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Did Jesus Wear Birkenstocks?

Can the greening of the GOP base happen fast enough to derail the party's scorched-earth plans for Bush II?
 
 
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Its always a learning experience with the Christian Right. Visit the websites of the movement's leading organizations and you'll find out about problems you didn't know you had, threats you didn't know the country faced.

On the Eagle Forum homepage, for instance, you can read about the urgent need for a renewed U.S. military presence at the Panama Canal. The Family Research Council site alerts visitors to the evil new line of Planned Parenthood Christmas cards. Or download the Christian Coalition for the latest on Congressman Todd Akin's efforts to stop lower federal court judges from holding hearings on the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. If you happen to be curious about how to protect the sanctity of marriage between man and woman, these sites offer a one-click shortcut to informational-pamphlet heaven.

But try to find any mention of the melting ice caps or the planet's quickening extinction rate, and ye shall seek in vain. In the world of the Christian Right, concern for the environment is still an atheistic socialist plot to bankrupt godly American industry; it has no place in the fight for the health and soul of the nation. Given that the Christian Right is foundational to the current Republican coalition, this isn't surprising. The party of George W. Bush is now preparing a devastating blitzkrieg against what remains of the regulatory controls clamped on industry in the last century. Today's GOP likes to toss around the name Teddy Roosevelt, but it has no use for the party philosophy expressed by T.R. when he declared, "[S]hort of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendents than it is for us"

With everyone focused on a few spots on the Supreme Court, over a third of the Environmental Protection Agency's staff will become eligible for retirement during the next four years. Future Bush appointees will dismantle the agency from the inside while a Republican Congress hacks away from the outside, teamwork that could very well result in the disappearance of the EPA as we know it by 2008. If this happens, there will simply be nothing left to save; the rebuilding will have to begin from scratch.

The party will pursue this scorched-earth policy as if there were a mandate behind it. As former EPA head Mike Leavitt recently told the UK's Independent, "The election was a validation of the philosophy and the agenda." Bush and Cheney were smart enough not to discuss this agenda in their campaign speeches, but it's known to include fiercer attacks on such landmark legislation as the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, the prying open of protected lands to mining and drilling – in the new Senate, the ANWR fight is all but lost – and the weakening or elimination of mandatory emission controls on a range of pollutants. On climate change, the administration will ignore even the tepid action recently recommended by the bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy. In short, the agenda is radical and sweeping, with the last four years offering an aftertaste of what's in store. Given the impact this will have on millions of American families and upon creation itself, you might expect at least a few words of concern from influential pro-family Christian Right groups like Eagle Forum.

And you'd be right. The Eagle Forum correspondent at this month's UN Climate Change Conference in Buenos Aires, Cathie Adams, did indeed post a report expressing concern about climate change. Her worry? That delegates will again "conjure up a man-caused global warming theory" to force "developed countries [to] fill the coffers of corrupt Third World governments."

The Christian Coalition also has an environmental platform. In fact, one of the group's nine official areas of concern is protecting young people from pollution – "the pollution of pornography," that is.

Wondering where the environment might fit into the Christian Right's constellation of moral obsessions, I called the Christian Coalition's Florida headquarters. Since the state has taken a biblical battering of extreme storms and droughts over the last few years, and since worse is predicted as ocean temperatures continue to rise, I thought the Christian Coalition Florida office might be ahead of the curve on the issue, at least compared to the mothership in Washington.

I asked Bill Stephens, executive director for the Sunshine State, what he thought about the fact that some Christians feel a religious duty to protect the environment. He didn't seem to understand the question, so I rephrased it. Could he imagine one day including the environment among the Christian Coalition's current stable of issues?

After a long pause, Stephens emitted a verbal shrug. "To be honest, I've never really thought about it," he said.

Then he told me to call Washington, and hung up the phone.

But Stephens doesnt speak for all conservative Christians. His lack of awareness is actually rarer than you might think.

This October, the board of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), representing 51 denominations encompassing 30 million American evangelical Christians, unanimously approved a document entitled "For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility." The declaration calls for public engagement in a range of issues, prominent among them "Creation Care" – Christian-speak for environmental activism.

The document states: "We affirm that God-given dominion is a sacred responsibility to steward the earth and not a license to abuse the creation of which we are a part. We are not owners of creation, but its stewards, summoned by God to 'watch over and care for it' (Gen. 2:15)."

Richard Cizik, the NAE's vice president for government affairs, says the purpose of the document is to "educate evangelicals that our public policy concerns go beyond a few high profile social issues like abortion."

Cizik is a self-described conservative evangelical, both pro-life and in favor of a federal marriage amendment. In this he reflects the broad membership of the NAE, the largest evangelical umbrella group in the country. Representing 60 percent of the nation's estimated 50 million evangelical Christians, Cizik thinks the NAE is in a position to send a shot across the bow of a Republican establishment that assumes evangelical support for its entire platform – so long as it includes homilies to faith, heterosexuality and family.

