The debate among evangelicals about the proper response to the challenges and questions of climate change has taken a disturbing turn in recent weeks. And in a troubling case of historical repetition, this turn echoes the tone of the debate over the last decade between conservative and progressive Christians on the problem of poverty.
In the mid-1990s, at the height of political action to reform welfare, religious conservatives were typically depicted as opposing expansive government welfare because they did not have concern for the poor. In the same way, evangelical Christians who doubt the veracity of claims about the extent and causes of global warming are increasingly being portrayed as denying the Christian responsibility to care for the earth.
Earlier this month conservative evangelicals, including James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, expressed opposition to evangelical activism on global warming, focusing especially on the activities of the Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president of governmental relations for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). The group of evangelical leaders sent out a letter calling for a reprimand of Cizik, or his resignation, because of his "relentless campaign" to promote federal action to address climate change.
In response the New York Times editorialized last week that the letter from conservative evangelicals "was a sad reminder of how a radical agenda, like the brand of conservatism these men preach, can overshadow everything else." The Times concluded that "it is antiquated to limit the definition of morality to the way humans behave among humans" and that "the greatest moral issue of our time is our responsibility to the planet and to all its inhabitants."
Commenting on the aftermath of the Dobson letter, Lisa Miller of Newsweek noted that "Cizik himself is smart enough to seize the moment and position himself as a martyr." Miller also quoted Cizik's planned remarks to the board of the NAE, in which he wrote, "It's time we return to being people known for our love and care of the earth and our fellow human beings."
In these and many other ways, the opposition to evangelical activism on climate change has been conflated with the larger issue of environmental stewardship. But of course Christian responsibility for the environment, termed "creation care" by Cizik, is much broader than the question of global warming. While it may be an effective rhetorical strategy to assert that your opponents do not "care" for creation, such claims obscure rather than clarify the real crux of the debate.
In its exposition of the commandment against bearing false witness, the Heidelberg Catechism, an important confessional document for Reformed Christianity, observes that the commandment obliges the Christian to "love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it." It also says that Christians are "to guard and advance" the good names of our neighbors. The attribution of false motives to opponents of climate change activism runs the risk of violating these significant moral imperatives.
While the caricature of the conservative lack of care for the poor has proven difficult to dispel, times have begun to change such that "compassionate conservatism" is no longer an oxymoron, and there is hope that political discourse can be raised to a more productive level.
For instance, progressive Christian activist Tony Campolo has the integrity to admit that the claims of conservative Christians that government does not bear the primary responsibility to care for the poor are not due to a lack of care about poverty. Instead, notes Campolo, "The Religious Right, by conviction, is convinced that helping the poor is something that should be done individually or by the church." There is a shared commitment to viewing poverty as a moral issue, but disagreement at the level of policy and prudence about the best ways to address the problem.
In the same way, Christian care for the environment is indeed a moral issue, and one that will only demand greater attention as technological advances and scientific abilities increase. Both the evangelical opponents of and proponents for government action on climate change bear a responsibility to be open and honest about their points of consensus and disagreement.
For conservative evangelicals who oppose political action to address climate change, this means making it explicit and clear that the broader question of the moral imperative of environmental stewardship is a non-negotiable point of Christian belief. Dobson and others do warrant a measure of blame for the ill-chosen wording of their letter. By only explicitly mentioning pro-life issues, marriage, and sexuality as "great moral issues of our time," the signatories opened themselves up to a great deal of legitimate criticism. Jim Wallis, a prominent progressive evangelical activist, was quick to point out that war, poverty, and environmental issues are also important moral concerns.
For those who are global warming political advocates, such as Cizik and Wallis, this moral imperative means acknowledging the commitment of their opponents to "care" of the creation, even amidst the sometimes pointed disagreements over the means and institutions responsible for that care. With this shared commitment perhaps the dialogue on climate change might advance beyond vilification and demagoguery.
Jordan J. Ballor is associate editor with the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich.