Ultra-conservative Christian groups known as evangelicals have always kept a high profile on the American political landscape, speaking forcefully on moral and social issues and aggressively lobbying the White House and Congress for policies that conform to their Biblically-inspired religious views. In recent years, some evangelical groups have begun branching out into a new arena - the debate over global warming, but as not all Christian conservatives are supporting this foray into environmental activism.
Passionately committed to converting others to their faith and well practiced at political lobbying, some American evangelical groups have recently begun speaking out on climate change and what to do about it.
"A very important aspect of evangelical culture is being politically active and socially vocal and this (issue of the environment) is becoming something the evangelicals are no longer going to be silent about," says Kyle Von Houten, a PHD Candidate in Environment and Religion at Duke University.
Van Houten has studied the recent involvement of the evangelical Christians with the environment, and sees several reasons why these deeply religious activists are turning their attention to an issue as highly technical and controversial as global warming: "For evangelicals, the recent phenomenon of them getting very engaged with the environmental issues has been a historic suspicion with science and intellectualism and also the traditional association with different political issues, with abortion and homosexuality and other issues," he says. "An interesting issue is that, since George W. Bush, the political potency of evangelicals and the voting power of evangelicals has been noticed by secular thinkers who openly understand it and, to be honest, envy this political power."
In February of this year, a group of 86 leading evangelicals, including theologians and seminary professors, signed a manifesto called "Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action". In the document (released at the National Press Club), the signatories express their agreement with recent scientific findings on climate change and call for stepped up energy conservation measures to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. The evangelicals also agree that global warming is human induced and that if unchecked it will have catastrophic effects on the planet.
"We're not endorsing any particular kind of international agreement, similarly particular bills before Congress," says David Neff, editor of the Illinois based evangelical periodical Christianity Today and one of those who signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative last February. "We did not endorse a specific legislation, but we did endorse a particular approach that we thought would be useful."
And that approach emphasizes that global warming is real and that all Christians have a responsibility, based on their belief in the Bible and God's plan for humanity, to take steps to curb climate change and to protect the environment
"We recognize that in creating this world, God put humankind in keeping it in good order," Neff says. "Developing it yes, but developing it responsibly so we don't ruin the gift that God has given us."
But questions about the seriousness of climate change, who's to blame for it, who's going to fix it and how are sparking sharp disagreements among the evangelical community, just as they have among non-evangelicals.
Professor Kenneth Chilton, Director of the Institute for Studies of Economics and the Environment, says, "As wealthy people, we have an ability to help poor people."
He believes humanity should spend more of its resources on the poor and less to address global warming. Dr. Chilton is a member of the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, a coalition of theologians that rejects the scientific case for global warming, and counters that the recent increases in global temperature are a just a normal part of the earth's long -term climatic cycles. The Alliance calls on nations to first solve the problem of poverty and address its more immediate devastating effects on the environment.
Dr. Chilton says Christians and others have to switch their focus from fixing the earth to fixing the people who populate it. "Keep in mind that what we want to do is respect the environment because we respect the Creator," he says, "but never make the creation the focus. That can become another idol for us. Let's worship the Creator. Let's respect the creation. Let's keep that in that perspective."
Reverend Abdul Sesay is the pastor of a large evangelical church in the Washington area and a member of the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance. He recalls the poverty in which he grew up in Ivory Coast and its destructive impact not only on people but also the environment. He says poverty is the reason why people in the third world destroy the environment. "One day God is going to request us, God will ask us to give an account of what we did with what he has entrusted in us," Sesay says, "so I am making a challenge out there that environmental issues have to be considered. The trust must be faithfully administered. That is why I am here today to see that we take back our responsibilities, that we are stewards of God's creation and God is expecting a faithful return from us."
The Interfaith Stewardship Alliance has taken their movement a step farther. Earlier this year, ISA launched what it calls the Cornwall Network to promote Christian involvement with the environment and with the poor. The 1500 clergy and theologians who joined the network pledged to teach in their congregations both responsible stewardship of the earth and compassion for the poor.