Moyers on America
learn more at:

Citizens Class: Religion & the Environment

How does your faith or religion or spirituality affect your perspective of environmentalism or creation care?

(Transcripts of video clips are at the end of the document.)

Backgrounder: Religion & The Environment
What's so important about the potentially powerful influence of conservative evangelical Christians on environmental issues, especially global warming? For years, many of these evangelicals have been charging environmentalists — and those progressive Christians who support environmentalism — with idolatry for lavishing worship on "God's creation" rather than God. Moreover, they have been skeptical, if not downright hostile, toward government-mandated protection of the environment ... [more]

Class Is in Session...
How did conservative evangelicals, who tend to present a unified front on most matters of political significance, end up in such a public battle over how to approach environmental issues like global warming? What's behind this difference of opinion?

In most respects, the divide comes down not to a disregard for the world — which is, for evangelicals, the creation of God — but on how exactly to care for that creation. Evangelicals part company on what God calls them to do about the environment: where to focus their attention, how to interpret scientific data, what the role of legislation and/or the free market should be in protecting the environment and human interests. The discussion and debate are less about whether God is green and more about what God commands. Does he ask Christians, explicitly or implicitly, to make environmentalism, or "creation care," part of their ministry and political platform? (Find out more about creation care, wise use and environmental stewardship)

Concern for the environment, and the current debate it has engendered, might be a hot topic in the evangelical community, but it is not a new one. Environmental policy debates emerged among evangelicals, as they did among the nation at large, in the 1960s and '70s. There were some critics, like medieval scholar Lynn Townsend White Jr., who went so far as to blame organized religion itself for the world's ecological ills, arguing that medieval Christian attitudes in particular, and the entire Judeo-Christian tradition in general, taught a disregard for nature and led to exploitation of the environment. That argument finds echoes today among certain evangelicals who insist that in Genesis, God gave man "dominion" over the earth and its creatures — essentially, carte blanche to do what he wants with his environment.

But for a number of religious Christians and evangelicals, this represents a dangerous misreading of the Bible. God, they contend, appointed man steward of the world, to protect it and sustain it as a way to honor to the divine work of the Creator. Caring for the environment, they say, isn't a political issue — it's a theological imperative.

In 1970, one such group, the National Association of Evangelicals, released a strongly worded policy resolution that called on Christians "to support every legitimate effort to maintain balance in ecology, preservation of our resources, and avoidance of the cluttering of our natural beauty with the waste of our society." And they didn't hedge at adding a bit of fire and brimstone: "Today those who thoughtlessly destroy a God-ordained balance of nature are guilty of sin against God's creation." (Read the documents)

In 1993 the Evangelical Environmental Network began to turn creation-care beliefs into action, publishing a declaration which began, "As followers of Jesus Christ, committed to the full authority of the Scriptures, and aware of the ways we have degraded creation, we believe that biblical faith is essential to the solution of our ecological problems."

But another religious group, which later became known as the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship, wanted to take the environmental debate in a different direction. They made their opposing views known in the 1999 Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship, which warned that groups like the Evangelical Environmental Network's presented "a romantic view of nature, a misguided distrust of science and technology, and an intense focus on problems that are highly speculative and largely irrelevant to meeting our obligations to the world's poor."

The Cornwall Declaration stressed a free-market environmental stewardship and emphasized that individuals and private organizations should be trusted to care for their own property without government intervention. It also claimed that environmental concerns like global warming, overpopulation, and the extinction of species were either unfounded or greatly exaggerated. In the words of Father Robert A. Sirico of the conservative Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty and member of Interfaith Council, "Environmental ideology is increasingly being used, not to preserve nature's beauty, but to restrict human enterprise that is essential to a more humane existence for people."

The Evangelical Climate Initiative Watch the video

The rhetoric over the role of evangelical Christians in the global warming debate escalated significantly in February 2006 when 86 Evangelical leaders signed and publicly released a statement entitled Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action.

Among the tenets of the statement:

  • Human-induced climate change is real.
  • The consequences of climate change will be significant and will hit the poor the hardest.
  • Christian moral convictions demand our response to the climate change problem.
  • The need to act now is urgent. Governments, businesses, churches, and individuals all have a role to play in addressing climate change-starting now.
(Read the document)

News that the call to action was in the works in January 2006 prompted the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, a group related to the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship and the Acton Institute, to attempt to forestall any global warming policy statement by the National Association of Evangelicals. They sent the group a missive warning them to "not adopt any official position on the issue of global climate change," as "global warming is not a consensus issue, and our love for the Creator and respect for His creation does not require us to take a position." Led by high-proflie evangelical leaders Charles Colson and James Dobson, Interfaith Stewardship Alliance called for the National Association of Evangelicals not to put their name to the document. Richard Cizik, the vice-president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals acceded to their demands but continued to voice his agreement with the statement. The debate within the evangelical community soon hit the public consciousness, with articles in NEWSWEEK and THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. Cizik even made it to the pages of VANITY FAIR.

