The rise of Evangelical environmentalists could reshape US elections

Neither Mitt Romney nor President Obama mentioned climate change in the presidential debates. Yet rising sea levels and rising frustration with the GOP’s failure to protect the environment mean that the evangelical vote is not necessarily a sure thing for Republicans.

Israel Leal/AP/file
An activist dressed as a polar bear holds up a sign at the Moon Palace Hotel during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico, Dec. 9, 2010. Op-ed contributor Anna M. Clark writes: 'The science on climate change is vital and readily available, but we need fresh voices – human faces and stories – to imbue it with spiritual meaning if we want to speak to the core values that inspire people to act.'

Demographics are destiny, some say, and there’s plenty of truth to that. If you live in the South, you’re more likely to be an evangelical Christian than if you live in San Francisco. And if you live in San Francisco, you’re more likely to be an environmentalist (or at least recycling your soda can) than if you live in San Antonio.

More unusual are people who combine the two: Evangelical environmentalists. Rare, but rising in influence, evangelical environmentalists are equally well versed in ecology and theology. They and other proponents of the “creation care” movement may be harbingers of a cultural shift, albeit a slow one.

Numbering as many as 100 million, American Evangelicals have long been a critical constituency within the US electorate. While once the evangelical voter was almost guaranteed to vote Republican, a new poll from Public Religion Research shows that evangelical voter is now as likely to oppose cutting federal programs that help the poor and approve raising taxes on those who make more than $1 million a year.

A recent Pew study found that 57 percent of Evangelicals feel “Government should do more to help needy Americans, even if it means going deeper into debt.”

Rising sea levels and rising frustration with the GOP’s failure to protect the environment also mean that the evangelical vote is no longer necessarily a sure thing for Republicans. According to Pew, the majority of Evangelicals now believe that “stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost.”

Rev. Jim Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network says more than 50,000 pro-life Christians are supporting the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to overcome global warming. “Support for climate action has been quietly growing, despite our economic troubles and the disavowal of climate change by prominent political leaders,” he writes.

Katharine Hayhoe is an evangelical environmentalist who has experienced her share of opposition. A Nobel Prize winning atmospheric scientist who co-authored “A Climate for Change” with her preacher husband Andrew Farley, Ms. Hayhoe found, to her dismay, that Newt Gingrich cut her chapter on climate change from his book without advance notice.

The controversy even spurred threats to her family, although Hayhoe remains undeterred. Such incidents demonstrate the palpable lack of political will toward environmental leadership that evangelical environmentalists struggle to overcome.

Even after this summer's record temperatures on the East Coast have cooled, drought in the Midwest is dissipating, and fires in Colorado have been extinguished, the collective voice of evangelical environmentalists is heating up. But can this voice speak loudly enough to influence arguably the most conservative GOP platform in modern history?

Whether advocating for higher energy efficiency standards, climate change mitigation, or anything in between, the green din of 2008 has dulled to a low hum as the 2012 election roars to its conclusion. Public concern over climate change has declined, even as new studies affirm the existence and severity of the problem.  In spite of campaigns delivering more than 160,000 signatures to PBS’s Jim Leher requesting that he ask about climate change when moderating the first presidential debate this fall, Mr. Lehrer failed to pose any question on the topic to candidates.

Neither was the issue of climate change even mentioned in the second or third debates. While the candidates debated the efficacy of Obama's renewable energy policies, both avoided addressing "climate change" head on. In fact, as Brad Johnson of the group Forecast the Facts wrote after the last debate, "For the first time since 1984, the presidential and vice presidential debates have ignored the threat of climate change.”

Candidates this fall – particularly GOP congressional candidates – may fear being labeled as a bleeding heart liberal or government-loving environmentalist. But that concern is preventing them from taking leadership on environmental issues. The stereotypes associated with these labels suggest that “true blue” Americans are suspicious of sustainability, and "greenies" are cynical about true-blue Americans. In reality, “environmentalist” is a label that we should all embrace. Conservation has always been part of our cultural ethos, and should remain so, especially in a world of limited resources.

Even though it now divides us, green is the glue that can pull us back together.

What will it take to heal the impasse and to weave a common vision for a more sustainable America? Rational argument hardly ever fosters belief. To convince die-hard Evangelicals – or for that matter environmentalists – of anything outside their comfort zone, personal experience trumps proof. In other words, story changes minds more than doctrine does.

Take my story. After 15 years away from church, turned off by what looked like hypocrisy, I didn’t know what the Bible had to say about environmental stewardship until I heard Dr. Matthew Sleeth, a former emergency room physician turned eco-evangelist, tell his story. I didn’t know what Jesus might think about systemic injustice until I read Brian McLaren’s “Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crisis, and a Revolution of Hope.”

I certainly didn’t understand how justice-oriented living looked until I read Richard Stearns’ “The Hole in Our Gospel.” Their messages were compelling and led me to expand my thinking beyond labels.

Few churches are prepared or willing to convert more people of faith into environmentalists. Having spent the past six years immersed in cultural change in corporations as well as congregations, I can vouch that many more out there still don’t know the threats of environmental degradation because they still don’t know why they should care.

The science on climate change is vital and readily available, but we need fresh voices – human faces and stories – to imbue it with spiritual meaning if we want to speak to the core values that inspire people to act. What may seem like a stale conversation could be an awakening for others – and a fresh opportunity to tell a story. 

Anna M. Clark is president of EarthPeople and the author of “Green, American Style: Becoming Earth-Friendly and Reaping the Benefits.” She is also a Public Voices fellow at The Op-Ed ProjectFollow her on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn, her blog, and at her website

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