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Feature Story
The Gospel of Green
Page 3

It's far from clear, however, that faith communities will take this fight as far as it needs to go. Simply breaking ranks with the Bush administration on this issue took enormous courage for evangelical leaders. So if some legislator offers any kind of deal to "fix" the problem of global warming, it may win all-too-easy endorsement. Some kind of Kyoto-lite measure, like the one proposed by Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman, might pass the Congress in the next few years. If it does, the bar has been set so low that environmentalists of all stripes, but especially those out on a limb like the evangelicals, might well sign on, even though the steadily worsening scientific findings make it very clear that bold and rapid action is required. Here's John Houghton, speaking hard words to Americans: "You've got to cut your own greenhouse gas emissions, on the fastest time scale you can possibly do. You've got to help China and India develop in ways that are environmentally friendly and don't emit too much, but allow them to develop at the same time." Those are precisely the fights -- over scale, speed, and international equity -- that will bedevil whatever steps we take to fight global warming, and it's not clear that the faithful are really girded for the fight. "Will this groundswell have the real moral edge to keep the pressure on over the long haul?" asks Gorman, and he doesn't answer his own question.

If the answer is going to be yes, a couple of things may need to happen. One, the mainline Protestant denominations will have to step up to the plate. They long ago passed all the proper resolutions decrying the destruction of creation, and certain congregations have launched interesting initiatives. (An upstart group called Episcopal Power and Light, for instance, pioneered the practice of supplying congregations with green power.) But not many mainline Protestants have stepped far outside their comfort zones -- in part because the denominations themselves are dwindling in number and beset by internal divisions over questions like the ordination of gay clergy. Still, there are increasing hints of future activism: Planning for possible widespread nonviolent civil disobedience to draw attention to global warming, for instance, was widely discussed at a recent National Council of Churches meeting in storm-wrecked New Orleans. Protests at Ford headquarters? Blocking the entrance to the EPA? Sitting on the tracks of coal trains? Whatever the strategy, it will play better on TV if there are some clerical collars near the front.

The critique from all quarters will need to get sharper too. Calvin DeWitt pulls no punches: "We've spiritualized the devil," he says. "But when Exxon is funding think tanks to basically confuse the lessons that we're getting from this great book of creation, that's devilish work. We find ourselves praying to God to protect us from the wiles of the devil, but we can't see him when he's staring us in the face."

Much of the uncertainty about the future of such efforts stems from this: Christianity in America has grown very comfortable with the hyperindividualism of our consumer lives. In one recent poll, three-quarters of Christians said they thought the phrase "God helps those who help themselves" came from the Bible, when in fact it derives from Aesop via Ben Franklin and expresses almost the exact opposite of the Gospel injunction to "love your neighbor as yourself." Says DeWitt, "By accommodating to a new philosophy about how society works, we've flipped Matthew 6:33 on its head. Instead of 'Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all the rest shall be added unto you,' we're looking out for number one." Which makes it a lot harder for politicians to start talking about carbon taxes or other measures that might actually start to bring our emissions under control.

Still, there are continuing signs of progress -- what Christians might call evidence of the Holy Spirit at work. In August, after the hottest early summer on record in the United States, even Pat Robertson announced his conversion -- people were heating the planet, he said, and something needed to be done. In the end, it's clear that this battle is not only for the preservation of creation. In certain ways, it offers the chance for American Christianity to rescue itself from the smothering embrace of a culture fixated on economic growth, on individual abundance. A new chance to emerge as the countercultural force that the Gospels clearly envisioned. And also a chance to heal at least a few of the splits in American Christianity. Fighting over creation versus evolution, for instance, seems a little less crucial in an era when de-creation has become the real challenge.





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