Men in Green
by Andrew Walsh
just off Greenland’s ever less icy shore, a boatload of religious leaders,
alongside scientists, environmentalists, and politicians, gazed meditatively
at the rapidly melting Ilulissat glacier. “Surrounded by icebergs, Sunni,
Shiite, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, and Shinto leaders committed
themselves last Friday to leave the planet ‘in all its wisdom and beauty to
the generations to come,’” Colin Woodard wrote in the Christian Science
Monitor on September 12.
The unlikely ringleader of this gathering was the Ecumenical
Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, the senior bishop among the
world’s Orthodox Christians, who has emerged as a point man in a surging and
remarkably varied religious movement against environmental degradation.
Over the past decade, Bartholomew has led a series of
floating ecumenical seminars that have highlighted key global trouble
spots—the Black Sea, the River Danube, the Baltic Sea, the Amazon River. In
2007, the focus was on global warming.
Way out front of most of his peers on the environment,
Bartholomew began to capture attention when, on one of these journeys in
1997, he condemned pollution as a clear-cut human sin against God and
creation. Since then, he has basked in the glow of his European tabloid
nickname: The Green Patriarch.
Journalists aren’t yet accustomed to the notion of religious
leaders, least of all Orthodox ones, as environmental crusaders.
(“Environmental saviours do not normally appear in black robes and
ecclesiastical finery, nor do they often deliver their message from the deck
of a multistory car ferry,” the London Independent’s David Howden
wrote on June 11, 2002, when Bartholomew steamed into Venice to sign an
environmental concordat with Pope John Paul II.)
The Green Patriarch’s success—he is now courted by the
United Nations, the European Community, and even environmental groups in the
United States—has given the tiny and struggling Greek Orthodox remnant in
Turkey the sort of attention it rarely gets otherwise. But, in this decade,
it is not simply men in black who are going green.
In California, there are Redwood Rabbis; both of the most
recent popes have given much attention to environmental issues; and mainline
Protestants have been working this issue hard. The Dalai Lama always has a
green message, as do an increasing number of imams. And, over the past few
years, a new generation of evangelical Protestant leaders has embraced
environmental causes in ways that leave some asking whether at least some
American evangelicals are moving toward a new moderate style of politics.
Journalistic surprise over green religion persists largely
because the environmental movement seemed so pervasively secular for so
long. From the mid-1960s to the late 1980s, the scientists and activists who
spoke for the young movement were far more likely to blame religion—and
especially Christianity and Judaism—for environmental degradation than to
the seek alliances among the religious.
The almost universal touchstone of this skepticism is a
celebrated 1967 article in Science, the house organ of the American
scientific establishment, by Lynn White, a UCLA historian of technology.
White blamed attitudes rooted in the Bible for humanity’s arrogance, sense
of superiority, and entitlement to subdue and control the environment.
The key text was Genesis 1:28, which immediately follows the
creation of man and woman: “God blessed them, and God said unto them, ‘Be
fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have
dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over
every living thing that moveth on the face of the earth.’”
Christianity, White snarled, was “the most anthropocentric
religion the world has ever seen.” The only Christian thinker he exculpated
was St. Francis of Assisi. “We shall continue to have a worsening ecologic
crisis,” he wrote, “until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no
reason for existence save to serve us.”
And so, for most of the next two decades, environmental
activists paid no attention to religion. But by the late 1980s, as evidence
appeared of global climate change, scientists and activists were looking for
ways to bridge the divide.
“Environmentalism is really the intersection of science and
ethical principles,” Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club,
told the Monitor’s Woodard. “I was part of the generation that made
the choice—the horrendous strategic blunder—of situating ourselves outside
the institutions of faith. Now we have a chance to repent for and reform
from that error.”
The first big public push back toward religion came when a
group of 34 prominent scientists, led by the astrophysicist Carl Sagan,
appealed “for religion and science to join hands in preserving the global
environment,” Peter Steinfels of the New York Times reported on
January 16, 1990. “Efforts to safeguard and cherish the environment need to
be infused with a vision of the sacred,” the scientists said.
It turned out that plenty of religious leaders were eager to
reject axioms about exploiting the earth. Immediately, 100 prominent
American religious leaders welcomed the scientists’ appeal.
In fact, much had changed in religious thought since the
mid-1960s. Surveying the trends in a piece published in late 1989, Betsy
Carpenter of U.S. News and World Report cataloged the growth
of “small planet theology,” noting powerful currents of environmental
concern at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and in statements by
the American Baptist Church, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian
Church (USA), American Catholic bishops, and Pope John Paul II.
