Whitworth President Bill Robinson then got up and explained, in 10 pithy, rapid-fire anecdotes, why he had signed on to something called the Evangelical Climate Initiative. To shift the debate, he said. To court controversy. Because of a wicked sunburn contracted in Australia.
Finally, with the air of a man who takes considerable joy in the art of subversion, Peter Illyn, founder of Restoring Eden, based in La Center, Wash., set about explaining why loving God means preserving his kingdom and why being pro-life means being more than anti-abortion. "I don't often understand my pro-choice vegetarian friends," he said, "but neither do I understand my Christian friends who are pro-life and anti-environment." The set up got a knowing chuckle; the punch line got a surprised cackle.
Though the forum, entitled "A Christian Response to Climate Change," tackled environmental issues that are traditionally (stereotypically) the province of liberals, reminders that it was being held at a conservative Christian college were everywhere. Whitworth is the place, after all, where students joke that an unofficial condition of graduation is marriage. It's the former home of Dr. Steven Meyer, who coined "teach the controversy," the now-infamous phrase that almost single-handedly put intelligent design on equal footing with evolution in Ohio schools. In the parking lots, Jesus fish adorn many bumpers, and decals of Calvin (like Calvin and Hobbes, not like John "Calvinism" Calvin) praying are plastered to rear windows.
Even so, the nuance of contemporary Christianity is apparent. Popular Christian indie rocker Jeremy Camp's CD cases are heavily represented on people's dashboards, but so, seemingly, are the esoteric, hook-fueled quasi-mystics Page France.
One Toyota 4Runner has "In Loving Memory of Steve Irwin, 'the Crocodile Hunter'" scrawled across the back window.
Inside the auditorium, Tom Ackerman ends his talk with a call to Christian social justice. When our pollution causes the oceans to rise, displacing 150 million Bangladeshis and they ask to settle in our country, he asks, what are we going to say? "Something between 'no' and 'hell no,'" a man replies, disdainfully. Several people nod in agreement, though a few look nervous about the cursing.
There's a feeling in the room that complacency is killing us, which is of course what scientists have been saying for years. That this urgency is now on the lips of people who live their convictions so fiercely, though, gives the event the paradoxical feel of both a revival and a Greenpeace rally. There's no laying on of hands, but just outside the lecture hall stands a table with a brochure that reads "your soul needs the wild." People respond to Whitworth President Bill Robinson's stories of a childhood spent in nature with whispered amens. The room is filled -- literally filled, bodies sitting in the aisles, standing in the back -- with people who believe fervently in Jesus Christ, believers who find salvation through God in the deeply personal act of being born again. People who, until very recently, were seen by the rest of America -- the press, the pundits, the politicians in both parties -- as being in lock step with the political right. These are conservative Christian people, and tonight, they're talking about global warming. That means something.
A Big Bang
If the idea of evangelical Christians wanting to fix the environment rings dissonant, that's not surprising. The movement was all but unheard of at the national level until last February. And the now incessant din of cable news and blogosphere debate didn't really ramp up until about a month ago. The forum at Whitworth was the local manifestation of a nationwide Christian environmental movement called Creation Care. The Spokane-based Faith and Environment Network, a cooperative effort by the Interfaith Council of the Inland Northwest and the secular group Conservation Northwest, orchestrated the talk in an ongoing attempt to engage people of faith on their own terms.
Creation Care, according to Jason Duba, one of the principle architects of the Network, attempts to minister to believers in three ways: appealing to their love of nature, their sense of social justice and the deeply biblical concept that "God created it and we have a moral obligation to care for it." Science like Dr. Ackerman's is an integral part of this, of course, but it doesn't take the place of primacy it takes in traditional environmental discourse. Science is important to demonstrate the immediacy of the problem, but only insofar as it serves to reinforce those three principles.
Creation Care carries the endorsement of many powerful conservative evangelical leaders, but has an indeterminately large (critics would say deceptively small) grassroots base, causing analyses of its eventual impact on the environmental debate to differ widely. Alternately dismissed as a quizzical anomaly and hailed as the thing that will split the Republican Party in two, one thing the movement hasn't lacked in recent months is buzz.
