Earlier this month, a prominent group of conservative religious leaders, lead by Focus on the Family's James Dobson, unsuccessfully urged the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) to rein in its Washington, D.C. spokesman, who's become a Global Warming true believer.
NAE has no formal position on climate change and its causes. But Richard Cizik of NAE's Washington office has made Global Warming a personal crusade. Media attention went to the Dobson critique. But several NAE board members organized their own letter to their colleagues, pointing out that Cizik is making Global Warming the preeminent issue for NAE, in terms of popular perceptions. These board members cited a survey of media mentions, showing that by far, Cizik is quoted on climate issues more than any other, including the family and sanctity of life issues for which NAE does have official positions.
The NAE board reaffirmed its confidence in Cizik while, once again, not taking any specific position on Global Warming. So Cizik will pursue his own agenda, but in the name of the NAE. Meanwhile, the NAE, still reeling from the sexual scandals of its last president, deposed Colorado mega-church pastor Ted Haggard, will continue to drift. Once a robust forum for America's evangelicals -- Ronald Reagan gave his "Evil Empire" speech before the NAE -- the association has lacked strong leadership for over a decade.
NAE's decline is ironic. Evangelicals are now America's largest religious and political demographic. But the vast majority of evangelicals do not look to centralized institutions for guidance. There is no evangelical curia. Even at its height, NAE never had the size or power among evangelicals that the National Council of Churches once had among mainline Protestants.
Curiously, NAE is now following the historical path that led to the NCC's demise. Rather than attempting to represent the consensus opinions of its constituency, the NAE, like the NCC for many decades, is speaking "prophetically" to its people. Rank and file evangelicals remain overwhelmingly conservative on almost every issue. But some evangelical elites, always embarrassed by their association in the public imagination with the Religious Right, are psychologically preoccupied with adopting liberal stances, if only to show their independence.
So unsurprisingly, the NAE board, while unwilling to challenge Cizik, also signed off on a resolution about "torture," by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. The statement could just as easily have come from the National Council of Churches, and was crafted by a special committee dominated by activists and academics from the evangelical left.
But look for Global Warming to remain the main obsession of the evangelical left and of NAE leadership. It is, after all the perfect issue for left-leaning evangelicals to show their concern, while also relying upon the habits of their own sub-culture. Global Warming, as a metaphysical movement, warns of a cataclysmic judgment for "bad" behavior. Evangelicals are accustomed to that kind of preaching. Meanwhile, the liberal evangelicals want more government, higher taxes, and increased regulation of the private economy. They feel guilty about capitalism, and want other evangelicals to share in their guilt. Liberal evangelicals prefer not to talk about sexual sins. Carbon sins are a welcome substitute.
A nice example of the evangelical left perspective on Global Warming comes from Brian McLaren, a leader of the "emerging church" movement and a colleague of Sojourners leader Jim Wallis. Writing earlier this month for Wallis's website, McLaren likened the alarm on climate change to Old Testament heroes Noah and Joseph, who warned of flood and famine.
The Hebrew patriarch Joseph, as premier under the Egyptian Pharaoh, had "issued a warning -- with no real scientific evidence -- of a coming drought," McLaren recounted. The Pharaoh heeded his warning, and Egypt stockpiled food in preparation for the famine.
"I wonder what it might look like for our nation and the nations of the world to take joint ameliorative action regarding greenhouse gases, and to take precautionary action regarding water and food," McLaren wrote. "I wonder what it might be like for people of faith, like Joseph, to take a catalytic role in these efforts."
McLaren noted that "rapid climate change" is likely to "skyrocket" widespread species extinction. "What would it be like for people of faith to follow Noah's example in preserving species wherever possible -- by preserving natural habitat, and in other cases, creating 'arks' to preserve species whose natural habitats are destroyed by flood or drought or melting ice or rising sea levels."
To his credit, McLaren acknowledged that Joseph had no scientific basis for his warning of drought. Like Noah before him, he had had a word from the Lord. In Joseph's case, the people listened. In Noah's case, nobody but his own family did. Will the evangelical left be able to persuade their co-religionists to believe that climate change alarmism is today's "word from the Lord"?
For centuries, evangelicals in America have endured charlatan preachers, apocalyptic warnings, and dubious social reformers. One hundred years ago, William Jennings Bryan was telling evangelicals that Jesus definitely favored nationalizing the railroads. Today, with similar urgency, his successors want evangelicals to hearken to their expansive Global Warming agenda, including its hostility to economic growth and enthusiasm for an enlarged regulatory state.
Somehow, no doubt with divine forbearance, American evangelicals have survived the hysteria of passing causes, by remaining focused on the true Word. They hopefully will do so again.
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