Evangelicals and 'creation care'.
The face of evangelical Christianity is changing, and this has challenged traditional evangelical attitudes about the environment. Peter Illyn, founder and executive director of the Christian environmental stewardship group Restoring Eden, is an example of this new kind of evangelical. He aims to stir conversation regarding Christianity and the environment among 18- to 35-year-aids. Illyn began organizing in 1996 to counter what he thought were attacks by Congress upon the Endangered Species Act.
Restoring Eden is organizing campus chapters at Christian colleges. Illyn also works on the Indigenous Christian Environmental Network to organize tribal Christians. This work has already begun in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and Papua New Guinea. Illyn said indigenous peoples offer many gifts to environmentally oriented Christians. He said one tribal member who was a Catholic from New Guinea recently told him, "We see ourselves as part of creation. You Westerners see yourselves as the point of creation."
Growing awareness about "creation care" and the existence of environmental evangelical Christians have been in the news lately because groups like the National Association of Evangelicals have been moving visibly into the political area. This group, comprised of 30 million members-from 45200 churches, in March issued an "Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility" that included environmental concerns. Also, the Rev. Jim Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network recently gained fame for his "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign against gas-guzzling SUVs.
Still, it's too soon to conclude that the religious right has gone green. A comparison done in 2004, assessing approval ratings from the League of Conservation Voters versus three well-known Christian advocacy groups, showed that legislators who received high grades from the Christian right often received low ratings on their environmental voting records.
Illyn said there is "a very small, but vocal, fringe group that has taken a historic interpretation of nature and has really twisted it, and are now saying that they're speaking for Christianity. They're not."
Illyn said he believes an "evangelical culture" is being defined by "quasi-spokespersons," such as James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Tim LaHaye. "They have become spokespersons in evangelical Christianity, so you've got this far right-wing Christianity rising up," he said. "But if you look at them, they're not churches, they're not denominations." He said these organizational leaders don't come with the checks and balances of specific denominations, so that moderate churches and denominations are hard-pressed to confront these powerful personalities.
An emergent church
However, Illyn said there is an "emergent church" of 18- to 35-year-olds that are starting to disagree, but that don't publicly challenge things. "There's a groundswell of numbers and of churches, but it hasn't translated into enough political power to try and put some temperance into the far right." He said members of the emergent church are starting to look at broader things like liturgy and the sacred. "They have a sense of a God that's bigger than just an angry white man who tends to vote Republican."
Although it hasn't been highly visible, the debate about evangelical Christian responsibilities toward the environment has been raging for years. The American Scientific Affiliation, a group of Christian scientists, published a paper discussing the environment in 1958 and provided a forum for a heated debate that arose regarding environmental issues in 1995.
In 1995, Evangelicals for Social Action and the newly created Evangelical Environmental Network presented "An Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation," which called on Christians to acknowledge the degradation of creation and to "repent of the way we have polluted, distorted or destroyed so much of the Creator's work." In response, a group called the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship formulated "The Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship," which called for environmental stewardship that acknowledged the primacy of humans and said, "We aspire to a world in which widespread economic freedom--which is integral to private, market economies--makes sound ecological stewardship available to ever greater numbers."
Illyn said he believes that two different points of view regarding humanity's place in creation underlie evangelicals' disagreement regarding the environment.
"One view says, 'God made the Earth for us; God gave the Earth to us,'" Illyn said. He said he believes the Cornwall Declaration sprung from this kind of thinking. Illyn calls it "'free market environmentalism,' the idea that unrestrained capitalism is God's chosen economic system and unfettered capitalism will end up creating the best environmental effect."
A proponent of the Cornwall Declaration is Calvin Beisner, a theology and social ethics professor at Florida's Knox Theological Seminary, who asserts a commitment to environmental concerns while holding fast to free-market ethics.
In discussing the two declarations, Beisner cited the issue of overpopulation as one point where evangelicals who are concerned with environmental stewardship disagree. He said, "Many people approach the whole issue of population under the assumption that man is fundamentally a polluter and a consumer, whereas I would say that man is fundamentally a producer and a redeemer, a reconstructer of things."
He said if people see humans as polluters and consumers, then they believe that more people will cause greater damage. "If you start off with the opposite assumption, you can say that 'the more of them there are, the greater good they can do.'" Beisner said the redemptive work of Christ and the spread of the Gospel should cause human work to become increasingly productive "getting more and more out of less and less, with less pollution as side effects." He said, "I think that's what history and statistics regarding economic production and environmental quality confirm"
Unsupported crisis claims
Beisner said he has problems with the credulousness of many environmental writers. "There are an awful lot of claims of crises occurring that are not well supported by empirical data, and I think that is a problem equally in the secular and the religious parts of the environmental movement."
A second point of view, the one embraced by Illyn, says: "God made the Earth for God." According to Illyn, God owns the Earth and merely gave humanity dominion over it. "But dominion has to be defined as serving and protecting the fruitfulness of all creation. We have the right to take the fruit of nature; we don't have the right to destroy the fruitfulness of nature."
Although Illyn applauds much of the work done by the Evangelical Environmental Movements and the National Association of Evangelicals, he said they are limited and cautious in order to maintain political credibility and the support of their members.
There appear to be points where the conservative and the more liberal evangelical groups come together on theological concerns.
In April, Richard Cizik, vice president of governmental affairs for the National. Association of Evangelicals told a New York Times reporter that his group used the term "creation care" to insure that it did not become associated with "environmentalists." The problem? Cizik said environmentalists rely on big-government regulation, they are allied with population control movements, and they keep "kooky religious company."
Cizik was speaking of the "creation care" proponents' concern about being accused of pantheism, and what Beisner calls "biological egalitarianism," a concept that says all of creation is of equal importance.
Beisner said that most evangelical environmentalists, whether progressive or conservative, would unite In the debate against radical and New Age environmentalists. Beisner said that he and members of the Evangelical Environmental Network might strongly disagree about whether to take a market-based or a regulatory approach regarding reduction of air pollution, but that they would stand "side by side against biological egalitarianism."
Another group of evangelicals has brushed aside concerns for the environment completely because to them it is irrelevant. A group generally known as Dispensationalists believes that the Rapture is at hand and people won't be around long enough to worry about the fate of the natural world. Numerous Internet Web sites list disasters and moral lapses that show the cosmic clock is ticking down. One of the more famous and financially successful proponents of this idea is Tim LaHaye, coauthor, with Jerry Jenkins, of the Left Behind series of novels.
Opposition to these apocalyptic movements brings even the conservative Beisner and the progressive Illyn into agreement. Beisner said such movements "drive me nuts. You know, Martin Luther once said that if he discovered Jesus was coming back tomorrow he would plant a tree." He said, "It frankly doesn't matter how soon Jesus is coming back as to whether we are going to be good stewards of this world."
Illyn noted that the Bible is filled with commands for good stewardship and disdain for uncontrolled appetites. He said his advice to fervent evangelicals is often, "Quit thumping your Bible and start reading it."
Related Web sites
Evangelical Environmental Network www.creationcare.org
"An Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation" www.creationcare.org/resources/ declaration.php
Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship www.stewards.net
"The Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship" www.stewards.net/Cornwall Declaration.htm
Restoring Eden www.restoringeden.org
[Melissa Jones is a freelance writer living in Las Flores, Calif.]