September 11, 2008 News » Cover Story

Thou shalt go green 

Rev. Richard Cizik brings his bold 'creation care' message to Colorado Springs

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When the Rev. Richard Cizik talks, his message isn't what one might expect from the most prominent public voice representing the national organization of America's evangelical movement.

Religion and social issues aside, Cizik, 57, has become well-known the past few years for pushing a theme not usually associated with the evangelical movement: taking care of the Earth.

Last June, speaking at the Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, Cizik outlined the foundation of his evolving philosophy.

"Right now, we are in a defining moment in human history, when not only is our politics itself changing, and not only is our church really changing radically for the good but the very nature of power itself is changing," said Cizik, whose official title is vice president for governmental affairs of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Evangelicals.

"About 230,000 years ago, man controlled fire. Now he could warm his food and his shelter. Just several centuries ago, after man learned how to harness fossil fuels, steam energy transformed our world by powering our industrial revolution. Today, faced with "peak oil' and rising worldwide demand for limited resources, our challenge now is to move away from fossil fuels and turn towards various forms of solar energy.

"Those nations and organizations including our church that change their thinking and their behavior will thrive. Those that cannot, or won't, will not survive in the ways they should."

"Read the Bible'

Those are strong words, coming from a self-described "Reagan-movement conservative" whose political ties and convictions put him clearly into the religious right.

Cizik vigorously opposes gay marriage and abortion and has prayer-breakfasted with President George W. Bush. But today he also is known worldwide for spreading the doctrine of conservation and "creation care" to evangelical Christians and lay audiences alike, pushing many of the same themes that have come with the battle against global warming: conserving fuel, reducing pollution, promoting sustainability and so on.

That puts the hybrid-driving Cizik at odds with some evangelicals who feel the Bible gives people "dominion" over the Earth and all its other creatures. In a 2005 interview with the environmentally conscious Grist online magazine, Cizik called that view "deeply flawed," adding that, "Dominion does not mean domination. It implies responsibility to cultivate and care for the Earth, not to sully it with bad environmental practices. ...

"There are still plenty who wonder: Does advocating this agenda mean we have to become liberal weirdos? And I say to them, certainly not. It's in the scripture. Read the Bible."

Cizik defines creation care as a direct articulation of a biblical doctrine, which is that we are commissioned by God to be stewards of the Earth. In Genesis 2:15, Cizik notes, God shows Adam to the Garden of Eden and instructs him to "to watch over and care for" the bounty of the Earth and its creatures. Scripture not only affirms this role, but warns that the Earth is not ours to abuse, own or dominate.

To drive his point home, Cizik cites Revelation 11:18, which warns that God will "destroy those who destroy the earth."

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"When asked about hell, Jesus used the word "Gehenna,'" says Cizik, in a summer interview with the Independent. "He referred to a place outside of Jerusalem that was a garbage heap. This is Jesus' description of hell a garbage heap. And one of the reasons I'm an advocate of creation care is that if you besmirch that creation, if you destroy it, despoil it, turn it into a garbage heap, then how can it reveal the glory of God?"

Friends in high places

So far, more than 140 evangelical Christian leaders have joined with Cizik to back a major initiative to fight global warming. Among signers of the Evangelical Climate Initiative statement are the presidents of more than 50 evangelical colleges, the Salvation Army's leadership and mega-church pastors including Rick Warren, author of the bestselling The Purpose Driven Life.

The Rev. Joel Hunter, pastor of a mega-church in Longwood, Fla., is featured in an ad saying: "As Christians, our faith in Jesus Christ compels us to love our neighbors and to be stewards of God's creation. The good news is that with God's help, we can stop global warming, for our kids, our world and for the Lord."

For Cizik and the growing number of his allies in the movement, stepping forward on creation care is not at all a departure from either principle or history.

"We are simply reclaiming our evangelical heritage," Cizik says. "Climate change is an overarching issue of justice the biggest of the 21st century."