By 1991, articles with headlines like “Organized Religions
Look Earthward,” were popping up all over America. “There’s a melody playing
inside all people—to protect the environment—calling all faiths to wake up,”
Robert Edgar, president of the Claremont School of Theology told Richard
Kahlenberg of the Los Angeles Times on November 28, 1991. Theological
seminaries were abuzz with theologians crafting replies to Lynn White’s
Many of them turned to another passage from Genesis—chapter
two, verse 15: “And the Lord took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden,
to dress it and keep it.” The Bible in other words, commands humans to care
tenderly for the earth, as if it were a garden. Care for creation, not
“dominion theology,” was the new watch word.
In the early 1990s, mainline Protestants were the clear
leaders in the campaign to galvanize religious support for environmentalism.
New York City’s Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine was a particular
launching pad, both as a center of innovative worship and because it
supported staff like Paul Gorman, who would become director of the National
Religious Partnership for the Environment in 1992. The organization would
eventually grow to include the National Council of Churches, the U.S.
Catholic Conference, the Evangelical Environmental Network, and the
Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.
In this phase, journalists were fascinated mostly by the
openness and inclusivity of the religious movement. In 1991, the Boston
Globe’s Dianne Dumanoski published a breathless account of the very
broadly ecumenical celebration of the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi at St.
John the Divine.
“During the three-hour Earth Mass,” Dumanoski wrote, “the
cathedral throbbed with life. Mixing whale sounds and African drumming with
the medieval pomp of the high Episcopal Church, the ceremony mustered the
power of ritual, the resonance of ancient symbols and the transporting
beauty of dance and song.”
At the climax of the service, “the congregation fell silent and the
cathedral, in an act both literal and symbolic, threw its huge brass doors
open to the rest of creation. Down the great central aisle they came in
procession: an elephant with a garland around its neck; a mouse carried by a
child; an elegant barn owl, a furry spider, a camel, a cedar tree, rain
forest orchids and bromeliads, a hive of bees, and a 3.5 billion-year-old
rock from Australia bearing the fossil imprint of blue green algae—one of
the most ancient forms of life.”
Evangelical Protestants and Catholic leaders were involved
from the beginning—but they often harbored reservations about the St. John
the Divine school of environmentalist ritual. Open collaboration with
neo-pagans also made more conservative Christians nervous.
In these years, Catholic leaders were expressing strong reservations about
figures like the Rev. Matthew Fox, a Dominican theologian who would
eventually leave the Catholic Church to become an Episcopal priest. To many
Catholic watchdogs, Fox’s “creation spirituality” seemed pantheist.
Many articles on the new alliance from this period include a
section in which evangelicals are quoted expressing grave reservations about
religious environmentalism. “Some conservative Christians are afraid that
Earth Day has been co-opted by New Age environmentalists who worship the
earth instead of its creator and de-emphasize the issues of redemption from
sin and the need for personal salvation,” Russell Chandler reported in the
April 19, 1990 Los Angeles Times.
Nevertheless, evangelical public policy leaders were
active in the field, if selectively, from the beginning. On May 23, 1992,
for example, the Washington Post’s Laura Sessions Stepp noted with
some surprise the testimony of the Rev. Richard Land, a top Southern Baptist
official, among a group of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders at a
U.S. Senate hearing on the future of the earth’s environment.
The group, organized by the Joint Appeal by Religion and
Science for the Environment, issued an agreed-upon statement that read: “We
do not have to agree on how the natural world was made to be willing to work
together to preserve it.” Under Land, a key player in the mobilization of
the Christian Right then and now, the Southern Baptist Christian Life
Commission held its first environmental seminar in March 1991.
The next phase, which ran until 2001, was mostly about the
diffusion of the movement. “A Religious Awakening—Many Churches Blending
Their Form of Worship with Concern for the Environment” read a 1994 headline
in the Seattle Times. “More Christians and Jews Go Green,” went
another in the St. Petersburg Times in 1998. “Colorado Churches Go
Green” the Rocky Mountain News headlined a story in 2000.
Foundations and universities were playing their part, too.
In the lead were a couple who taught in the religion department at Bucknell
University in Pennsylvania, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, who in 1996
organized an academic symposium on Buddhism and ecology.
That led to a three-year study of the environmental
teachings of 10 major world religions rolled out at a 1998 conference
sponsored by Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions. “Change
won’t happen without religions because they are the touchstones of people’s
deepest motivations,” Harvard’s Lawrence Sullivan told Bill Broadway of the
Washington Post on October 24, 1998.
