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Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Environmentalism as a Moral Value? 

As I mentioned in this previous post, Steve Soto feels that the time may be ripe for an evangelical/environmentalist alliance, and sees evidence that framing green issues in moral values terms (rather than focusing on the underlying science) could prove a winning strategy.

One of the sources for Soto's musings was this document, which apparently electrified the environmentalist community. I finally got around to reading it, and I have to say I'm terribly unimpressed. As far as I can tell, the main thrust of the piece is that "environmentalism" as a single issue leads to political failure, and that the only way to save the world from global climate disaster is to forge a brave new progressive coalition uniting US business, labor and greenies behind a massive R&D project. Call it the "Fellowship of the Ring" strategy, I guess.

Some of the ideas expressed, such as the notion of looking for grand bargains, are quite good (if hardly as earth-shattering as the New York Times's coverage might lead one to believe). Other portions of the paper, particularly those about the current state of Japanese industry and the history of industrial policy, are wildly factually inaccurate. And some of the more messianic language reminds me of nothing so much as the "Project for a New American Century" so widely (and convincingly) criticized by so many on the left. Ultimately, though, I'm not sure there's anything surprising or new here. Too bad.

The other article Soto cites is far more compelling. I have to admit that I skipped over the article when I first saw the headline in the Washington Post: "The Greening of Evangelicals." I expected yet another non-existent-trend-spotting story about some well-spoken yet little-noted member of the Christian right adopting a counterintuitive cause. But there's more here than I first thought:
"The environment is a values issue," said the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals. "There are significant and compelling theological reasons why it should be a banner issue for the Christian right." In October, the association's leaders adopted an "Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility" that, for the first time, emphasized every Christian's duty to care for the planet and the role of government in safeguarding a sustainable environment.

"We affirm that God-given dominion is a sacred responsibility to steward the earth and not a license to abuse the creation of which we are a part," said the statement, which has been distributed to 50,000 member churches. "Because clean air, pure water, and adequate resources are crucial to public health and civic order, government has an obligation to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation."

Signatories included highly visible, opinion-swaying evangelical leaders such as Haggard, James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship Ministries. Some of the signatories are to meet in March in Washington to develop a position on global warming, which could place them at odds with the policies of the Bush administration, according to Richard Cizik, the association's vice president for governmental affairs.
While I'm still skeptical about the depth of these leaders' commitment, and even moreso about the rank and file's interest in the issue, it's a hopeful sign, and a fascinating one. The article also touches on some of the concerns about crafting and nurturing wedge issues that I've discussed before:
Green said the evangelicals' deep suspicion about environmentalists has theological roots.

"While evangelicals are open to being good stewards of God's creation, they believe people should only worship God, not creation," Green said. "This may sound like splitting hairs. But evangelicals don't see it that way. Their stereotype of environmentalists would be Druids who worship trees."

Another reason that evangelicals are suspicious of environmental groups is cultural and has its origins in how conservative Christians view themselves in American society, according to the Rev. Jim Ball, executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network. The group made its name with the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign against gas-guzzling cars but recently shifted its focus to reducing global warming.

"Evangelicals feel besieged by the culture at large," Ball said. "They don't know many environmentalists, but they have the idea they are pretty weird -- with strange liberal, pantheist views."

Ball said that the way to bring large numbers of evangelicals on board as political players in environmental issues is to make persuasive arguments that, for instance, tie problems of global warming and mercury pollution to family health and the health of unborn children. He adds that evangelicals themselves -- not such groups as the Sierra Club or Friends of the Earth, with their liberal Democratic baggage -- are the only ones who can do the persuading.

"Environmental groups are always going to be viewed in a wary fashion," Ball said. "They just don't have a good enough feel for the evangelical community. There are landmines from the past, and they will hit them without knowing it."
This strikes me as exactly right. So what can environmentalists do to nurture this potential alliance? I'd suggest that they listen to Ball, come up with facts, figures, and a legislative agenda which mesh with the language he has discussed, and then work with him to find a Congressional champion for a single bill. I'll have some more concrete details when I revisit this story tomorrow.

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