Why There's A Divide Between Environmentalists And Evangelicals

Nov 4, 2019
Originally published on November 4, 2019 6:55 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Among the voices calling for action on climate change are some young evangelicals - this despite the fact that church elders have portrayed environmentalism as anti-Christian. NPR's Gregory Warner has been digging into the origins of the divide between environmentalists and evangelicals.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Rachel Lamb is the co-founder of the group Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. But throughout her childhood, she'd always been taught to be suspicious of mainstream science. And then in high school, she decided to take an environmental studies class.

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RACHEL LAMB: I was like, you know, I've inherited a skepticism about this. So I took it, and I was like, oh, wow. Like, as a Christian, I had to take this seriously, and I had to do something about it.

WARNER: Protecting the Earth seemed completely in line with the values she learned in the church.

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LAMB: It's biblical and so connected fundamentally to what it means to be a Christian. Why is it that all of these Christians that I knew didn't see it that way?

WARNER: And that question - why is there a divide between environmentalists and evangelicals? - it led me to meet a guy who actually helped create that divide.

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WARNER: Who's this?

RICHARD CIZIK: That's me.

WARNER: That's you, right?

CIZIK: Yeah. That's Richard Cizik at about 12 years of age.

WARNER: For most of his life, Richard Cizik was what he calls a lobbyist for 30 million evangelicals. He represented the National Association of Evangelicals, the NAE. Cizik had been there since Reagan and helped create the political partnership between evangelicals and the Republican Party. And then in 2002, he went to an international conference on global warming, and there, he had a conversion.

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CIZIK: It was a conversion to the science.

WARNER: Help me understand. What's the difference between just going and having your mind changed - you know, hearing some convincing science and being persuaded - to actually having a conversion?

CIZIK: My conversion was a repentance for all the disbelief and wrong-headed attitudes I had. It's a repentance that says I have disobeyed God's very commands about what I'm to do and be.

WARNER: As much as evangelicals didn't see eye to eye with scientists, there was a growing eco-theology known as creation care.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And Jesus says...

WARNER: This is a Creation Care TV ad from 2005.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Maybe we should ask, what would Jesus drive?

WARNER: So Cizik, the evangelical lobbyist, started throwing his lobbying muscle behind creation care. He'd cite Bible passages like Revelation 11:18 - the time has come to destroy those who destroy the Earth. He gave a college tour and found that climate issues were energizing young evangelicals, and he started persuading some environmentalists to use language that would appeal to a wider set of Americans. Even Al Gore started speaking creation care lingo.

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AL GORE: I believe that the purpose of life is to glorify God, and you cannot do it while heaping contempt on God's creation.

WARNER: Cizik hoped to build a bridge between environmentalists and evangelicals, and he wanted to show that evangelicals could stand up for a broader set of issues than just the so-called culture wars. And so he was excited to get a call in early 2006 from Vanity Fair magazine. They asked him to be part of their green issue of environmentalist influencers.

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CIZIK: I go up to this brownstone with my suit on - pinstripe suit, you know - and ready for a photo shoot. And I go into the room, and I'm just shocked. There's this whole room that's filled with water.

WARNER: The celebrity photographer tells him, now take your shoes off.

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CIZIK: And he explains to me that I have to walk on these clear bricks so that it looks like I'm walking on water.

WARNER: But did you feel at any point during that photo shoot that, maybe walking on water may be a bad idea for my image?

CIZIK: The thought occurred to me.

WARNER: Republican lawmakers and evangelical conservatives saw their opportunity to attack.

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JIM INHOFE: And you know, I'd have to say this to...

WARNER: Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe took the stage at the next Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC. And he held up a copy of Vanity Fair, that magazine.

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INHOFE: So here's Richard Cizik. This was his portrait on the front of a very liberal magazine. And if you see, he's dressed like Jesus. He is actually walking on water. He's barefooted, but you can see the little ripples if you look down close. Now, I have to say this. It was a brilliant idea - divide and conquer.

WARNER: The way the senator put it, Cizik was not just trying to expand the evangelical tent to include a broader set of issues; he was trying to break up the marriage between Christians and the Republican Party.

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INHOFE: If they can somehow drag the evangelicals away from their pro-life stance and all their conservative agenda, their core values, and put an end to this environmental stuff, then they win, and we lose.

WARNER: It's like, as a Christian, you're either pro-life or pro-environment. You can't be both. And the very same day as that speech, 25 leaders of the Christian right published an open letter demanding that Cizik be sacked. His advocacy around climate change was, quote, "contributing to a growing confusion about the very term evangelical."

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CIZIK: See, you key in on what was my motivation here.

WARNER: Cizik says he wanted to invite that confusion. He wanted it to be possible as a political Christian to vote Republican on some issues and Democrat on others. And he says he recognized in climate change an issue that might have enough biblical appeal to Christians to blur those lines.

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CIZIK: My motivation wasn't solely about climate change. No, no, no. There was something more at stake, which was who we are as evangelicals and where we fit in the American scene, politically.

WARNER: The amazing thing was his gambit worked. His employer, the National Association for Evangelicals, with all its conservative board members, voted to support him. In 2008, Cizik was listed in Time magazine's 100 most influential people of the year. And that December, he sat down for a radio interview.

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TERRY GROSS: Richard Cizik, welcome back to Fresh Air.

WARNER: President Obama had just been elected but not yet sworn in.

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GROSS: So I'm going to ask you who you voted for, knowing that it's your right to not tell us (laughter). So...

WARNER: Now, at this point, Richard Cizik, like King David from the Bible, had outlasted everything that his opponents had thrown at him. They called on him to be sacked. He wasn't sacked. He dipped his toes in controversy - actually, his whole foot - and on camera. And now, Terry Gross is asking him, which side are you on?

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CIZIK: Terry, let me answer it this way. In the Virginia primary, I voted for Barack Obama.

WARNER: Days after that interview aired, Cizik was fired from the job he'd held for 28 years. He admits that these days, it is much harder for an evangelical leader to come out in support of climate action.

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CIZIK: If I'm a divider, I'm a divider. Better it be over an issue like the survival of the planet than over something less significant.

WARNER: There's another legacy of Richard Cizik - that eco-theology creation care. A recent poll found that evangelicals, more than any other Christians, feel that God expects people to be good stewards of nature. And so Rachel Lamb, the young evangelical we met at first - she never uses divisive labels like environmentalist, even to describe herself. And she always opens up conversations about the planet by talking about the Bible, like Psalm 24:1 - the Earth is the Lord's and everything in it.

KELLY: That is Gregory Warner. He's the host of NPR's Rough Translation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHARON VAN ETTEN SONG, "COMEBACK KID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.