During the late 1990s, the Los Angeles Times provided
especially good coverage of the movement, mostly through the work of
religion writers Larry Stammer and Theresa Watanabe. The two were
particularly interested in the ways that religious environmentalism was
On January 22, 2000, for example, Stammer wrote a nuanced piece on the many
shades of meaning inside the religious movement, calling particular
attention to the rise of tree-planting celebrations that repositioned the
traditional holiday Tu B’Shevat as a “Jewish Earth Day.” In many
congregations “the day becomes a time to reflect on humanity’s place in the
natural order and on scriptural injunctions to redeem the land,” he wrote.
“Five years ago, many Jews questioned whether the environment was a Jewish
issue,” said Rabbi Mark X. Jacobs of the Coalition on the Environment and
Jewish Life. “Today that attitude has changed significantly.”
Nevertheless, the general sense persisted that religious
environmentalism was only at home in the political center and on the left.
That was the message Sen. Joe Lieberman delivered in 2000 when running as
the Democratic Party’s nominee for vice-president. Lieberman, Richard
Perez-Pena of the New York Times reported from a campaign stop in
Wisconsin on October 18, 2000, “said today that he and Vice-President Al
Gore would be good stewards of nature, while George W. Bush would spoil it.
“For Al Gore and me, this begins, if you will by our faith,”
Lieberman said. “If you believe in God, I think it’s hard not to be an
environmentalist, because you see the environment is a work of God.”
Gore and Lieberman lost the 2000 election, but soon after
Bush took office, a drastic increase in environmental concern among
evangelicals and other conservative religious groups came about. The
trigger, Lawrence Stammer wrote in the Los Angeles Times April 7,
2001, was the new Bush administration’s decision to withdraw from the Kyoto
Protocol, an international agreement charting a new course to combat global
climate change that the United States had signed in 1997.
Stammer quoted a leaked memo to the president from
Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman that
stated that “for the first time, the world’s religious communities have
started to engage in the issue. Their solutions vary widely, but the fervor
of the focus does not.”
It was at this point that the evangelical community began to
throw up the sort of entrepreneurial new leaders that have always kept it in
touch with American culture. One was the Rev. Jim Ball, who became executive
director of the rather small Evangelical Environmental Network in 2000.
“Because I confess Christ to be my savior and Lord, because he died to
reconcile all things, I can’t be hurting what he died to reconcile me to,”
Ball told Robert Schlesinger of the Boston Globe on July 8, 2001.
Political scientist John Green told Schlesinger in the same piece that
because of new concerns about global warming, environmental issues were
finding resonance among evangelicals. “There’s been a dramatic shift: It’s
very rare these days to go into a church and see people preach against
environmentalism and see it as some sort of plot.”
In 2003, Ball scored a massive public relations coup with
his 10-city “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign, in which he motored across
the South in a hybrid automobile. At each stop, Yonat Shimron of the
Raleigh News & Observer reported on June 14 of that year, Ball would
“ask people to think about the consequences of driving gas-guzzling cars
that release large amounts of carbon monoxide into the atmosphere.” As more
than one reporter slyly observed, Ball wanted to “put the pious in a Prius.”
Ball also was extremely successful in bending the ear of
senior figures in the evangelical world. He won support from Ted Haggard,
then a rising Colorado Springs megachurch pastor who had been elected
president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). He also made a
convert out of the Rev. Richard Cizik, the NAE’s vice president of
In 2005, Laurie Goldstein of the New York Times
reported that three years earlier Ball had “dragged” Cizik to a conference
on climate change at Oxford University, where Cizik met Sir John Houghton, a
retired Oxford professor of atmospheric physics and an evangelical.
Goodstein reported that Cizik said he had a “conversion” on climate change
“so profound in Oxford that he likened it to an ‘altar call’”—no small claim
for an evangelical.
In June 2004, Ball and Cizik brought Houghton to a Maryland
meeting of evangelical leaders that produced a “covenant” to “engage the
evangelical community” on climate change and to produce a “consensus
statement” within a year. Ball told Goodstein that the “strongest moral
argument he made to fellow evangelicals was that climate change would have
disproportionate effects on the poorest regions in the world. Hurricanes,
droughts and floods are widely expected to intensify as a result of climate
“What I saw working was the Holy Spirit,” Haggard told Larry
Stammer of the Los Angeles Times, going on to predict that a new
“pro-free enterprise” style of environmentalism would result: “We would be
corporate-friendly environmentalists, which would be a totally different
political and economic force than the current popular image of a granola
Cizik then called it as he saw it. “It’s an inescapable fact
that evangelicals are the Republican Party’s base. If that base were to say
at some point that this [climate change] is an important concern to them,
one would only imagine that Republicans would take note of that,” he told
Stammer. “There are some big ifs, but over the course of the next five
months, if an evangelical consensus were to develop on climate change, it’s
obvious that consensus would seem at odds with present Bush policies.”
