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Feature Story

The Gospel of Green

by Bill McKibben

Will Evangelicals Help Save The Earth?

First came the mighty winds, blowing across the Gulf with unprecedented fury, leveling cities and towns, washing away the houses built on sand. Toss in record flooding across the Northeast, and one of the warmest winters humans have known on this continent, and a prolonged and deepening drought in the desert West. For Americans, this has been the year the earth turned biblical. Pharaoh may have faced plagues and frogs and darkness; we got Katrina and Rita and Wilma.

But this was also the year the environmental movement turned biblical -- the year when people of faith began in large numbers to join the first rank of those trying to protect creation. The key symbolic moment came in February, when 86 of the country's leading evangelical scholars and pastors signed on to the Evangelical Climate Initiative, a document that may turn out to be as important in the fight against global warming as any stack of studies and computer models. It made clear, among other things, that even in the evangelical community, "right wing" and "Christian" are not synonyms, and in so doing it may have opened the door to a deeper and more interesting politics than we've experienced in the last decade of fierce ideological divide.

That document seemed, to many newspaper readers, to come out of nowhere. But, of course, it was the result of long and patient groundwork from a small corps of people. Understanding that history helps illuminate what the future might hold for this effort. And given that 85 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian, and that we manage to emit 25 percent of the world's carbon dioxide -- well, the future of Christian environmentalism may have something significant to do with the future of the planet.

In the beginning (say, The Reagan Era), all was darkness. To liberal American Christians, the environment was largely a luxury item, well down on the list below war and poverty. "I remember one Catholic bishop asking me, 'How come there aren't any people on those Sierra Club calendars?'" says one of the few religious conservationists of that era. To conservative Christians, environmentalism was a dirty word -- it stank of paganism, of interference with the free market, of the sixties. Meanwhile, many environmentalists were more secular than the American norm, and often infected with the notion spread by the historian Lynn White in his famous 1967 essay, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis," that Christianity lay at the root of ecological devastation. Everyone, in short, was scared of everyone else.

But there were a few lights starting to shine in that gloom. Calvin DeWitt carried one lantern. A mild-mannered midwesterner with a Ph.D. in zoology, he helped in 1979 to found the Au Sable Institute in northern Michigan. The institute devotes itself to organizing field courses and conferences that teach ecology, always stressing the Christian notion of stewardship, the idea that, as it says in Genesis, we are to "dress and keep" the fertile earth. To understand what a religious environmental worldview might look like, consider this from one of DeWitt's early statements: "Creation itself is a complex functioning whole of people, plants, animals, natural systems, physical processes, social structures, and more, all of which are sustained by God's love and ordered by God's wisdom. Thus, Au Sable brings together the full range of disciplines -- from chemistry to economics to marine biology to theology -- that we need if we are to be good stewards of God's household." That doesn't sound too frightening, right?

In DeWitt's Reformed Church tradition, God has left us two books to read. First, the book of creation, "in which each creature is as a letter of text leading us to know God's divinity and everlasting power." And second, the Bible. It's easy to see how environmentalism connects with the first of these, but it's taken longer to understand its relevance to the second.

"When we started, for the first two or three or four years almost everything we were dealing with was an Old Testament text, from the Hebrew Bible," says DeWitt. That makes sense. Since the Old Testament starts at the beginning, it almost has to deal with questions about the relationship between people and land. There's Noah, the first radical green, saving a breeding pair of everything; there are the Jewish laws mandating a Sabbath for the land every seventh year; there's the soliloquy at the end of the book of Job, which is both God's longest speech in the whole Bible and the first and best piece of nature writing in the Western tradition.

But the sparer, more compressed text of the Gospels and Epistles had never been read with an eye to its ecological meaning -- in large part because it wasn't necessary. Medieval Christians, say, weren't living in a time of planetary peril. But now that we were, people started finding passages like this from Colossians: Jesus "is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth...all things were created before him and through him." It may not sound exactly like an Audubon Society mailer, but the insistence on this world as well as the next was important in helping many pastors open up to environmental thinking. Or this, from Revelation, describing the final judgment, when the time would come for rewarding the servants and prophets and "for destroying the destroyers of the earth." (That's a little scarier to secular ears, but if you've ever sung Handel's Messiah, the "trumpet shall sound" stuff echoes the same passage.) The point is, once people started looking, the Scriptures started speaking.

Something else happened too: the emergence of climate change as the key question for the environmental movement. On the one hand, confronting global warming made everything harder -- environmental groups suddenly found themselves contending with the main engine of our economy. But for many religious environmentalists, heightening the stakes may have made progress easier -- this was a cosmological question, one about the ultimate fate of our species, our planet, God's creation. Unlike, say, clean drinking water, where simple, practical wisdom was enough to offer you an answer, global warming almost demanded a theological response. In that sense, it was like the dawn of the nuclear age. "The magnitude, the comprehensiveness, the totality of the challenge it represents to God's creation on earth, the profoundly intergenerational nature of the damage that was being done-it became the central axis," says Paul Gorman.

Gorman is a story in himself. A former speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy, in 1993 he cofounded the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, which, with generous amounts of foundation money, set out to build environmental support among American Jews, Catholics, mainline Protestants (like Methodists and Lutherans), and evangelical Christians. Crucially, it was willing to go slowly enough to build a solid foundation. "It's not going to be the environmental movement at prayer," says Gorman, "not about providing more shock troops for the embattled American greens. We have to see the inescapable, thrilling, renewing religious dimension of this challenge." A thousand Sunday school curriculums and special liturgies and summer camps later, Gorman's effort is bearing real fruit. In 2001, for instance, America's Catholic bishops issued a pastoral statement on the environment, one that fits the question into their long-standing theology of "prudence" and relates it to their centuries of work against hunger and poverty around the world. "If you measure [the change] against the speed with which religious life integrates fundamental new perspectives, then historically it's been kind of brisk," says Gorman.

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Bill McKibben is the author of many books, including The End of Nature and the forthcoming Deep Economy (Times Books).

Photo illustration: Glen Wexler

OnEarth. Fall 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council