"Care for the created order is indeed one hallmark of evangelicalism," he says. "If we outline a policy that says that climate change is real, and that it poses a sincere threat to the earth, then you can no longer say, 'This is just hokum,' if you're an evangelical and you want to be with the leadership."

Among the leaders who have signed onto the NAE document are representatives of the most conservative strains in American Christianity. These include Vincent Synan, dean of the Divinity School of Regent University – where Pat Robertson is Chancellor – and Ted Haggard, the fundamentalist pastor and president of the NAE. Both men and the denominations they represent believe in the literal word of the Bible. So do many of the millions of readers of Christianity Today magazine, which has begun to feature regular reports on the environment.

It remains to be seen what impact developments such the NAE initiative will have on politically powerful Christian Right groups, but there are signs pointing toward stronger grassroots evangelical support for protecting the environment than is generally assumed. A poll conducted this year by the Ray C. Bliss Institute at the University of Akron found that more than half of self-identified evangelicals agreed with the statement, "Strict rules to protect the environment are necessary even if they cost jobs or result in higher prices." Only one-third disagreed outright.

When it comes to the regulation of industry, a majority of evangelical Christians appears to side with Ted Kennedy over George W. Bush.

The man working hardest to expand this majority is Rev. Jim Ball. The executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network and organizer of the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign, Ball has been working to raise environmental consciousness in the evangelical community since the early 1990s. In 1994, he issued an "Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation." A precursor to this year's NAE document, it describes environmental activism as a Christian duty and has since been endorsed by nearly 500 evangelical leaders and counting.

This past July, Rev. Ball gathered evangelical pastors to a weekend conference at Chesapeake Bay, VA. Among the speakers was Sir John Houghton, a leading climatologist on the United Nations Panel on Climate Change and vocal proponent of action to reduce carbon emissions. Houghton is also an outspoken British evangelical Christian. The conference concluded with attendees committing to the goal of forging an official evangelical consensus on climate change within the next year. Among the signatories is Barrett Duke of the ultraconservative Southern Baptist Convention – the second-largest evangelical group in the country, with 16 million members.

"In dismissing environmental activism, many Christians are just going along with what their allies are telling them," says Ball. "They haven't really taken a serious look at issues like climate change. But when they hear people like Sir Houghton, who can talk to them as a brother and a scientist, they think, 'We'll if a brother is saying it, there's gotta be something to this.'"

As for the common perception that fundamentalist Christians aren't concerned with the Here-and-Now and never will be because of a theological belief in imminent Rapture, Ball claims this is not an insurmountable problem. Despite a general distrust of science found in this population – including a firm disbelief in the theories of Charles Darwin – he is confident that the gospel can be greened even among hardcore fundamentalist Christians.

"With most of these folks, it takes me about two minutes to punch a huge hole in [the Rapture] argument," says Ball. "I explain that the Biblical understanding of afterlife is not a disembodied existence. Revelations literally says the city comes down, not that we go up. I also say, 'Well, you take care of your body, don't you?' It doesn't take that much to win people over. If it's just some eschatological or future-oriented thinking [prejudicing them], that's handled pretty quickly."

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to converting evangelicals to the environmental cause is cultural. Convincing pro-life evangelicals to join forces with secular and left-leaning environmentalist groups will require overcoming a deep-rooted prejudice that associates environmentalism with paganism, pantheism and the Counterculture and New Left revolts of the 1960s – all Godzilla-sized bogeymen in the evangelical worldview. (It's worth noting here that the distrust is mutual.)

"It's true some evangelicals are leery," admits Ball. "We have to work through the idea that the environment is just a liberal issue. But there's not as much resistance there as one might think. If done right, minds can be changed and people can be brought on board." Richard Cizik of the NAE adds that even this prejudice is not as pronounced as it once was. "There is a younger generation coming up," he says. "There is a transitional leadership, and the stereotype is simply not true."

One way to bridge the gulf is to relate environmental issues to primary evangelical concerns. Ball's latest project is a campaign drawing attention to the effects of mercury emissions, regulations on which have been eliminated under Bush.

"The evangelical community is very concerned about the unborn, [but] is just starting to understand the impact that mercury has on the unborn child," says Ball. "If we can help them understand that this is a dangerous neurotoxin, and most dangerous to the unborn, then I think we'll see a real significant movement on that issue. Any kind of pollution that hurts the unborn, children, families and the poor – this is contrary to loving your neighbor, which is at the center of ethical teaching."

If a slowly expanding majority of evangelical Christians in this country supports the regulation of industry to protect the environment, and if there is no clear Biblical injunction against doing so, why are the most vehement anti-environmentalists in American politics consistently found among the Christian Right?

