 1990 Los Angeles Times.

Nevertheless, evangelical public policy leaders were active in the field, if selectively, from the beginning. On May 23, 1992, for example, the Washington Post’s Laura Sessions Stepp noted with some surprise the testimony of the Rev. Richard Land, a top Southern Baptist official, among a group of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders at a U.S. Senate hearing on the future of the earth’s environment.

The group, organized by the Joint Appeal by Religion and Science for the Environment, issued an agreed-upon statement that read: “We do not have to agree on how the natural world was made to be willing to work together to preserve it.” Under Land, a key player in the mobilization of the Christian Right then and now, the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission held its first environmental seminar in March 1991.

The next phase, which ran until 2001, was mostly about the diffusion of the movement. “A Religious Awakening—Many Churches Blending Their Form of Worship with Concern for the Environment” read a 1994 headline in the Seattle Times. “More Christians and Jews Go Green,” went another in the St. Petersburg Times in 1998. “Colorado Churches Go Green” the Rocky Mountain News headlined a story in 2000.

Foundations and universities were playing their part, too. In the lead were a couple who taught in the religion department at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, who in 1996 organized an academic symposium on Buddhism and ecology.

That led to a three-year study of the environmental teachings of 10 major world religions rolled out at a 1998 conference sponsored by Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions. “Change won’t happen without religions because they are the touchstones of people’s deepest motivations,” Harvard’s Lawrence Sullivan told Bill Broadway of the Washington Post on October 24, 1998.

During the late 1990s, the Los Angeles Times provided especially good coverage of the movement, mostly through the work of religion writers Larry Stammer and Theresa Watanabe. The two were particularly interested in the ways that religious environmentalism was reshaping worship.

On January 22, 2000, for example, Stammer wrote a nuanced piece on the many shades of meaning inside the religious movement, calling particular attention to the rise of tree-planting celebrations that repositioned the  traditional holiday Tu B’Shevat as a “Jewish Earth Day.” In many congregations “the day becomes a time to reflect on humanity’s place in the natural order and on scriptural injunctions to redeem the land,” he wrote. “Five years ago, many Jews questioned whether the environment was a Jewish issue,” said Rabbi Mark X. Jacobs of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. “Today that attitude has changed significantly.”

Nevertheless, the general sense persisted that religious environmentalism was only at home in the political center and on the left. That was the message Sen. Joe Lieberman delivered in 2000 when running as the Democratic Party’s nominee for vice-president. Lieberman, Richard Perez-Pena of the New York Times reported from a campaign stop in Wisconsin on October 18, 2000, “said today that he and Vice-President Al Gore would be good stewards of nature, while George W. Bush would spoil it.

“For Al Gore and me, this begins, if you will by our faith,” Lieberman said. “If you believe in God, I think it’s hard not to be an environmentalist, because you see the environment is a work of God.”

Gore and Lieberman lost the 2000 election, but soon after Bush took office, a drastic increase in environmental concern among evangelicals and other conservative religious groups came about. The trigger, Lawrence Stammer wrote in the Los Angeles Times April 7, 2001, was the new Bush administration’s decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement charting a new course to combat global climate change that the United States had signed in 1997.

Stammer quoted a leaked memo to the president from Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman that stated that “for the first time, the world’s religious communities have started to engage in the issue. Their solutions vary widely, but the fervor of the focus does not.”

It was at this point that the evangelical community began to throw up the sort of entrepreneurial new leaders that have always kept it in touch with American culture. One was the Rev. Jim Ball, who became executive director of the rather small Evangelical Environmental Network in 2000. “Because I confess Christ to be my savior and Lord, because he died to reconcile all things, I can’t be hurting what he died to reconcile me to,” Ball told Robert Schlesinger of the Boston Globe on July 8, 2001.

Political scientist John Green told Schlesinger in the same piece that because of new concerns about global warming, environmental issues were finding resonance among evangelicals. “There’s been a dramatic shift: It’s very rare these days to go into a church and see people preach against environmentalism and see it as some sort of plot.”

In 2003, Ball scored a massive public relations coup with his 10-city “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign, in which he motored across the South in a hybrid automobile. At each stop, Yonat Shimron of the Raleigh News & Observer reported on June 14 of that year, Ball would “ask people to think about the consequences of driving gas-guzzling cars that release large amounts of carbon monoxide into the atmosphere.” As more than one reporter slyly observed, Ball wanted to “put the pious in a Prius.”

Ball also was extremely successful in bending the ear of senior figures in the evangelical world. He won support from Ted Haggard, then a rising Colorado Springs megachurch pastor who had been elected president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). He also made a convert out of the Rev. Richard Cizik, the NAE’s vice president of governmental affairs.

In 2005, Laurie Goldstein of the New York Times reported that three years earlier Ball had “dragged” Cizik to a conference on climate change at Oxford University, where Cizik met Sir John Houghton, a retired Oxford professor of atmospheric physics and an evangelical. Goodstein reported that Cizik said he had a “conversion” on climate change “so profound in Oxford that he likened it to an ‘altar call’”—no small claim for an evangelical.

