Declaring that caring for the environment is part of following Jesus, a group of 30 evangelical leaders has agreed to work for faith-based environmental activism among the nation's most conservative Christians.
The decision to move ahead, made at the end of a two-day conference in Maryland, could begin to reshape environmental politics in the years ahead, those present said.
Participants represented a cross section of mainstream evangelicalism in America, including the president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, ranking officials of evangelical denominations, development and relief organizations such as World Vision, prominent evangelical scientists and theology professors, and senior editors of Christianity Today magazine.
The low key but potentially pivotal move by evangelical leaders toward a wider engagement in environmental affairs comes at a time when 1,000 mainline Protestant, Jewish, Roman Catholic and Orthodox clergy from 45 states have been stepping up calls for another vote in the U.S. Senate on a bill that would limit U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
The evangelical group did not take a stand on the emissions bill being backed by the Interfaith Climate and Energy Campaign, which is urging Senate leaders to again take up the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act. It would set a nationwide limit on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, requiring industries to reduce emissions to their 2000 level by 2010. The bill failed on a 55-43 vote in October. It was opposed by the Bush administration.
On Friday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops dispatched letters to all senators calling for a vote. In a letter signed by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington and Bishop John H. Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., the conference urged senators to consider the fate of poor workers and nations when addressing climate change. The poor, they said, would bear the most harmful effects of climate change because of where they lived and their limited resources.
The evangelical leaders, who met at the Sandy Cove Christian Conference Center about 80 miles northeast of Baltimore, avoided the specific issue, saying it was not their intent to become involved as a group in election year environmental campaigns.
"We took the long view. I'm not in it for a quick press hit," the Rev. Ted Haggard, the association's president, said after the conference. "What I saw working was the Holy Spirit."
Their primary purpose, the delegates said, was to build trust among each other and then reach out to other evangelical leaders on environmental issues.
Among the conference speakers were Larry Schweiger, the president of the National Wildlife Federation, who in 1995 won a conservation service award from the Christian Environmental Assn.; Sir John Houghton, a British evangelical and member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N. organization; and Howard Snyder, a professor of history and theology of mission at Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.
If evangelicals do become fully engaged in environmental policy debates, those at the conference said their approach would bear a distinctive evangelical stamp -- grounded in Jesus' love for the created order and for the market-based solutions favored by many members.
"We are pro business. We're pro free enterprise, we're pro free market because of our concern for the poor," said Haggard. "People need goods and services. We would become corporate-friendly environmentalists, which would be a totally different political and economic force than the current popular image of a granola tree-hugger."
But the fact that evangelicals would be engaging in environmental issues, even from a business-friendly perspective, could change the political calculus in Washington and state capitals, those present said.
"It's an inescapable fact that the evangelicals are the Republican party's base. If that base were to say at some point that this [climate change] is an important concern to them, one would only imagine that Republicans would take note of that," said Richard Cizik, the association's vice president of governmental affairs.
"These are some big ifs, but over the course of the next five months if an evangelical consensus were to develop on climate change, it's obvious that consensus would seem at odds with the present Bush policies."
Until now, most efforts by evangelicals to influence public policy -- whether their successful efforts to help save the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1994, or their more recent efforts to encourage Christians to drive fuel efficient cars by asking, "What would Jesus drive?" have been mounted by autonomous groups such as the Evangelical Environmental Network.
The Rev. Jim Ball, executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network, said many evangelicals have viewed environmentalism, as a "liberal" issue bordering on pagan idolatry and unfriendly to business.