What Jim Ball calls the "brownwashing" of the Bible is largely the work of the same secular powers that seek expanded Pentagon budgets, private retirement accounts and sweeping tax cuts. Corporate agendas dipped in Scripture are still corporate agendas. While to some extent fundamentalist theology is useful in packaging such views, the easy embrace of the environment among the evangelical rank and file indicates that industry is the dominant player in shaping the Christian Right worldview on the question – not religion.

Former Reagan interior secretary James Watt is generally held up as a prime example of religious fanaticism leading to hostility toward the environment. Famous for proclaiming, "After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back," Watt is considered the godfather of today's anti-regulation fundamentalists. But Watt, from the mining state of Wyoming, had deep ties to extraction industries before he found Jesus in the rings of old-growth tree-stumps. Then as now, it is profit – not Psalms – that best explains the anti-environment ethos of the Christian Right. Watt may have genuinely believed in the Second Coming, but his views on environmental protection were most deeply rooted in his past leadership of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce natural resources section, as well as the Mountain States Legal Foundation, the mining and timber industry association he founded in 1976.

Today's Christian Right leaders enjoy similarly strong ties to industry. In the online environmental magazine Grist, Glenn Scherer reports that James Inhofe, the clownish anti-regulation evangelical who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has received almost $600,000 from the fossil-fuel industry and utility firms in the last five years. That Inhofe has stronger views about the evils of regulating industry than the average evangelical should come as no surprise. Scherer also notes that among members of Congress in 2003 who received the highest approval ratings from Christian Right advocacy groups, most received flunking grades from the League of Conservation Voters. But the conclusion Scherer draws from this is that conservative Christianity is the driving force, with industry influence playing a secondary and complementary role.

A better explanation for this synchronicity between God and chainsaw is found in Michael Lind's pithy description of the current Republican Party coalition: "A Frankenstein operation [has] stitched the bodiless head of Northeastern neoconservativism onto the headless body of Southern fundamentalism." Though incomplete, the image explains the rough flow of ideas in today's Republican Party. Southern evangelicals set the social agenda at the grassroots level, while secular forces in the north (and west) set the economic and foreign policy agendas. These policies are then fed back to the religious base through industry-subsidized Christian Right leaders in Congress and the media, who reinforce the idea that pollution controls are part of the same godless liberal plot that wants gay porn and home-abortion kits distributed in public high-schools.

That this carefully maintained association could be threatened by an environmental awakening among "the base" makes some in the Republican Party's opinion-making apparatus nervous. In response to the work of people like Jim Ball, the market-oriented Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship was formed to express concern about "a growing chorus of voices [that] has been attempting to redefine traditional Judeo-Christian teachings on stewardship, and ultimately, our duties as responsible human beings." The group warns against "passionbased on a romantic view of nature, a misguided distrust of science and technology, and an intense focus on problems that are highly speculative" At times, the language is indistinguishable from that used by industry groups like the Global Climate Coalition.

Other idea mills working to keep a biblical sheen on anti-green politics are the National Center for Public Policy Research and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, both of which publish papers warning against the lure of "creation care." In one such article, Samuel Casey Carter decries the "swarm of seemingly mainstream Protestant organizations conjur[ing] support for their activist programs through specious readings of disconnected biblical texts." The truth is, writes Carter, "the whole of nature has been delivered over to man for him to use as he sees fit. Man is not simply the head of the natural order, rather, that order was made for him."

Or for the National Association of Manufacturers, as the case may be.

In beginning its belated recognition of the moral, religious and public health dimensions of protecting the environment, the evangelical community is following in the footsteps of the other branches of Christianity. The World Council of Churches, mostly mainstream Protestant, has long asserted its belief in "a moral responsibility to respect the rights of future generations; and to conserve and work for the integrity of creation." The Orthodox Churches have gone further, creating a day in the Ecclesiastical Calendar (Sept. 1) as a sort of Christian Earth Day. The annual holiday has given rise to hundreds of local initiatives, from soil-reclamation projects in Russia to preservation programs in the Greek islands. The Roman Catholic Church has established Commissions on Justice, Peace and the Safeguarding of Creation in dioceses around the world, while America's Roman Catholic bishops have declared fighting climate change a "moral duty" and called for immediate action.

Even if the Republican Party's religious base does begin to make noise over issues like mercury emissions and climate change, this anger is unlikely to overshadow their satisfaction with the party's positions on the cultural issues closer to the average evangelical's heart. "I can see environmental issues in the top five [evangelical concerns]," says Rev. Ball. "But it will never be as paramount as, say, abortion, because evangelical Christianity has a very strong focus on the individual."

Still, a split on the issue within the party's base could slow or complicate current GOP efforts to roll environmental law back to the 19th century. It may be a slim hope, but it could be a while before another one comes along, and these days you take what you can get. Who knows? If enough evangelicals start praying for it, George W. Bush just might fall off his horse on the way to Tehran and emerge as the greatest environmental president in the history of the United States. Just don't go looking for green prayer scripts on the website of the Presidential Prayer Team. Not yet anyway.

Alexander Zaitchik is senior editor at New York Press .

 
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