In June 2004, Ball and Cizik brought Houghton to a Maryland meeting of evangelical leaders that produced a “covenant” to “engage the evangelical community” on climate change and to produce a “consensus statement” within a year. Ball told Goodstein that the “strongest moral argument he made to fellow evangelicals was that climate change would have disproportionate effects on the poorest regions in the world. Hurricanes, droughts and floods are widely expected to intensify as a result of climate change.”

“What I saw working was the Holy Spirit,” Haggard told Larry Stammer of the Los Angeles Times, going on to predict that a new  “pro-free enterprise” style of environmentalism would result: “We would be corporate-friendly environmentalists, which would be a totally different political and economic force than the current popular image of a granola tree-hugger.”

Cizik then called it as he saw it. “It’s an inescapable fact that evangelicals are the Republican Party’s base. If that base were to say at some point that this [climate change] is an important concern to them, one would only imagine that Republicans would take note of that,” he told Stammer. “There are some big ifs, but over the course of the next five months, if an evangelical consensus were to develop on climate change, it’s obvious that consensus would seem at odds with present Bush policies.”

What followed was an unsuccessful attempt by two dozen elders of the Religious Right—including Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and Pat Robertson, to get Cizik fired. While that didn’t happen, the group did succeed in dissuading the NAE from backing Ball’s Evangelical Climate Initiative, which emerged in February 2006 with the signatures of 85 prominent American evangelicals.

These included the presidents of 39 colleges and seminaries, including Wheaton, Calvin, and Gordon, as well as other evangelical academic luminaries. But the signatures that attracted the most attention came from a group of megachurch pastors who seemed to be the heirs apparent to national evangelical leadership.

Among them were Rick Warren of Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, California, Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago, Bishop Charles Blake of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles, Joel Hunter of Northland Church outside Orlando, and Leith Anderson of Wooddale Church outside Minneapolis and the interim president of the NAE.

These were names to conjure with, and for the past year or so, journalists have been trying hard to understand what seems like an enormous shift within American evangelicalism.

Early reports, such as Stephanie Simon’s January 31, 2006 piece in the Los Angeles Times, emphasized the murkiness of the situation and uncertainly about whether and how the rise of new environmentalism—as well as evangelical commitment to address AIDS, Darfur, and global poverty—might realign American politics.

A year and a half later, some reporters were lamenting the complexities of pinning religious folk down. “In interviews with several religious voters, haziness is evident,” Michelle Boorstein reported in the October 27 Washington Post. “They hold complex and sometimes contradictory views. They have litmus tests, but then make exceptions. But exactly how do their faith values lead them to vote in a certain way, and how do they interpret the rising level of faith-talk from candidates?”

Other reports began by mapping the terrain anew, focusing on generational change exemplified by Rick Warren inviting Barack Obama to address an AIDS summit at his megachurch even though Obama supports abortion rights. “The conversion of America’s evangelicals to a broader sense of mission is firmly under way,” Mark Totten wrote in a column published in the December 24, 2006 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Today, a new generation of evangelical pastors is weaving an ethic of “neighbor love into the fabric of sin and salvation.”

By mid-2007, USA Today was asking, “Who Speaks for America’s Evangelicals?” The answer, it turned out, “is not as clear as in years past. In fact, a younger generation of minister is changing the face and voice of this very influential community. With the 2008 election approaching, that’s no small thing.”

In particular, polling revealed a rapid drop-off in the percentage of younger evangelicals who identified with the GOP. Two years ago, Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News wrote that “55 percent of evangelicals younger than 30 called themselves Republicans. Now just 40 percent do. Slater added that polls showed that more than 60 percent of evangelicals under 30 say “it’s worth the cost to do more about environmental pollution and climate change,” in contrast to only 52 percent of older evangelicals.

Slater agreed that evangelicals remained committed to social issues like banning abortion, but “their focus is broadening and the leadership is passing from Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell to people like megachurch pastor Rick Warren, who connects social justice and saving souls.”

There were, nonetheless, strong elements of continuity here: “The abortion issue is going to continue to be a unifying factor among evangelicals and Catholics,” the Rev. Leith Anderson, a signer of the Evangelical Climate Initiative, told the New York Times in May. “That’s not going to go away.” Sounding a cautionary note, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution headlined an August op-ed piece “New Evangelicals: Green, not Liberal.”

“As more-than-green evangelicals, we are pleased to stand apart from both environmentalists who ignore the Creator and Christians who ignore His Creation,” Jim Jewell, national campaign director of the Evangelical Climate Initiative wrote. “And as a national community of evangelicals that is largely conservative and increasingly committed to a total ethic of life, we suggest that the politicians of all stripes see us for who we really are.”

But journalists are always interested in change, and there has been some of that.

Consider what has transpired since August 20, 1989, when the Los Angeles Times published a story headlined “Rural Furor in Orange County: Anger Greets Plans for Huge Church in Canyon.” Steven Church’s lede began, “A plan to build a massive church complex east of Mission Viejo with more seating than the Crystal Cathedral and enough parking spaces to cover seven football fields has ignited the wrath of residents and environmentalists battling development in the hills and canyons of southern Orange County.”

The complex in question? Rick Warren’s Saddleback Valley Community Church. That, as they say, was the old paradigm.


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