December 24, 2005

Evangelicals Converted on the Environment


Evangelicals converted on the environment
By Clive Cookson
Published: December 23 2005

"The Earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof" - Psalm 24

Early next year environmental scientists, who have been campaigning fruitlessly to persuade the administration of US President George W. Bush to take global warming more seriously, hope to gain a very influential source of support.

The National Association of Evangelicals, the largest organisation of "born-again" Christians in the US, is circulating among its leadership a draft policy statement that would demand strong action against the causes of climate change.

NAE members - 45,000 churches with a combined congregation of 30m - are sometimes seen as rightwingers who despise environmental issues in general and climate change in particular. But it would in fact be a logical step in the "greening" of churches around the world.

In 1967 the historian Lynn White wrote a critique of Christianity, The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, which blamed environmental problems on the Christian notion that God gave the earth to people for their use and directed us to exercise dominion over it and all its life forms. Since then, environmentalist church groups have sprung up to promote the opposite view: that God made humanity responsible for looking after the earth.

Until recently, most have been on the liberal wing of Christianity but they are being joined by fundamentalists who can find many biblical references to support "creation care", the favoured term for environmental stewardship.

Sir John Houghton, former head of the UK Meteorological Office and a scientific leader of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has been influential in campaigning for a change of heart among US evangelicals on global warming. As a devout Christian, he persuaded some evangelical leaders to come to England in 2002 for a meeting in Oxford at which they were convinced by the scientific case for tackling climate change - and he has worked closely with them ever since.

Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-ordinator of the Harvard Forum on Religion and Ecology, calls the Oxford conference "a hugely important conversion moment for the evangelicals. After that they were going to come on board."

Then, in 2004, evangelical leaders including senior representatives from the NAE and the equally influential Southern Baptist Convention gathered in Sandy Cove, Maryland, for a three-day session of prayer and discussion. Sir John was present there too. From this meeting emerged the "Sandy Cove Covenant", a document spelling out the principles of creation care. "We invite our brothers and sisters in Christ to engage with us the most pressing environmental questions of our day, such as health threats to families and the unborn, the negative effects of environmental degradation on the poor, God's endangered creatures, and the important current debate about human-induced climate change," it says. "We covenant together to engage the evangelical community in a discussion about the question of climate change with the goal of reaching a consensus statement on the subject in twelve months."

With the consensus statement now in the final - and most delicate - stages of formulation, the NAE is refusing to discuss its contents. "I am sure it will be a really positive and influential statement - and will counter the misinformation campaign propagated by the oil industry since 1992," says Sir John.

Evangelicals not bothered about the environment are an "extreme minority who have taken the view that the future of the earth doesn't matter because the whole thing will soon be wound up", he adds. These people believe that the End of Days and the Rapture are at hand. In the Rapture, due within 40 years, "the saved ascend to eternal grace and the rest of us writhe in damnation", as Lord May put it in an address to the Royal Society in London last month. "If you believe this you clearly do not worry about 2050."

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