April 21, 2005 News » Cover Story

Climate change 

click to enlarge 85b4_cover-17193.gif

"The Earth is the Lord's, and the

fullness thereof."

-- Psalm 24:1

On a warm spring Wednesday afternoon, the halls of the New Life Church, a gray, white and blue monolith planted on the far northern border of Colorado Springs, are teeming with life. Voices of hundreds of home-schooled kids who use the building for group classes once each week reverberate off the walls of the cavernous front lobby.

In the new sanctuary -- a state-of-the-art recording and performance arena that seats 6,500 but can squeeze in 8,000 if needed -- a Lyle Lovett recording blasts over the loud speaker: "That's right you're not from Texas ... Texas loves you anyway."

Upstairs, past Sunday school classrooms and beyond a maze of hallways is the office of Rev. Ted Haggard, who founded the 12,000-member New Life Church after receiving a revelation from God on the side of Pikes Peak nearly 20 years ago. As New Life has prospered and grown, so has Haggard's stature in the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), overseeing 45,000 congregations and representing 30 million church members nationwide.

Currently president of the NAE, Haggard recently surprised the media and the environmental movement by announcing that evangelical leaders are committed to spreading the word that protecting the environment is a profound religious responsibility and that environmental issues, including global warming and climate change, will be at the forefront of the organization's agenda.

On Sunday, April 10, the New York Times Sunday Magazine featured an interview with Richard Cizik of Washington, D.C., Haggard's colleague on the NAE board; in it, Cizik affirmed the association's newly adopted focus on the environment. At the same time he carefully distanced himself from the term "environmentalist."

"One, they (environmentalists) rely on big-government solutions," said Cizik, who said he prefers to characterize what he's doing as "Creation care." He took issue with the environmental movement's alliance with population control issues and with the "kooky religious company [they keep] ... some are pantheists who believe creation itself is holy, not the Creator. ... There's a certain gloom and doom about environmentalists. They tend to prophecies of doom that don't happen."

Still, Cizik said, the NAE's involvement represents a potential political watershed for environmental issues.

"If the evangelicals can't convince the president, then no one can," Cizik said, regarding the need for a shift in government policy.

In a subsequent Independent interview at New Life Church last week, Haggard didn't mince words.

"I've been an environmentalist all my life," he said, his trademark grin cutting through any discomfort with the issue.

"It's awkward -- I'm a conservative Republican environmentalist, which means I don't have a home."

Call to stewardship

Last June, a group of national evangelical leaders met at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay to pray and discuss caring for the planet. The result of that meeting was "The Sandy Cove Covenant and Invitation," signed by Haggard and others.

"For all of us, this meeting has resulted in a deepening of our concern about God's creation, a joyful sense of community, and a desire to work together on these issues in days ahead," the covenant affirms.

In October, the NAE followed up with an official position paper, "For the Health of a Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility," further committing the group's leaders to environmental issues. A number of the paper's signatories agreed to meet in Washington in March of 2005 with government leaders, writers, scientists and heads of international aid organizations to learn more about global warming. Out of that gathering, the Evangelical Leaders Summit, came a unanimous vote affirming the commitment of evangelicals to protect the environment.

"Environmental issues have been traditionally trumpeted by liberal groups," said Haggard. "And isn't that ironic? Here you have the environmentalists who believe in evolution and that species can evolve, on the one side, and the Christian groups who believe in Creationism, that what is here [on Earth] is all there is.

"We should be the ones involved."

Haggard cites the book of Genesis in the Bible as the original call to environmental stewardship and is careful to delineate the human role.

"We believe God created the Earth and that man has dominion over the Earth," he said. "Anytime someone has responsibility for something, they are stewards. The judge is a steward of his courtroom; he has dominion over it and must run it a certain way. A teacher is a steward of the classroom, has dominion over it and must run it responsibly or be expelled from it. It's not a contrary role."

And though he doesn't offer a biblical basis for his ideas on how to approach environmental issues, Haggard takes a decidedly pro-business, free market approach.

"There are 6.4 billion people on the Earth and it is foolish for environmentalists to believe they can take an anti-free market position and succeed in cleaning up the environment. We simply have too many people to provide for."

click to enlarge Rev. Ted Haggard believes that environmentalists and - evangelicals can come together in the name of - stewardship. - COLLAN FITZPATRICK
  • Collan Fitzpatrick
  • Rev. Ted Haggard believes that environmentalists and evangelicals can come together in the name of stewardship.