As author-lecturer Jim Hightower reports in his 2008 book, Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow, Cizik says, "Unlike our evangelical fathers who sat on their hands and tolerated racism, we will not sit on our hands today, and we will not either, in the end, have to apologize to our children for doing nothing about what is a threat to the entire biosphere."

Hightower will join Cizik next week in visiting Colorado Springs. Cizik's two appearances are sponsored by an eclectic coalition of 30-plus organizations including the Independent, Vanguard Church, New Life Church, Colorado College, the Pikes Peak Group of the Sierra Club and Ranch Foods Direct.

Evangelical division

Of course, not everyone supports Cizik when, as in the 2005 Grist interview, he urges the National Association of Evangelicals' 30 million members "to live their lives in conformity with sustainable principles," and the government "to reduce pollution and resource consumption."

In March 2007, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson of Colorado Springs and several other traditional right-wing Christian leaders publicly demanded that the NAE fire Cizik over what they termed a "preoccupation" with global warming. They wanted the NAE to stay focused on what they described as just "the great moral issues of our time": opposing abortion, gay rights and sex outside of marriage. Dobson and his allies added that global warming is an unproven theory.

NAE board members did no such thing. In fact, they gave Cizik the biggest show of support possible by simply making no response at all to the resignation demand, as though it had never existed. Instead, the board simply unanimously reaffirmed its 2004 vote of the "For the Health of the Nation" declaration. (See "All these issues matter," above.)

Not giving up, the 72-year-old Dobson, along with supporters ranging from Christian singer Pat Boone to U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla, in May unveiled a second campaign to combat Cizik, called "We Get It!" Their message: Christians should support "biblical" solutions to global warming. They warn against a prevailing culture of "knee-jerk" reactions to our changing climate.

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We Get It! spokesman Dr. Calvin Beisner does "not deny that the earth has indeed warmed in the past 30 years. We just do not believe that manmade activities have been the cause of much of this warming. And therefore man's efforts to reduce climate change will be too costly for any benefit derived. The solutions climate-change advocates propose will be too costly, especially for the poorest people of the world. We think Rev. Cizik is well-meaning, but misguided."

The We Get It! campaign's stated goal is to collect a million signatures. So far, however, the effort has rounded up "only about 10,000 signatures," says spokeswoman Melinda Ronn. She adds that, this month, the nonprofit will launch radio blitzes in political battleground states, including Colorado, to garner signatures and to urge Christians not to get overheated about the supposed climate-change controversy.

Path to prominence

Cizik was raised on a farm in eastern Washington state. He says his mother, a schoolteacher, voted Democratic while his farmer father voted Republican.

"We always had battles at home," he recalls.

After attending Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash., he earned a master's degree in international affairs at George Washington University, and then won a Rotary fellowship to study Mandarin in Taiwan.

In the early 1970s, while at a Rotary luncheon in Taipei, he met motivational author Norman Vincent Peale, who asked what he was going to do with his life. Cizik responded that he was torn between joining the diplomatic corps and going to seminary.

"Well," Peale told him, "God could use a few good diplomats."

So Cizik decided to be a diplomat for God. His first step was to enroll at Denver Seminary in Littleton.

Upon graduation, he made his way in 1980 to NAE's Washington, D.C., office.

In the nearly three decades since, he's grown into one of "the 100 most influential people in the world," according to Time magazine, for his work helping faith-based organizations promote environmental sustainability.

Editor's note: Indy publisher John Weiss helped organize Cizik's upcoming appearances in Colorado Springs.

Faith & Environment, Together, with Richard Cizik
"Would Jesus Go Green?"
Vanguard Church, 3958 N. Academy Blvd., 591-8800
Tuesday, Sept. 16, 7 p.m.

"Stewardship: Turning Our Environmental Passion into Practice"
CC's Shove Memorial Chapel, 1010 N. Nevada Ave., 389-6607
Wednesday, Sept. 17, 7 p.m.

Admission to both events is free. A voluntary donation of a non-perishable food item to Care and Share Food Bank is requested. For more information, contact Jay Patel at 577-4545 or jay@csindy.com.

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