A progressive spirit burning for several years in American evangelical circles is prompting many in that religious community to take up activism on climate change.

A sign of the trend was recently on public display in Pastor Rick Warren’s invocation during President Obama’s inauguration.

“When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the Earth with the respect that they deserve, forgive us,” Warren asked in prayer.

Warren is not the only prominent American evangelical calling for increased attention to environmental issues. Dozens of other pastors have joined him in a high-stakes effort to redirect the religious right on the issue of climate change.

Major media outlets – struck no doubt by the seemingly contradictory storyline of evangelical environmentalists – have given lots of play to the movement over the past several years, with features in such places as The New Yorker, USA Today, The Economist, and The New York Times, among numerous others.

But the staying power and long-term influence of the movement remain unclear. Serious questions remain for journalists, policymakers, and evangelical leaders themselves about the level of support lay evangelicals ultimately will extend to addressing climate change.

Bringing Up the Base

Rusty Pritchard, national director of outreach and editor of Creation Care magazine for the Atlanta-based Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), said he joined that organization to help advance a progressive evangelical policy agenda on climate change. By many accounts, the EEN has been the leading national voice for the movement.

Pritchard has worked tirelessly as an insider to drum up support. But to sustain that agenda in the long run, he believes that progressive evangelicals need to expand grassroots activism.

“I don’t think that building a stronger voice is just going to be a matter of casting the net, over and over again, into that same pond, and hope that you will land more strong evangelical voices on climate,” Pritchard said in an interview with The Yale Forum. “I think the strategy has got to be to build a bigger pond. So, that’s the movement now for me.”

Pritchard’s approach to addressing this challenge is reflected in “Flourish,” an Atlanta-based grassroots organization that aims to create a “ministry model” of activism. He wants congregations to re-frame their existing activities to better reflect ecological considerations.

Churches already are focused on overseas missions, religious education, budgeting, and building projects. All of these, Pritchard thinks, can be framed in ways that underscore a congregation’s responsibility to creation. (Many evangelicals prefer “creation” to “environment,” because the former carries a theological implication.)

He concedes that few pastors are eager to take on new projects and find new issues to champion. Still, changing habits at the grassroots level, Pritchard hopes, can translate back into political will, which he thinks will ultimately sustain the national policy agenda.

Origins of Independence

It’s worth remembering that fully one-quarter of the U.S. electorate claims to profess some brand of evangelical Christianity. So the consequences are significant if more of that community becomes active on climate change.

Of course, many mainline religious groups, from the United Church of Christ to other liberal denominations such as Unitarians and Episcopalians, already are seriously engaged on climate change. That is likely to remain true, and its impact already is apparent to many.

Cassandra Carmichael, director of the National Council of Churches (NCC) Eco-Justice Programs, said in a phone interview with The Yale Forum that member denominations and communions of the NCC have been working on environmental issues since the early 1980s, beginning with concerns about acid rain. A working group of member communities determines issues NCC will address, and that group thinks cooperatively about how to “help resource their own congregations, and how they can be a voice to the larger community,” Carmichael says.

Evangelicals, by contrast, are just getting into the game, and they don’t necessarily have long-established organizational structures to work through.

Since roughly 2004, when a segment of more progressive evangelicals began pressing for a broader agenda, there has been a shift in attitudes among some lay people in the community on climate change, observers say: The issue is no longer necessarily dismissed by religious conservatives as an issue just for scientists or secular humanists.

A landmark 2006 statement by 86 evangelical leaders, known as the “Evangelical Climate Initiative,” was in some ways a “Declaration of Independence” for a movement that had been quietly growing since the 2004 presidential election.

At the time the statement was published, the influential environmental activist and writer Bill McKibben, who has long focused on the spiritual dimension of the climate change issue, called it “a document that may turn out to be as important in the fight against global warming as any stack of studies and computer models.”

Rick Warren, among many other influential pastors, signed the ECI statement.