Cleaning up the environment, says Haggard, requires a great deal of wealth, and the United States, "the economic engine of the world," can provide what's needed if it allows the market to work.

As an example, he points to the current rise in gasoline prices.

"If [the government] would let the market work openly and honestly, gasoline would cost $5 per gallon, but it doesn't work that way," he said. "Gas is subsidized by the government; we can buy gas for less than we can buy bottled water. If the price was as high as it should be, competition to come up with more efficient vehicles and alternative fuels would skyrocket.

"All we have to be is creative and innovative. We're saying environmental issues can be solved if the will is there to solve them."

As for dispensationalists -- radicals who argue that the second coming of Jesus is near and the world will end soon, so why worry about environmental degradation? Well, Haggard dismisses their ideas.

"Escapism to avoid responsibility is always a mistake -- that's why we need to protect the environment and that's why we need to stay married."

As a Christian evangelical, Haggard seizes the biblical mandate for environmental responsibility. And as a conservative Republican, he sees it as a matter of political expediency. He cites Bill Clinton as the best free market Republican in recent history, and George W. Bush as "a very good Democrat."

"The Republicans need to seize the environmental issue -- that's the hole in the party right now," he said. "The GOP," he adds, "have it right with many issues, but they're missing the boat on this one.

"With the same-sex marriage and judicial activism debates at the forefront, Republicans haven't needed this issue, but soon they will. They need to become open and honest pro-business, pro-free market, anti-big government environmentalists."

As soon as people not normally associated with environmental protection have "emotional, theological and political permission to think about these things," says Haggard, progress will occur.

"The fine senators from Kansas care about these issues personally, but will not take them on politically because as things are now, they're political suicide. They don't have permission.

"But we're their constituents. We can give them permission. And we're safe. Hey, we're the Bible thumpers!"

Death of environmentalism

Underlining the NAE's newfound commitment to environmental issues is a dissatisfaction with the traditional policy-oriented approach of environmentalists, taken to task recently in an extended essay that has been widely disseminated on the Internet titled, "On the Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World."

Tom Yulsman, co-director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says there's much in "The Death of Environmentalism" that is being taken to heart and that ultimately bodes well for the entry of evangelicals into the arena.

"Environmentalist have an idea of progress as, well, humans have caused these problems, [but] if we can just get these policies in place we can fix the problem," said Yulsman.

"However, 'The Death of Environmentalism' [which can be read at

www.thebreakthrough.org ] has provoked a pretty deep self-reflection among environmentalists. Many [in the movement] think there's a lot of truth to what those guys have said. Many are seeking a new way to approach things."

The essay's authors, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, assert that while hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in the United States to address global warming, little progress has been made, in part because the movement has failed to engage the will of the people by defining the issue as a values-driven agenda rather than a technical fix.

The result, say the authors, is that environmentalists are in the midst of a culture war, whether they like it or not.

"People on the left intellectualize about the environment," said Yulsman. "Of course they also enjoy it, are inspired by it, rejoice in it just like anyone else. But policy is generally drawn from what knowledge [they] have about the environment. From the religious side, it's more a notion that we're going against God's will.

"Now, I'm not an expert on what percentage of Americans are evangelicals, are churchgoers, are religious people," he continued. "But it appears there is a very large number of Americans who are more likely to be influenced by the religious side. And that's not to put a value judgment on either side."

Bridging the gap will take some attitude adjustment, says Yulsman.

"The environmentalists, because they approach solutions as kind of a technical policy shift, their approach to finding allies is 'Don't ask what we can do for you, ask what you can do for us.' If they approach this as, 'Well, let's see how we can use the evangelicals to accomplish our agenda,' it won't work. Instead it has to be, 'Let's see what kind of agenda we can craft together to get something done.' Everybody has to listen to each other."

That means some evangelicals will have to undo a mindset that absolves individuals of responsibility for protecting the environment. Yulsman relates a story about a young boy, a friend of his son's.

"We were talking in the car about climate change, and his friend said something to the effect that Jesus is the one who is in control of the fate of the Earth and we are not.

click to enlarge Tom Yulsman of CU Boulder, co-director of the Center - for Environmental Journalism, shown here in Costa Rica.
  • Tom Yulsman of CU Boulder, co-director of the Center for Environmental Journalism, shown here in Costa Rica.

"That really scared me because, first of all, I'm not a Christian, I'm Jewish, but I do know my Old Testament.