For others in the evangelical community, taking a public stand on issues like global warming just isn't part of the religious plan. Christian broadcaster Jan Markell believes that evangelicals are called by God to win souls for Jesus, not to take up social issues, and that environmentalism distracts from the real mission of the evangelical church.

Watch the video: Jan Markell

And for some on the evangelical community the embracing of causes like environmentalism represents a dangerous move to the left — to partnership with groups with very different views on the core "culture war" issues. Explore the possibilities of that shift in political power in our Citizens Class on Religion & Politics.

Although the documentary focused on the evangelical movement's relationship to the environment, other faiths and religious traditions have perspectives on man's relationship to the environment. Different cultures may also have different ways of interacting with the natural environment.

  • As we saw in the documentary, more and more conservative evangelicals believe that it is a Biblical responsibility to care for the environment. The environmental movement has focused on the moral responsibility to care for the environment. Is it the same thing? And what are the implications of this difference in approach to the same goal?

  • About environmental policy, The Cornwall Declaration says: “Public policies to combat exaggerated risks can dangerously delay or reverse the economic development necessary to improve not only human life but also human stewardship of the environment.” What do you think the balance should be between environmental, human, and economic concerns?

  • How does your faith or religion or spirituality affect your perspective of environmentalism or creation care?

Explore more
  • Find out about other faiths' environmental stance
  • Hear evangelical Christian, and chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Sir John Houghton, talk about his faith and his science
  • Additional voices from the debate


BILL MOYERS: On February 8 of this year, 86 influential evangelical leaders broke ranks and called for action on global warming. Being a good Christian, they said, means tackling climate change. Among the signers was one of the country's most popular preachers, and the pastor of the largest church in America, Rick Warren.

RICK WARREN: We cannot be all God wants us to be without caring about the earth. I think that's kind of a no-brainer.

BILL MOYERS: They took to the airwaves to spread their gospel.

ECI COMMERCIAL: The good news is that with God's help we can stop global warming, for our kids, our world and for our Lord.

BILL MOYERS: Richard Cizik recruited many of the signers of the call to action. His own name appeared in the first version, but in the final version….It was gone.

BILL MOYERS: That was a very strong statement that-

RICHARD CIZIK: Very strong.

BILL MOYERS: --made a lot of news. But I was surprised that your name wasn't on it.

RICHARD CIZIK: Well-- there are those who-- said, "Look, how can-- you," me, referring to me, "speak for all evangelicals when it's clearly you don't?" And so-- in the words of some-- I got-- whacked by Tony Soprano.

BILL MOYERS: But although he took his name off the statement, Cizik remains publicly adamant about the Christian duty to fight global warming.



JAN MARKELL: Here is the situation with the evangelical climate initiative or those that signed this evangelical environmental network. They are focusing-- very, very closely, they are focusing on a single issue. And here's where we have our problem. They are focusing on the issue that the-- situation on the-- on earth right now which is precarious weather wise is because of climate and climate variations. Which are due to global warming. Manmade global warming. That's so important to understand. Because no one can disagree there's global warming.

That's one edge of even evangelicalism that believes that way. Now there's another element of evangelicalism. And I would represent it and I would say this is not what evangelicals are called to do. Focus on global warming and figure out is it manmade or water or what. Or what-- the other group of evangelicals believe is we were called and we are called to preach the gospel. To spread the good news. To win the lost.

Whereas this other camp is now focusing on sort of a social issue. And I think that's interesting. If you keep in mind that back in the 1940's, the organization was created called the National Association of Evangelicals. The reason they were formed was because they saw some denominations going off into the social gospel only. And this so called-- NEAE or National Association of Evangelicals in approximately 1946, got together and said-- as evangelicals, we are going to focus on the Bible.

We're going to focus on winning the lost. We're not going to focus on the social issues. Because so many of the main line protestants were. Well, now, comes a group of evangelicals saying we're all for the social cause and the social issues. Particularly as it concerns manmade global warming. And so I'm just saying I don't think that's the call of an evangelical. I think the call of evangelicals is to preach the good news. Is to preach the gospel. It's to win the lost. And not focus on these other issues.

QUESTION: What does it-- what's at stake when these prominent leaders speak out in this way? What is-- what's-- what's at stake here?

JAN MARKELL: Well, it's taking time and it's taking money and it's taking other things away from the central issue that the National Association of Evangelicals decades ago now-- their whole purpose was to create a movement called the evangelical movement that was created to focus on one thing only. And that's preaching the gospel and saving souls.

And so if we're going to get diverted and we're going to spend millions of dollars and we're going to spend-- who knows how much time trying to rid the world, in this case, of a questionable theory called manmade global warming, this is a huge distraction from what we should be doing. The more conservative evangelical would say, hey, we need to preach the gospel and win the lost. And not go after a science that is not proven at all. You cannot prove scientifically that the weather aberrations that are going on are manmade. You just can't prove it.

And in the meantime, souls are dying. Because we're spending time and money trying to figure out if in fact there's such a thing as manmade global warming. It's a massive waste of time and of resources.


© Public Affairs Television 2006. All Rights Reserved. close this window