In February, after a large, influential group of conservative and right-leaning churches called the National Association of Evangelicals balked at a pledge to reach a consensus on the environment, a splinter group of 83 prominent evangelicals signed a document called the Evangelical Climate Initiative. The manifesto -- which asserted that climate change was real, that humans are largely to blame and that Christians had a clear moral imperative to take immediate action -- was signed by the presidents of 39 evangelical colleges, including Whitworth's Bill Robinson and luminaries like Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren. Among the most surprising of the signatories was Joel Hunter, who, effective January 1, 2007, will become president of the Christian Coalition, an extremely powerful and very conservative lobbying group.
The initiative created an immediate backlash amongst people like Chuck Colson, Focus on the Family's James Dobson and others who view fiscal conservatism, deregulation and other free market values -- not just social conservatism -- as core Christian principles. In August, though, televangelist and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson, who had been an active critic of the environmental movement for more than 30 years, changed his mind a bit. On his show, the 700 Club, he told his audience "We really need to address the burning of fossil fuels." The reason he gave wasn't the common evangelical refrain -- because God had laid it on his heart. Rather, Robertson changed his mind because of the record heat. For someone who previously believed, as Tom Ackerman puts it, "that when we run out of resources God will come again," that change of heart is significant.
Significant too is the tumult that Creation Care has caused, earning it a place along with the war in Iraq and congressional corruption as wedge issues that certain pundits think could divide the Republican Party.
People like Peter Illyn, though, whose organization Restoring Eden has been preaching the environmental gospel in decidedly evangelical terms since 2001, believe this sudden clamor is misleading. It gives the false sense, in his mind, that somehow massive numbers of evangelicals have, out of nowhere, gained an environmental conscience. That's not the case. Illyn -- who looks like Peter Jackson with an eye patch and uses his missing eye (lost to cancer) as a visceral statement for sustainability -- says, personally, that his "part [in the debate] began in 1996." The National Association of Evangelicals, whose ranks include some 30 million members, had agreed to draft an environmental statement as early as 2001, before bowing to pressure.
Nor is it correct to say, says Tom Ackerman, that people view environmental care as being at the forefront of political debate leading up to the election. "If you ask people what five issues are most important to them, the environment is almost never one." So what we are seeing is that environmentally active Christians are suddenly a very vocal though small minority -- similar to how, in the late '70s and early '80s, the Christian Coalition and Moral Majority made a loud clamor over what had been fringe issues.
A recent Baylor University study, however, suggests the environment, even amongst the deeply conservative, is not a fringe issue. It suggests that, while few Christians are environmentally active, a majority (almost totally silent) of Christians are environmentally aware and concerned. The study, based on a Gallup poll commissioned by the university's Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR), demonstrates an incredible nuance in Christian belief and destroys, in the researchers' minds, many of the preconceptions commonly held about religion in America. Far from loving everything conservative and reviling everything liberal, American Christians -- and especially evangelicals -- show more spiritual and political individuality than anyone gave them credit for.
The survey showed that some 83 percent of believers polled, including approximately 76 percent of the most conservative Christians, believe the government should do more to protect the environment. That makes Creation Care, in one form or another, the most widely held value the study tested for. Why this broad desire for environmental stewardship hasn't yet translated to the polls isn't exactly clear, but it seems to be a question of priority. "[Christians] certainly think [the environment is] an issue," says ISR co-director Byron Johnson. "The question is how salient. I don't know that we've done a sophisticated enough study to help us answer that question." The general feeling though is that evangelicals, who in all probability believe humanity has a responsibility to the environment, are also likely pro-life and against gay marriage. The fact that this kind of widespread environmental sentiment even exists, though, was surprising to Dr. Johnson and his team.
A Great Awakening
In a press conference given on September 12, President Bush said he believes America is in the middle of a third Great Awakening, spurred on by the fight between "good and evil" that we see nightly in Iraq. Peter Illyn, for one, seems to think Bush is right that believers are undergoing a radical transformation; he just thinks it couldn't have less to do with the war.
The current change in evangelical ideology centers on a generation of young believers who are increasingly unwilling to remain content with believing and voting down conservative evangelical lines -- lines Illyn thinks these young believers view as increasingly restrictive, dogmatic and shortsighted.
As of now, environmentally active Christians are not a majority. "We are, though," Illyn says, "clustered around the opinion makers." He's speaking specifically of a young and influential group of pastors involved in the so-called "emergent church" movement, which has arisen as a kind of engaged, postmodern antidote to both hard-line evangelicalism and mainline Protestantism.
Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals (and Whitworth alum), explains the position well in Bill Moyers' recent documentary, Is God Green, though he's what Illyn calls a "gray hair," and thus is not officially part of what is supposedly a youth movement. "Sometimes, in order to be theologically consistent," Cizik says, "we have to be politically inconsistent." Meaning it's okay to break with church and political leaders if your sense of moral duty demands it. This view, coupled with his high ranking amongst evangelicals, has brought Cizik withering criticism from the right. The nuance, though, is inescapable, says Illyn. It means that, contrary to what rank-and-filers Chuck Colson, James Dobson and others have suggested, these emergent Christians are neither a) being duped into environmentalism by the "extreme left" nor are they b) becoming liberals themselves.
Illyn believes this creates a third group of believers. They aren't left-leaning, social-justice-obsessed mainline Protestants, a group certain evangelicals feel are detached from the gospel and from the reality of salvation. Indeed, the fear of being branded as liberal is often so paralyzing for evangelicals of faith that pastors avoid the subject altogether.
Vineyard Boise's pastor, Tri Roberts, hid his conservationist streak for 15 years before taking it to the pulpit. (Now, in addition to traditional church giving, the congregation has embraced a recycling program called "Tithe your trash.") That doesn't mean, though, that this new group is the traditionally conservative, party-line-voting evangelical that typified the last two decades of relative Republican hegemony. Emergent Christians, says Illyn, are neither content to give up what they believe is the real and living moral imperative of the Word of God, nor are they interested in limiting themselves to what he calls the "compartmentalized, narcissistic, me and God in a prayer booth" faith of hard-line evangelicals. They are strongly conservative people who nonetheless view their conservatism holistically, taking the foundations of their faith and applying them as broadly as possible.
It's a fine distinction that wasn't even entirely clear to those at Restoring Eden when it began. "A mistake we made was thinking we'd create environmentalists out of folks," Illyn says. "We're not. What we're doing is integrating environmental concerns." He makes the way young people approach this integration seem almost preternatural. For them, he says, the environment is an issue just as close to the core as those well-known conservative talking points, suggesting that, for this new generation, environmental concern is both broadly held and deeply important.
Though Illyn admits it's a minority position, and traveling under the national radar as of now, the movement is vital enough to captivate 10,000 pastors at a recent conference in Atlanta. He believes the progression toward emergent churches is an inevitable one, which makes him almost dismissive of the old guard and the holdouts. Pretty soon, says Illyn glibly, it will be "a matter of the old Lutheran joke: we're just a couple funerals away from a revival."
We live in a world of startling expediency, but the pace of activism at the grassroots level remains frustratingly slow and laborious. Broad proclamations like the Evangelical Climate Initiative create an immense sturm und drang around hot-button issues, but everyone I spoke with believes the tempest was more for the beltway crowd than for the heartland. Broad social change in America still requires massive grassroots efforts, which are of necessity slow and person-to-person.
Derrick Knowles, the Conservation Northwest outreach coordinator who partnered with Jason Duba to found Spokane's Faith and Environment Network says that, with half a dozen church partnerships formed in a year and a half of operation, the nonprofit is doing "far better than we imagined" when offering models of success. That means, in all likelihood, evangelical environmentalists won't be the formidable wedge some were predicting this November.
Given the extent to which, for a quarter century, evangelicals in America were considered a known and homogeneous quantity, their values and beliefs taken for granted, there's a degree of consensus -- between everyone from Jason Duba on the ground in Spokane to Richard Cizik exacting his bloody, perhaps pyrrhic environmental victories in Washington, D.C. -- that for Creation Care to work, this awakening of evangelicals to environmentalism needs a degree of force strong enough to change more than just individual lives. The movement needs to change the attitudes of the scientists who are wary of conservatism's frequent anti-science tack. It needs to change the attitudes of the traditional environmentalists who, according to Duba, often don't understand the evangelical mindset. Perhaps most importantly, it will need to be powerful enough to change a political landscape in America that forces people to vote down party lines when core beliefs often cross them.
Creation Care doesn't yet have the clout and organization to be the thing that will sunder the social and fiscal conservatives' perfect Republican union. At the very least, though, it renders absurdly simplistic the conventional wisdom that evangelical Christianity in America is a two-party (conservative and slightly-less-conservative) system. For a while at least, that will remain a startling revelation in itself.