"Liberals don't like the concept that we [humans] dominate every natural system on the planet. But what was set forth in the first lines of the Bible [in Genesis] has actually come to pass. The reality is that we dominate every single life support system on the planet inadvertently -- the issues of climate change, human domination of the nitrogen cycle, the enormous impact on water cycles are all manmade. Now we have to realize and admit that we do; we have this incredible power, and we should use it if not for good then to not harm our long-term survival.

"In Genesis it says, 'God saw all that he had made and behold, it was very good.' If it was very good in God's eyes, would he want us to destroy it? That kind of teaching is going to have to filter through churches to counteract some other scary kinds of thinking that have emerged."

The National Council of Churches USA, a multi-denominational counterpart to the NAE, agrees. Three months ago, in an open letter to the public titled, "God's Earth is Sacred: An Open Letter to Church and Society in the United States," it cited both an environmental and a theological crisis:

"We have listened to a false gospel that we continue to live out in our daily habits -- a gospel that proclaims that God cares for the salvation of humans only and that our human calling is to exploit Earth for our own ends alone. This false gospel still finds its proud preachers and continues to capture its adherents among emboldened political leaders and policy makers."

Ultimately, says Yulsman, new thinking must occur in the camps of the evangelicals, the environmentalists and the politicians.

"For 25 years I've been writing about nature," he said. "I'm absolutely fascinated by the science, but when I go to Utah on spring break there's the moment when all that flows away. There's the experience of awe, the spiritual connection to these things, and that's what's going to matter to most people in the end.

"[Evangelicals] are not going to get involved as active environmentalists or conservationists because they read the data in a scientific journal. We can pass all the policies we want, but in the end, what does that accomplish in achieving a way of thinking about the planet, about our relationships to nature?"

A new voice emerges

If there's a prominent evangelical on the left of the political spectrum, it's Jim Wallis, founder of the Washington D.C.-based Sojourners (Christians united for justice and peace), best-selling author, speaker and activist.

Wallis, whose newest book God's Politics addresses the chasm of misunderstanding between Democrats and Republicans, likens the NAE's announcement of its entry into environmental activism as "a hugely important milestone."

"For 10 years or more there's been an exciting new leadership among younger evangelicals," Wallis explained. "They're creative, exciting, bold. That leadership has been there and has been emerging.

"And now the NAE, which is very established, the major evangelical body in the nation, for them to say that protecting the environment is an important religious matter is huge."

Wallis believes that the impact in Washington will be swift, that when evangelicals, the constituents of conservative Republican leaders, say this is an urgent issue, the leadership will have no choice but to listen.

"The work of evangelicals has taken on new significance through people like Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, who has made HIV/AIDS a legitimate issue among evangelicals," said Wallis. "Before it was stigmatized and not talked about. Leadership has played a huge role. The NAE's new leadership on the environment, then, is very significant."

Bridges will have to be built, but even ideological obstacles, when it comes to the environment, are navigable, says Wallis.

"There's almost no relationship between these guys (the evangelical leadership) and leaders of the environmental movement, most of whom are secular. There's suspicion on both sides, but in some ways it doesn't matter. Once you say and accept that, yes, the environment is an issue then we must be committed to solving it, we have to move ahead."

Regarding Haggard's free market approach, Wallis says that businesses must be called on to take responsibility for the environment as well.

"If companies aren't deciding to stop dumping their toxic wastes into the rivers, we should make them do it. If they aren't going to stop belching their garbage into the air, we have to make them do it.

"In my language, the environmental movement should use both carrots and sticks. I know all kinds of very progressive business leaders. As evangelicals concerned about the environment, let's encourage business people to have a long-term view. Stewardship should be a topic of conversation in board rooms, and maybe evangelicals can lead that conversation."

The discussion, says Wallis, will have to be framed as a values issue -- as all important policy debates should -- not just in terms of technical fixes.

"That is what's changing here. If young evangelicals believe that protecting God's creation is important, the nature of the discussion will change."

Wallis points out that every social reform movement in American history has been driven in part by religion, by faith and certainly by values. Progressives, he says, have ceded the moral high ground to the religious and political right in recent years, and that has been a huge mistake. Moreover, discussions of moral values have been limited to two hot-button issues -- same-sex marriage and abortion.

"The monologue of the religious right is now over; the dialogue is about to begin," said Wallis, arguing that the foray of evangelicals into other issues like poverty and the environment, heralds a new day. "I'm sending books to 11-, 9- and 8-year-olds who are concerned and want to discuss moral values.

"There's a conversation the country's ready to have. Yes, the religious right is powerful, they're in the Congress and in the White House, but they're not the only voice anymore.

