Evangelicals Face New Division: Global Warming

There's a growing divide among America's evangelical Christians over what to do about global warming. Host Debbie Elliot talks to Richard Cizik policy director for the National Association of Evangelicals, who's right in the middle of the debate.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Former Vice President AL GORE: I believe that the purpose of life is to glorify God and we can't do that if we're heaping contempt on the creation.

ELLIOTT: This voice, of course, wasn't from a church service this morning. It was former Vice President Al Gore preaching to Congress this past week about the dangers of global warming. It's a hot topic among the nation's evangelical Christians. At the middle of the debate is Richard Cizik, a Washington-based policy director at the National Association of Evangelicals. That group represents some 30 million Americans. Richard Cizik says the environment should be just as important to Christians as gay marriage or abortion.

Mr. RICHARD CIZIK (Policy Director, National Association of Evangelicals): Supposing we allow coal-burning utility plants to emit mercury into our air that's then absorbed by fishes and taken in by women, pregnant, who then transmit that - let's call it that toxin - to their unborn babies. Isn't that a sanctity-of-human-life issue? Absolutely.

Evangelicals know this, and thus we have to be speaking out about the impacts of our environmental degradation as much as we need to be speaking out about the degradation of the taking of human unborn life. They're both important.

ELLIOTT: But prominent conservative Christian leaders have argued that Richard Cizik's environmental activism has diverted attention from issues that should be the core agenda for evangelicals. And in another unconventional move, the board of the National Association of Evangelicals voted by an overwhelming margin this month to denounce the U.S. government's treatment of terrorism suspects in detention.

Mr. CIZIK: I'm just simply saying, as are the leaders of the NAE, we need to rethink this. Is - in the war against terror, which we support, I support, does anything go? Is it by any means necessary? I don't think so.

ELLIOTT: Has there been any reaction from the Bush administration to your organization's position on torture?

Mr. CIZIK: Not officially.

ELLIOTT: What about unofficial reaction?

Mr. CIZIK: We've had people within the administration call us to say, amen, right on. We've been waiting for you evangelicals to come in, weigh in on this issue. Why? Because evangelicals are the center of the religious life of America today. We weren't that 60 years ago, when the association was formed. We are today.

We have long since engaged on a political level, and we're going to engage on these issues, as well, whether they be delimiting torture by our own government, as well as the allowance that we give big oil, gas and utility companies, the allowance we give them, you see, to pollute our environment. How are we going to put some delimiters as evangelicals on both the right and the left? And that will impact absolutely the 2008 election no less than it impacted the 2006 election.

ELLIOTT: Now we don't expect to hear an endorsement from you at this period. So...

Mr. CIZIK: Do we have a candidate?

ELLIOTT: Yeah, well, that's what I'm wondering. Is anybody in particular in this presidential field that's so early out starting to speak to evangelicals?

Mr. CIZIK: What's very interesting is that a lot of evangelicals are saying, isn't this fascinating? Some of the candidates on the political left, or at least the Democrats, are talking more about faith than are the candidates on the right. Now, isn't that a turn of events?

But I answer to all of them who want me to say this, that and the other about candidates: look, I'm interested in what all of them have to say, from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama, John McCain and Mitt Romney, which means it may be a wide open field, and that's probably good.

I think evangelicals shouldn't be the wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party. Let's face it: Access does not translate as influence. You can have all the access you want to Republicans, but if it doesn't translate into policy changes - and for many evangelicals, the past eight years have not - then what's the point?

In other words, I don't want Republicans to take advantage of evangelicals. I'm going to hold Republicans accountable, for example, on climate change. So are our people all around the country raising those questions to Republicans in the same way that our people will hold the Democratic candidates accountable on issues of the sanctity of human life, abortion and protection of the traditional family? Absolutely. Both sides will be held accountable, and no one's going to get a free pass any more.

ELLIOTT: Richard Cizik is the vice president for government affairs at the National Association for Evangelicals. Thank you for being with us.

Mr. CIZIK: Thank you, Debbie.

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