Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Gospel Goes Green

CBC Radio, The Current, 24 March 2008 featured an interview with Rev. Richard Cizik, Vice President for Government Policy with the National Association of Evangelicals, the most powerful religious organization in the United States with over 30 million members. He is encouraging his flock of 30 million to "proselytize in the fight against climate change as well as the battle to save souls."

On a trip last August, he along with other evangelicals and scientists went to Alaska to see the effects of climate change. Asked about the impact of the trip, he said it was "an extraordinary experience for me personally as well as for all evangelicals."

The group saw first hand the impact of climate change, habitat destruction, and species extinction. Stressing the need for cooperation between the religious and scientific communities, Cizik recounted "...all these things that we together believe threaten the planet."

"It's one of the most important conversations that has to occur if we're going to be able to merge the concerns of these two worlds of religion and science on behalf of something that is surely one of the greatest challenges facing the planet - that of climate change."

In Alaska, the group saw melting of glaciers, rising sea levels of Shishmaref and the "great ghost" fir trees destroyed by bark beetles on the Kenai peninsula. Cizik said the impact of climate change is hitting close to home and that seeing it in the US is "critical" for Americans to understand.

It's clear he is passionate about the issue. "People are impacted too! Inupik Indians forced to consider leaving and losing entire way of life... the impacts are human!"

Although the group members didn't shy away from topics of creation and evolution, according to Cizik the debate is not how the earth was created (God is already well aware of that, he quips) but rather, what we do with the earth He created. He cites the Genesis 2:15 mandate to protect and care for the earth. "More import than how it all came to be is what is happening to it NOW."

The enmity between religious and scientific communities is a thing of the past, according to Cizik. "Science helps us to know what creation is telling us about itself - science is our partner in this. Science has been viewed as an enemy of the faith... that view has frankly gone by wayside for most people."

He admits that there is residual impact from the fundamentalist attitude, saying it is why large segments of the American public are skeptical about climate change, and why the GOP congress has been reluctant to act.

"This is new territory for a lot of people", he added.

Having demonstrated a much more forward-looking attitude than the religious right in recent times, it nevertheless surprised many when the Vatican revised its 1500 year-old list of Seven Mortal Sins to include "causing damage to the environment". The revised list :

1.) genetic modification
2.) carrying out experiments on humans
3.) polluting the environment
4.) causing social injustice
5.) causing poverty
6.) becoming obscenely wealthy
7.) taking drugs


Cizik calls it "a reappraisal of theology itself," and says that evangelicals have been slowest to this. Times are changing, however.

"The mainline has been on the sidelines... the irony is the community that has been least equipped has become the go-to religious community in Washington on policy changes with respect to climate change.

Cizik believes the influence of the religious community is the only way that the republicans are going to move in the policy debate. It has, he says, moved George W Bush from barely even recognizing it to saying, in his last State of the Union address "it is here".

Speaking of the beginnings of his own environmentalism, Cizik said he made a turn about face at a conference in Oxford, UK several years ago.

"I thought I was well positioned as a mugwump... don't push me, the science is split; I dont need to make decision, I don't have to engage evangelicals in this."

But the scientific evidence he saw at that conference swayed him.

"Wow... I saw with my own eyes the impacts that climate change is having upon the world. It's like I had a St. Paul's conversion. It was not by looking at the earth per se... I had it looking at the science."

He recalls thinking, "How can this be? That I myself in this case for 18 years a representative of the association here in Washington, that I could decide based on whatever evidence we had that I had no dog in this fight, so to speak? And yet I couldn't have been more wrong!"

"We all have blind spots. We evangelicals have been the blindest of all. It was a conversion for me at Oxford in England that brought me to this place. Well, I turned around and went in another direction. Yes, In some cases we evangelicals need to repent and turn around. I don't apologize for that term. I say, what is it if you turn around and go another direction except a conversion?"

Cizik insists that principles of caring for the earth are taught all the way from Genesis to Revelation, and says the religious community has been misguided by political interests.

"We've participated in an unholy alliance with big business. Those are the two components of the Republican party, the conservative moralists, the evangelicals, fundamentalists... along with big business. We're the two wings of this political party. We're 40 to 50 percent at least if not more. And we've participated in an unholy alliance over the years in which we've gotten very little andthey've gotten a lot. And one of the things they've gotten is a free run over our energy policy and our environmental policy. This is what's got to change."

Cizik is encouraging people not to put politics ahead of faith by "focusing on one or two hot-button issues". He criticizes the religious right for putting their tent in the wrong camp, and says that pro-lifers who say abortion is the main issue need to have a broader agenda. "We see hundreds of millions of lives at stake because of climate change today. I say broaden your understanding of what it means to be pro-life." The younger generation, he says, is keenly aware of these issues that will be among the most important issues they face throughout their lives. Many have been left politically homeless. Cizik sounds as if he may be among them. "I don't know who I would vote for," he admits. But he claims he predicted years ago that no non-green candidate would be elected to the republican party in 2008.

Cizik explains that historically, environmentalism has been associated with democratic blue state politics, leading many Evangelicals to view it with suspicion. Evangelicals who oppose evolution have also therefore opposed science, as a proponent of evolution, and have been skeptical of media. He calls it "a tribal kind of attitude", a "narrow fundamentalism" that is not based on sound principles of faith and wrongly ignores "undeniable realities."

The entire segment can be heard on CBC's web site at http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/2008/200803/20080324.html

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