Evangelical Christians are a powerful conservative voting block in the United States. And in an election year, they're generally regarded as a reliable source of support for the Republican Party. One issue, though, is causing a growing number of Christians to question the party line. It's the environment.
On Sundays between the first and second services at the Vineyard Boise Christian Fellowship, donations are accepted in the parking lot. Parishioners like Dana Long come by with cans, plastic containers and paper. "I'm dropping off some cardboard boxes and a lot of paper that is collected from my office each week." She adds with a laugh, "We don't actually have a recycling program. I'm kind of it!"
Long is here to do what this church likes to refer to as tithing her trash. It's a simple but concrete act of environmental stewardship. And it reflects a widening conviction among evangelical Christians that caring for the planet is a Biblical imperative. "I feel like there needs to be a balance between caring for people and caring for where we live," she explains. "You do not have to choose. I think you can choose both, embrace both."
It all started with a conservative minister living in this conservative town, preaching to a conservative congregation. In a sermon a year and a half ago, Pastor Tri Robinson screwed up his courage and called on the faithful to get environmental. "We have let a major responsibility go as a church," he told the worshippers. "We don't want to touch it because we equate it with a pro-choice political view … and I think it's wrong. We can't take it back, but we can earn it back."
Many Americans, Christians and non-Christians alike, regard evangelicals as anything but conservation-minded. After all, in the Biblical book of Genesis, God gives mankind dominion over the earth. Evangelicals also believe in the concept of The Rapture. For some, that End of Days theology means 'Jesus is coming and it's all going to burn up anyway.' It's a view summed up in the rhetoric of conservative pundit Ann Coulter: "God said: 'Go forth, be fruitful, multiply, and rape the planet -- it's yours.' That's our job: drilling, mining and stripping. ... Big gas-guzzling cars with phones and CD players and wet bars -- that's the Biblical view."
It's not surprising that many liberals regarded the second coming of a Bush in the White House as the End of Days for environmental protection. And they've yet to forgive the surge of evangelical votes that put him there.
Still, it's that same base that Pastor Robinson is calling on to promote a very different biblical view. "The Rapture," he says, "is not license to neglect our responsibility for creation." He sees no contradiction in that statement. "We are a legitimate evangelical church, Bible-believing, Bible-teaching, Bible-practicing, that made a choice to embrace this very Biblical value. And survived to tell about it."
The story they tell is one of promoting curbside recycling, mapping wilderness trails, and raising money for hurricane relief by recycling old cell phones. Each step is motivated by a belief that the global climate is in crisis. Robinson speaks for the growing number of Christians who are taking their cues from scientists, not politicians. "They're looking for their leaders to rise up and give, in a way, 'permission' to actually care and do something about it." Robinson is adamant about preaching environmental stewardship in Biblical, not political, terms.
Still, at a recent church gathering, Angela Comish points out how hard it is to avoid the political. "I look at the fact that we have elections coming up. And I look at the party that I have been traditionally affiliated with, and I look at its general stance on the environment, and I don't agree with that." But then, she says, she looks at the other political party. "And I say, 'Yes, I agree with their general stance on the environment, but I don't agree with a lot of the other stances on abortion and same-sex marriage and things like that.' So, how do I vote?"
Her pastor's answer: pray, a lot. And prioritize.
Angela Comish will be struggling with that one all the way to the ballot box. And she's not alone. Millions of evangelicals are values-voters whose values can no longer be taken for granted by either end of the political spectrum. "Hopefully that message is getting through to the traditional Republican Party," Comish says, "that 'Hey, you've got people that are conservatives that care for the environment. You've gotta change your stance on some things.'"
It's a message heard often in churches of all kinds: real change starts within.