Wednesday’s Washington Post featured an article about evangelical Christians’ growing concern with global warming and, more generally, environmentalism. The article explained the development mostly in terms of political maneuvering amongst leaders, mainly “a years-long international campaign by British bishops and leaders of major U.S. environmental groups to bridge a long-standing divide between global-warming activists and American evangelicals.”
But there’s more to evangelicals’ commitment to environmental stewardship, also known as creation care, than power-brokering elites. It’s rooted in a deep sense of duty to live up to God’s mandate to live in proper relation to the earth. In one installment of the recent “God is green” sermon series at Mars Hill Church, an evangelical megachurch in a converted shopping mall outside Grand Rapids, Mich., Pastor Rob Bell said:
We aren’t treating the earth well, would you agree? This grieves the heart of God…we produce more and more and more, and we’re doing it in such a way that earth simply can’t sustain it. And I would argue we do not first and foremost care for the earth because of the latest scientific studies — which verify that we are destroying the earth — or because of the latest fad. We do it because God said to.
Listen to his description of the mandate for proper relations with the earth; his voice teeters on the trembling, and you can almost see him concentrating on keeping his eyes dry.
But did God really say so? Over the course of the July “God is Green” series, which is available online as an MP3, Bell and other Mars Hill speakers preach from the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Job, 2 Chronicles, Psalms, Proverbs, Matthew, Luke, John, Ephesians, Romans and Revelations. (Note to the unchurched: that’s about 1/5 of the Bible.) And they’re not just poaching a spare verse here and there. In the first installment, Matt Krick notes that:
No less than eight times in Genesis chapter 9 God says ‘My covenant is with you and all creation, my covenant is with you and all creatures, my covenant is with you and all the earth.’ God is clearly stating his concern and his love for his creation that He created good – to sustain it, to see it thrive, to see it flourish. This is the heart of God for creation, and we see the heart of God continue through the entire biblical narrative.
Listen to his explanation of God’s vision of our proper relation to the earth, even though it only scratches the surface of creation care’s theological underpinnings.
I first learned about creation care in a 2004 sermon series at Kairos, a Christian community for young adults in northern Virginia. This wasn’t some hippie granola church; I shared pews not only with fellow liberals, but with Heritage Foundation staffers fresh from their stints with the Coalition Provisional Authority. The specific details have faded, but I remember hearing that the earth is a sacred trust rather than a resource to be exploited. In other words, creation care is not just a platform, it’s an orientation. While pundits concerned themselves with the Kyoto protocols, Clear Skies, and Healthy Forests, we were reexamining the very way in which we conceived of the planet.
At Mars Hill, which draws upwards of 10,000 people to its Sunday services in conservative western Michigan, you could hear uncharacteristically liberal-sounding messages about working against “systems of exploitation” and even a hint of what a conservative opportunist would call class warfare: “If somebody actually wants to argue with you that we’re not doing some terrible things to our earth, this is somebody whose wealth and ignorance have simply isolated them from how serious it is.”
They even reject the sanctity of private property. Citing Leviticus 25:23-4 — “the land must not be sold permanently because you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land” – Bell calls man’s claim of total dominion over the land a symptom of our “deep sinful bend of entitlement, in which we start to believe that what belongs to God belongs to us.”
An encouraging feature of the four-plus hours of God is Green was the repeated confession of our failure to honor God’s covenant with humankind and creation. We flout the notion of sustainability; we fail to live simply; we are addicted to exploitation; we don’t sacrifice.
The most inspiring part of any good sermon is the call to action. In the final moments of the final installment of God is Green, Bell leads his thousands-strong congregation in a fervent, applause-interrupted prayer that Christians will no longer lag behind others who better model sustainable living, that they will heed God’s call to go green. The only excerpt I will take from it is to say “amen.” Please listen to the three-minute prayer.
While conflict over global warming and environmentalism exists within the diverse community of American Christians, it’s important to note that the argument is no mere political concern. The theological energy behind creation care and “going green” ensures that what we’re talking about is no mere squabble, but a movement.
Today, Religion News Service (via beliefnet) reports:
the departures of Edgar from the NCC, Hough from Union Seminary and the Rev. Jim Forbes from Riverside are leaving three venerable — some might say vulnerable — icons of liberal Protestantism with “Help Wanted” signs on their doors.
Then they quote conservative Institute of Religion and Democracy president Tonkowich, who concedes
that high-profile Christian progressives like author Jim Wallis “may be having their day in the sun” with greater media visibility. But he argues that declining denominations, and an embrace of “deal-buster” issues like gay marriage and abortion, make liberal churches barely discernible from liberal politics.
“People are willing to go out on a limb for an exclamation point,” he said, “but no one is willing to go out on a limb for a question mark.”
I tend to agree with Joe Hough that this can be seen positively as an opportunity for a new generation to take the reins of the progressive movement. However, it puts tremendous pressure on all three institutions to make creative and solid choices at a time when the resurgence of the movement is still in a formative period. And the remnant of the “old guard” will have to be courageous and gracious in letting these important institutions continue to evolve and change. Gary Dorrien’s suggestion, made elsewhere, that liberal theology has remained alive and well, albeit under the radar, will be tested in the next twenty years, and some of that testing will happen as these changes are made. The other question, though, is whether the movement will produce visible and widely known “champions” (like Hough, Forbes, and Edgar, not to mention Coffin, et. al) or whether it will take a more diffuse and de-centralized form.
