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Feature Story
The Gospel of Green
Page 2

On occasion, the religious environmental movement flared into public view. At the turn of the century, for instance, while spending a year as a fellow at Harvard Divinity School, I helped organize a series of demonstrations outside SUV dealerships in Boston. Before one demonstration with a bunch of mainline clerics, Dan Smith, then the associate pastor of the Hancock United Church of Christ in Lexington, Massachusetts, where I'd grown up, and I painted a banner that said "WWJD: What Would Jesus Drive?" The initials were borrowed from evangelical circles, where they stood for What Would Jesus Do and usually referred to questions of sex or drugs. But we liked the emphasis on personal responsibility -- and we guessed that the newspapers might like it too. Guessed correctly, as it turned out, for the sign was splashed across the front pages and websites the next day. Within a matter of months, it wound up back in more conservative circles, where the Evangelical Environmental Network, of which DeWitt was a founder, used the slogan as part of a multistate advertising campaign.

Most of the time, though, the progress has been slower, steadier, and less visible. The Evangelical Climate Initiative document, for instance, grew out of a very private retreat for select leaders at a Christian conference center on the Maryland shore, a gathering that included many of the evangelical movement's luminaries, most of whom had not been deeply involved in environmental issues. The opening remarks came from Sir John Houghton, an English physicist and climate expert who had served as chairman of the scientific assessment team for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the group that definitively broke the news that humans were indeed heating the planet. Sir John was also a lifelong British evangelical (on a continent where Christians are less politically polarized) and a friend of John Stott, another Brit and a beloved elder statesman in evangelical circles. Sir John also could point to his collaborations with business leaders in Europe, like John Brown, chairman of British Petroleum, who were far more open to acknowledging global warming than were their American counterparts at companies like Exxon.

"When John Houghton speaks, he speaks with both biblical authority and scientific authority," says DeWitt. "The critic, the detractor, the naysayer has to deal with a person who is both the scientist and the evangelical scholar in one and the same person. As an evangelical, Bible-believing, God-fearing Christian as well as a scientist, he'd made sure that the IPCC reports were absolutely the best and most truthfully stated documents ever produced in science." And, he adds, "it helps that he's got a British accent."

By the conference's close, the participants had made a covenant to address the issue, and then spent months gathering signatures. When it was eventually released, some leaders of the Christian right, like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson, demanded that it be retracted. Climate science was unsettled, they said. Speaking anonymously, one conservative Christian lobbyist scoffed to a reporter, "Is God really going to let the earth burn up?" The National Association of Evangelicals, the umbrella group for the entire movement, feared a split and stayed officially neutral. But the bulk of the 86 signers (who included seminary presidents, charity directors, and prominent pastors like Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life) held strong, some of them quietly relishing the chance to say that their movement was larger than high-profile televangelists and not necessarily a steady date of the GOP. "The grace of it!" says Gorman. "I think you could say this is one of the first significant events of the post-Bush era."

It's had legs, too. This spring the New Republic reported that in Pennsylvania the incumbent Republican senator Rick Santorum has come under religious fire for his stand on climate change. At a panel on the subject, a biology professor at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, "tore into the senator, accusing him of selling out the environment to business interests." In the words of Richard Cizik, the chief lobbyist for evangelical causes in Washington, "there's going to be a lot of political reconsideration on this in the coming year. The old fault lines are no more."

Other evangelicals are less political, but at least as subversive. A former emergency room doctor named Matthew Sleeth, for instance, quit his job to preach the green gospel and says the reaction has been far greater than he could have guessed. His book Serve God, Save the Planet was published last spring, and he has been traveling to churches ever since. Everywhere his message is the same: God asks us to surrender some of our earth-wrecking wealth. "Bible-believing Christians have confused the kingdom of heaven with capitalism and consumerism," Sleeth says. He's not attracted to electoral politics. Instead he's been downsizing his life -- putting up the clothesline, selling his stuff, buying a Prius. (He writes his books on a lifetime supply of old computer paper he rescued from a Dumpster.) The ecological battles ahead of us compare to the greatest battles in American history, he says, and his models include people like the abolitionist John Brown, who practiced exactly what he preached, sharing his farm with freed slaves. "There's a longing for a spiritual life in this country," he says, over and over. "A great hunger for something more than capitalism."

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