ALL GOD'S CREATURES
JUNE 3, 1996
The Endangered Species Act picks up some conservative Christian political supporters. Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Television reports.
LEE HOCHBERG: On a damp day this spring, these evangelical Christian pastors were lured out of their Portland area churches and into the lush Oregon wilderness.
SPOKESMAN: Is this miner's lettuce? Isn't this a form of miner's lettuce?
LEE HOCHBERG: It was hardly the perfect day for a hike, but Pastor Peter Illyn had invited them to come experience something he had experienced on a thousand-mile hike with llamas through the Cascade Mountains.
PETER ILLYN, Evangelical Leader: I realized two things at the end of that hike. One, it's easy to sense and feel the presence of God in the wilderness. And two, there's just not much left of it.
LEE HOCHBERG: Illyn is the Portland area leader of a national group of evangelical Christians fighting to protect the earth and its animal species.
PETER ILLYN: The fact is we have a model of God saying to Noah, partner with me to save species.
LEE HOCHBERG: Conservative Christians like him helped elect the pro-development Republican majority to Congress two years ago, but Illyn says that Congress has gone too far with threats to weaken the Endangered Species Act, a law that protects animals facing extinction. On hikes into the woods, he's rallying Evangelical pastors to fight for those animals.
PETER ILLYN: I'm just appalled that people within the church world have taken an aggressive stand to destroy the Endangered Species Act. My premise is that this is a moral issue.
SPOKESMAN: (TV Commercial) The Endangered Species Act has rescued dozens of God's creatures from extinction, but today the act, itself, is threatened.
LEE HOCHBERG: The National Coalition of Evangelicals is running TV commercials like this as part of a million dollar campaign.
SPOKESMAN: (TV Commercial) Don't let the special interests sink the Endangered Species Act.
LEE HOCHBERG: At the same time, it has mailed packets to 33,000 conservative church leaders urging them to turn their churches into so-called Noah congregations, embracing the Endangered Species Act as a modern day Noah's Ark.
PETER ILLYN: This may be wild but this is a Holly tree.
LEE HOCHBERG: Illyn hopes he can convince pastors and they can convince their congregations that the Bible commands them to protect the earth. He argues that the biblical line that man has dominion over the earth does not permit man to allow species to grow extinct. It's an argument based in theology but with political goals. Illyn hopes to sensitize 60 percent of Christian voters and to signal Congress that conservative Christians aren't a guaranteed anti-preservation vote.
BRUCE BABBITT, Interior Secretary: Let me just say how--
LEE HOCHBERG: The nation's chief environmental officer, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, is grateful for the unexpected support the species act is receiving from clergy. Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and black church organizations all have exhorted Congress to leave the Endangered Species Act alone. Babbitt came to Portland recently to applaud the efforts of a multi-denominational group to explore a damaged urban creek. He told the group, though he was raised Catholic, it took a question at a recent public appearance to get him thinking about the message of environmental stewardship in the Bible.
BRUCE BABBITT: I remember a person getting up in an audience and saying, have you read it recently, and I said, well, not real recently, and he said to me, well, go back in your capacity as Secretary of the Interior and re-read it, I went back and I read. I was particularly struck, of course, by the command to Noah to take all of creation, seven by seven, two by two, you know, not just the species that are good for fishing or hunting or those charismatic species who are the ones that are good for medicine and all of creation.
LEE HOCHBERG: Babbitt expects the Noah movement will dramatically impact the national debate on environmental issues.
BRUCE BABBITT: The resurgence of this question of what is our ethical obligation, what are the moral values, and from whence do they proceed could profoundly change the nature of this debate.
LEE HOCHBERG: Republicans are eying the developments wearily. The chairman of Oregon's Republican Party has accused Babbitt of cynically playing Evangelicals to make political hay.
RANDY MILLER, Oregon Republican Party Chairman: Clearly, this is the most political administration in the history of the United States. I mean, they're a poll away from changing policy. Now maybe they have seen that, hey, here's an in-road into what has typically been a pretty good Republican stronghold and so why don't we go down that road and see if we can nibble off a few percent for the coming election.
LEE HOCHBERG: And the head of the House Resources Committee, Alaska Republican Don Young, fired off this letter to the Evangelicals. In a statement, he said, "Americans expect religious leaders to abide by a higher standard. Don't use the pulpit to mislead people." The Noah message faces a flood of opposition in Congress. Illyn took it to Washington state congresswoman Linda Smith, a vocal critic of the Endangered Species Act, but didn't make much progress.
LINDA SMITH: I've read some of what you've said but I'm still confused by some of the things you've said, you know, in your writings because throughout time there's been extinction that had nothing to do with man. More species have gone extinct than--that had nothing to do with man.
LEE HOCHBERG: Smith told him she wants to amend the act so private property owners are not left unable to develop their land when an endangered species is found on it.
LINDA SMITH: I guess as policy maker I have to look at those families who all of a sudden could not even harvest and this old couple--I've got two or three of these--they go, but I raise this, this crop for my retirement.
PETER ILLYN: I think that we find a lot of, a lot of room to--
LINDA SMITH: Would you walk with me?
PETER ILLYN: Sure.
LINDA SMITH: Why don't you go over and you watch us vote. And then I'm going to give him my testimony--
LEE HOCHBERG: Illyn had an easier time convincing these theologians at the conservative Multnomah Bible College in Portland. Most of them agreed the Bible calls upon Christians to protect God's creatures, but here too Illyn was reminded that man sometimes comes first.
SPOKESMAN: I can conceive of some situations where this act would need to be suspended in favor of helping a fellow man or woman or child, some other person who has intrinsically greater value to God than does some other created being, such as an animal
SECOND SPOKESMAN: Why is it that we believe that, that man does have a higher intrinsic value in the heart of God? And that is, from my perspective, simply that man is made in the image of God and animals are not.
LEE HOCHBERG: Pentecostal pastor Ernie Blackmon told Illyn his church proudly recycles and he makes sure his children pack out their garbage when they go camping, but he's hesitant to preach stewardship to his congregation.
REV. ERNIE BLACKMON, Evangelical Pastor: I don't believe that God has said I want you to preach this in the next, in the next service. We're having service tonight. I don't believe he's saying that. I'm not too sure what I will do. You know what I'm saying?
LEE HOCHBERG: Yet, the Noah movement is showing early strength, surprising even to its leaders. They say more than 1,000 churches already are heeding the call to become Noah congregations.
REV. JIM SELLERS, Evangelical Pastor: (speaking to congregation) I am no environmental nut but this is not a phantom issue. This is not something that isn't real. It's real.
LEE HOCHBERG: One of the pastors who accompanied Illyn on his hike in the Oregon woods brought Illyn's message back to his conservative congregation.
REV. JIM SELLERS: It isn't really something new for me, okay? It's--but it is new for me to do it in church, and because more people are speaking clearly about it and respected leaders are speaking clearly about it, it gives us--gives me more courage to talk about it, and to make it a public issue.
LEE HOCHBERG: Illyn says he'll continue his hikes into the woods all summer hoping his ecological words keep making their way to the congregation and beyond.