"Religion and faith can be used as a bridge to bring people together on the environment, even if we disagree on gay marriage or other issues."

click to enlarge Sojourners founder Jim Wallis calls the evangelicals - entry into environmental activism a hugely important - milestone.
  • Sojourners founder Jim Wallis calls the evangelicals entry into environmental activism a hugely important milestone.

Breaking down barriers

From his bookcase-lined office, Haggard offers his take on efforts so far. "The approach of the environmentalists has failed. We want to provide a theological-political angle for evangelical conservatives to participate in protecting the environment.

"Everybody is interested in the environment, especially believers. And even those who don't believe in what evangelical Christians believe, they believe something else, that there is a God, that there are certain moral values worth standing up for. To position yourself so far to the left that you alienate those people is irresponsible.

"Look," he adds, laughing, "the church has done it for centuries at a time."

Haggard argues that the environmental movement needs good strategic thinking, a Karl Rove if you will, who has an agenda and can get the job done. The NAE, he says, is full of such thinkers and has never in its 60 years of existence backed a piece of national legislation that failed.

The work for the NAE, he says, is just beginning, putting lessons about the environment into church quarterlies, Sunday school lessons, the literature.

Now the message has to come from the pulpit, and the challenge is breaking down barriers of competing ideologies.

"We have 45,000 churches representing some 30 million Americans," he said. "We have to undo some of the work of the environmentalists. When we're at the pulpit and we say the word 'environmentalist,' our church members think that means liberal Democrat. When environmentalists hear the word 'evangelical,' they think conservative Republican."

Some evangelicals, says Haggard, feel that the leadership is dividing the movement with its focus on environmental issues. But in his mind, it's all about what the Gospels teache.

"We believe fetuses are human beings and right now the scientists are winning on that one," he said. "We've always had a concern for social justice issues, for the poor and needy, concern for children. We believe in whatever makes life better for everyone -- the heart of the Gospel as far as I'm concerned. Now we're adding environmentalism to the plate and some think it's a distraction.

"But if God wants people to live a better life, they have to be able to breathe the air and drink the water."

As the sun dips behind Pikes Peak, the New Life Church with its massive parking lot and multiple buildings, the flags of the world fluttering around the perimeter of the World Prayer Center next door, are cast in afternoon shadow. The view is sweeping and magnificent. The snow-capped Front Range of the Rocky Mountains rises high above the windswept plains from Cheyenne Mountain to the south, to Monument up north.

And God and the environmentalists and the evangelicals and the political leaders saw it ... and behold, it was very good.

From 'On the Care of Creation: An Evangelical

Declaration on the Care of the Creation'

"Because we await the time when even the groaning creation will be restored to wholeness, we commit ourselves to work vigorously to protect and heal that creation for the honor and glory of the Creator -- whom we know dimly through creation, but meet fully through Scripture and in Christ. We and our children face a growing crisis in the health of the creation in which we are embedded, and through which, by God's grace, we are sustained. Yet we continue to degrade that creation.

"These degradations of creation can be summed up as 1) land degradation; 2) deforestation; 3) species extinction; 4) water degradation; 5) global toxification; 6) the alteration of atmosphere; 7) human and cultural degradation."

Adopted by the Evangelical Environmental Network and signed by more than 100 prominent pastors.

From 'The Death of Environmentalism:

Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World'

"Nearly all of the more than two-dozen environmentalists we interviewed underscored that climate change demands that we remake the global economy in ways that will transform the lives of six billion people. All recognize that it's an undertaking of monumental size and complexity. And all acknowledged that we must reduce emissions by up to 70 percent as soon as possible.

"But in their public campaigns, not one of America's environmental leaders is articulating a vision of the future commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis. Instead they are promoting technical policy fixes like pollution controls and higher vehicle mileage standards -- proposals that provide neither the popular inspiration nor the political alliances the community needs to deal with the problem. ...

"The world's most effective leaders are not issue-identified but rather vision and value-identified. These leaders distinguish themselves by inspiring hope against fear, love against injustice, and power against powerlessness."

-- By Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute (

www.thebreakthrough.org ) and co-founder of the Apollo Alliance, a coalition "seeking to create three million new energy jobs and free America from foreign oil in ten years"; and Ted Nordhaus, co-founder and director of Strategic Values Science Project, working to create a Values Road Map for positioning "a progressive majority around core values, not political issues."


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Latest in Cover Story

Readers also liked…

More by Kathryn Eastburn

All content © Copyright 2020, The Colorado Springs Independent

Website powered by Foundation