The most provocative line in the article belongs to Tonkowich when he says “People are willing to go out on a limb for an exclamation point, but no one is willing to go out on a limb for a question mark.” (He’s basically paraphrasing Paul who asked, “If the trumpet gives an indistinct sound, who will prepare for the battle?”) Can progressive religion produce an “exclamation point?” or is it, by nature, always going to come across as a “question mark?” The argument is a bit reductionist, of course; real life doesn’t parse that neatly and it is the interaction of exclamation points and question marks that defines our age.
I take this work to be an act of faith, not optimism . . . an act of conviction, not certainty. I am, with advancing age, more and more willing to put it into God’s hands . . . not that I am willing to be a passive observer of the Holy One’s actions, but that I understand myself, with more and more clarity, to be a speck on a large and constantly surging sea whose tides are well beyond my understanding and ever further beyond my control.
Much has been written about the Family Research Council putting partisanship before faith, but every once in a while, their own words really just speak best for themselves. From Tony Perkins’ August 14 “Washington Update” email:
Rove Leaves White House
On August 31, the Bush administration will say goodbye to a valuable asset, presidential advisor Karl Rove. While much will be written about his influence, we salute him for his loyalty to the White House and for recognizing the importance that social conservatives play in the political process. He will be missed.
As people of faith, should loyalty to the White House — or Congress, or a party, or any political entity for that matter — really be what we look to honor foremost in our leaders?
Two columnists, two candidates, two visions of religion in the 2008 campaign.
In yesterday’s Washington Post, Richard Cohen bemoans the publicity of presidential candidates’ religions and commends Rudy Giuliani for telling reporters that his standing as a “good or not so good catholic” was between him and the priests. The column is called “Giuliani’s JFK Moment” and praises Kennedy’s 1960 campaign declaration that his Catholicism would not dictate his decisions. Cohen marvels that
Kennedy made two other points in that speech that bear repeating. The first was that “far more critical issues” faced the country than a presidential candidate’s religion. The same, of course, is true today. Just for starters, there’s an agonizing war in Iraq that needs to end in a fashion that will not turn a mistake into a debacle — for Iraq, for the region and for the security of Americans here in the United States.
But second, and to my mind just as important, Kennedy’s speech was an affirmation of rational thought — a promise to deal with the great issues of state in a secular manner. Nowhere in the speech did JFK renounce his Catholicism or say it didn’t matter to him. But he did make clear that as president he would make decisions in “accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest.” In other words, he would use his noodle.
Cohen implies that to think rationally and to consult one’s conscience are distinct from and even incompatible with using one’s faith as a moral compass. Personally, I’d like to know if a Catholic candidate accepted the Catholic stance on the war, and if a Southern Baptist accepted that church’s position. If they disagree, I’d like to know how they reconcile dissent and faith. That might be a pretty clear window into a candidate’s conscience and “how he would use his noodle.”
Contrast this with Post columnist Michael Gerson‘s understanding of the role of faith in political decision making (from an August 3 column):
American political leaders have generally not talked about soteriology — how the individual soul is saved. In Christian theology, these choices are fundamentally private, and government attempts to influence them are both doomed and tyrannical. American leaders have also wisely avoided the topic of eschatology — inherently speculative theories about the end or culmination of history.
But religious convictions on the topic of anthropology– the nature and value of men and women — have profoundly and positively influenced American history. Many of the greatest advances toward the protection of minority rights, from the abolition of slavery to the civil rights movement, came in part because people of faith pushed for them. And religious men and women made those efforts because they were convinced that all human beings — not just all believers — are created in God’s image.
The difference between Cohen’s simplistic, ahistoric vision of faith in the political arena and Gerson’s nuanced, historical understanding is obvious and fundamental. Every day I scour the political headlines while putting together Faith In Public Life’s daily news (click here to subscribe!), and from what I see, it’s clear that Gerson’s view is gaining traction as Cohen’s fades into the pages of history.
You know, that Karl Rove resigned yesterday to spend more time with his family…of course. Not because of continuing controversies around Valerie Plame, the dismissed US attorneys, the plummeting esteem of the administration, and so on, but because after 35 years working for Mr. Bush, he realized he had neglected his family and it was time to come home. Oh, and that he had to make up his mind by Labor Day. For resigning members of the Bush administration, family is like the “dog ate my homework” excuse.
Matthew Yglesias notes the Atlantic Monthly‘s, Joshua Green shows off his long-form skillz on how Rove wasn’t that smart after all, just willing to wangle the religious more than most in his party.
The “guns, God, and gays” campaigns that defined Texas politics and the politics of the South became the model for Republican Party campaigns across the country. It was Rove who was responsible for the whispering campaign that characterized Democratic Gov. Ann Richards, Bush’s opponent in the 1994 governor’s race, as a closet lesbian, in a successful attempt to peel away conservative Christian votes in East Texas.
Perhaps the most recent example of a successful social-issues campaign was in Ohio during the 2004 election, which provided critical electoral votes to secure George Bush’s second term. With Bush in peril of losing to John Kerry, the Republican National Committee looked to David Barton to go into Ohio and turn out the base. Barton is a former vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party and one of the founders of the WallBuilders, a Christian advocacy group working to restore God to His central position in American history, and in the history and social studies curricula of the nation’s public schools.