Leith Anderson remembers well his "aha" moment on global warming. It was three years ago, when the pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minn., treated his wife to a long vacation.
Leaders of the Evangelical Christian movement offer a moral argument for acting to curb climate change.
"My wife and I took an excursion to Antarctica, and for a period of a few weeks, we heard some of the things that were related to global warming as we visited sites," he recalls. "And it impressed me once more that God's gift of our earth is something we need to be effective stewards of."
And as an evangelical Christian, Anderson says, he believes global warming is also a social justice issue, because, he says, it is the poor who feel the brunt of famine or flooding that may come from climate changes.
"Climate changes in terms of famine, in terms of the inability to grow crops, in terms of the flooding of islands, most affects the poor," he says. "So we here in America probably can do many things to exempt ourselves from the immediate consequences, but the front edge of disaster is most going to affect those who have the least."
Anderson, who leads a mega-church of 5,000 worshippers, is one of 86 evangelical leaders who are challenging the Bush administration on global warming. Their "Evangelical Call to Action" argues that there's no real scientific debate about the dangers of climate change — an assertion that many balk at. The group is calling on the government to act urgently, by, among other things, passing a federal law to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Some of the signatories have star power, at least in evangelical circles. Among them are Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church and author of the blockbuster book, The Purpose Driven Life; Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton College' David Neff, editor of Christianity Today; and Todd Bassett, national commander of the Salvation Army.
But the names of other evangelical heavyweights are conspicuously absent.
"I don't see James Dobson. Is there a more influential evangelican than James Dobson?" observes Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "I don't see Chuck Coleson. I don't see Franklin Graham. So these are obviously prominent evangelicans and I — please don't in any way think that I am denigrating anyone who's on this list — but it is not an exhaustive list of evangelical leaders, let's put it that way."
Land, along with Colson and Dobson, wrote a letter opposing the Evangelical Call to Action because, he says, there is not consensus about climate change among evangelicals. Land says the Bible makes clear that God expects human beings to take care of the earth. But "human beings come first in God's created order," he adds. "And that primacy must be given to human beings and for human betterment. If that means that other parts of nature take a back seat, well, then they take a back seat,
Land argues that slowing economic growth and development by overly strict environmental controls will harm human beings.
What this call to action shows is that Christian conservatives are anything but a monolith, says Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals. While issues like abortion and gay marriage may be central for some leaders, others are homing in on AIDS in Africa and poverty. And Cizik says, the 86 evangelical signatories are breaking another stereotype.
"Many view the (evangelical) movement as being the religious right, or lockstep supporters of the Bush administration," Cizik says. "It's not true. We support the administration on some issues and not others. On this issue I think you're beginning to see a variance with what we call business as usual at the White House."
Cizik, whose organization did not sign the letter, says the Bush administration is wearing blinkers about the dangers of climate change, and it's time that evangelicals use their considerable influence.
"When evangelicals speak, Republicans tend to listen, and frankly it's Republicans who need to get the message," says Cizik.
Of course, the White House's favorite evangelicals oppose the letter; and it's not at all clear that the White House will heed this call to action.
A national study of 1,000 born-again or Evangelical Protestant Christians shows a high level of concern over the environment, according to this news release.