Don’t Work With Your Enemies

The statement, and the sentiments behind it, drew the attention of old-line Christian conservatives.

In a phone interview with The Yale Forum, Amy Sullivan, a Time magazine senior editor and writer who specializes in religion and politics, said the climate change issue has been at the heart of a “power struggle” for the mantle of leadership among evangelicals. (See her recent piece on Warren’s “two faces” as he tries to manage both a conservative and progressive agenda.)

She said progressive pastors like Richard Cizik, who resigned in December 2008 as chief lobbyist for the National Evangelical Association (NAE), and Florida pastor Joel Hunter, another eco-evangelical leader, have struggled mightily against the old Christian Coalition agenda and entrenched conservatives such as James Dobson, founder and chairman of Focus on the Family.

The new evangelical focus on climate change “was always fraught with tension, more for political reasons than deep-seated reasons that climate change isn’t real,” Sullivan said, “It was more the principle that ‘You don’t work with [y]our enemies.'”

In this view, “enemies” stands for something like “environmentalists, scientists and humanists,” all groups generally predisposed to liberal positions on social issues.

Jim Wallis, an evangelical pastor and progressive political activist at the heart of the leadership struggle, devotes a chapter in his latest book The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post-Religious Right America to exploring notions of environmental stewardship and “creation care.”

Wallis encourages the religious community to “lead by example in practicing model ecological behavior” and suggests that the evangelical climate movement might constitute the “tipping point” on the issue.

Yet, he also notes that the evangelical climate change movement has faced stiff resistance. In 2007, Wallis writes, prominent conservative leaders such as Dobson, Tony Perkins, Gary Bauer, and Charles Colson wrote a letter to the NAE chairman demanding that the progressives back down and asserting that the “existence of global warming … is a subject of heated controversy throughout the world.”

Sullivan, author of the recent book The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap, said in the interview that now, in 2009, debate among evangelicals about the reality of global warming is largely “gone.” For that community, it’s become a question of how to use limited financial resources and political energy effectively, when social issues such as abortion still demand strong attention from both the leadership and lay people.

Cizik’s activism, in particular, has shifted attitudes, according to Sullivan.

“You’re starting to see the grassroots evangelicals name this as a priority, but it’s still not very high,” she said. “Yet younger evangelicals are more likely to say they believe in [climate change] than their parents.”

New Attitudes on Science?

Polling data suggest that evangelicals trail other religious groups in the U.S. in terms of their degree of worry over the issue. A September 2008 Baylor University survey found that only 55 percent of evangelicals think global warming will have “disastrous” effects, compared with 67 percent of other religious groups.

Despite new ideas circulating among evangelicals, observers say that some of the old religious reservations about science remain. However, some groups are leaping past that traditional debate.

Candis Callison, a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been studying climate change messages of groups beyond traditional environmental or policy circles, including indigenous, business, and religious groups. She said in a phone interview with The Yale Forum that the validity of the science, or the cause of climate change, is sometimes not the only important factor in activism for religious people.

Some evangelicals she has studied, for example, are motivated by concerns that the world’s poor likely would be dramatically affected by global warming. So it’s the biblical “moral call” to help the dispossessed, Callison said, that remains important.

“In all of these circumstances science is a partner, not just the primary driver in getting people to act,” she said.

Pritchard, the EEN official, reports that his climate change work in churches always involves basic science education. U.S. Christians often don’t understand, for example, the holistic “systems thinking” in which climate issues are understood by scientists, he said. But he also notes that science illiteracy in America is not unique to evangelical communities.

Still, he admits that tensions exist.

Pritchard thinks that the dialogue between modern science and creation theologies will advance only when congregations get to know scientists, especially those who are evangelicals: “I think that churches need a better relationship with science, a better understanding of its relevance in thinking Christianly about the world.”

John E. Senior is Ph.D. candidate in Religion at Emory University in Atlanta. John Wihbey is a regular contributor to The Yale Forum and a producer for an NPR show.

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