What followed was an unsuccessful attempt by two dozen
elders of the Religious Right—including Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and Pat
Robertson, to get Cizik fired. While that didn’t happen, the group did
succeed in dissuading the NAE from backing Ball’s Evangelical Climate
Initiative, which emerged in February 2006 with the signatures of 85
prominent American evangelicals.
These included the presidents of 39 colleges and seminaries,
including Wheaton, Calvin, and Gordon, as well as other evangelical academic
luminaries. But the signatures that attracted the most attention came from a
group of megachurch pastors who seemed to be the heirs apparent to national
Among them were Rick Warren of Saddleback Community Church
in Orange County, California, Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church
outside Chicago, Bishop Charles Blake of the West Angeles Church of God in
Christ in Los Angeles, Joel Hunter of Northland Church outside Orlando, and
Leith Anderson of Wooddale Church outside Minneapolis and the interim
president of the NAE.
These were names to conjure with, and for the past year or
so, journalists have been trying hard to understand what seems like an
enormous shift within American evangelicalism.
Early reports, such as Stephanie Simon’s January 31, 2006
piece in the Los Angeles Times, emphasized the murkiness of the
situation and uncertainly about whether and how the rise of new
environmentalism—as well as evangelical commitment to address AIDS, Darfur,
and global poverty—might realign American politics.
A year and a half later, some reporters were lamenting the
complexities of pinning religious folk down. “In interviews with several
religious voters, haziness is evident,” Michelle Boorstein reported in the
October 27 Washington Post. “They hold complex and sometimes
contradictory views. They have litmus tests, but then make exceptions. But
exactly how do their faith values lead them to vote in a certain way, and
how do they interpret the rising level of faith-talk from candidates?”
Other reports began by mapping the terrain anew, focusing on
generational change exemplified by Rick Warren inviting Barack Obama to
address an AIDS summit at his megachurch even though Obama supports abortion
rights. “The conversion of America’s evangelicals to a broader sense of
mission is firmly under way,” Mark Totten wrote in a column published in the
December 24, 2006 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Today, a new generation
of evangelical pastors is weaving an ethic of “neighbor love into the fabric
of sin and salvation.”
By mid-2007, USA Today was asking, “Who Speaks for
America’s Evangelicals?” The answer, it turned out, “is not as clear as in
years past. In fact, a younger generation of minister is changing the face
and voice of this very influential community. With the 2008 election
approaching, that’s no small thing.”
In particular, polling revealed a rapid drop-off in the
percentage of younger evangelicals who identified with the GOP. Two years
ago, Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News wrote that “55 percent
of evangelicals younger than 30 called themselves Republicans. Now just 40
percent do. Slater added that polls showed that more than 60 percent of
evangelicals under 30 say “it’s worth the cost to do more about
environmental pollution and climate change,” in contrast to only 52 percent
of older evangelicals.
Slater agreed that evangelicals remained committed to social
issues like banning abortion, but “their focus is broadening and the
leadership is passing from Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell to people like
megachurch pastor Rick Warren, who connects social justice and saving
There were, nonetheless, strong elements of continuity here:
“The abortion issue is going to continue to be a unifying factor among
evangelicals and Catholics,” the Rev. Leith Anderson, a signer of the
Evangelical Climate Initiative, told the New York Times in May.
“That’s not going to go away.” Sounding a cautionary note, the Atlanta
Journal-Constitution headlined an August op-ed piece “New Evangelicals:
Green, not Liberal.”
“As more-than-green evangelicals, we are pleased to stand
apart from both environmentalists who ignore the Creator and Christians who
ignore His Creation,” Jim Jewell, national campaign director of the
Evangelical Climate Initiative wrote. “And as a national community of
evangelicals that is largely conservative and increasingly committed to a
total ethic of life, we suggest that the politicians of all stripes see us
for who we really are.”
But journalists are always interested in change, and there
has been some of that.
Consider what has transpired since August 20, 1989, when the
Los Angeles Times published a story headlined “Rural Furor in Orange
County: Anger Greets Plans for Huge Church in Canyon.” Steven Church’s lede
began, “A plan to build a massive church complex east of Mission Viejo with
more seating than the Crystal Cathedral and enough parking spaces to cover
seven football fields has ignited the wrath of residents and
environmentalists battling development in the hills and canyons of southern
The complex in question? Rick Warren’s Saddleback Valley
Community Church. That, as they say, was the old paradigm.