Evangelical Christians Confront Climate Change : Rough Translation What if more evangelical Christians in the United States fought climate change with the same spirit they bring to the issue of abortion? We go back to a surprisingly recent period when that happened.

The Loneliness Of The Climate Change Christian

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/923715751/1197847267" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


You're listening to ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner. Here at the show, like maybe many of you, we have been watching the confirmation hearings of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. And one of the big issues being talked about is whether Judge Barrett's religious beliefs as a conservative Catholic would influence the decisions she might make as a justice. Is it possible to square one's faith with one's duties in public life?

Well, in this week's episode, we are going to speak with some evangelical Christians who are trying to do just that. We are going to look at how religion has influenced American politics and maybe the far less-known tale of how conservative politics has influenced religious teachings. Our episode begins not very long ago, but before coronavirus, before we were all wearing masks, high on a mountaintop.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Here we are above Logan Pass on the Hidden Lake Trail...

WARNER: Rachel Lamb's family liked to film home movies.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Still under snow cover.

WARNER: Here they are at a park in Montana.



WARNER: For a family video, it's funny how little Rachel's family actually appears.



WARNER: There's Rachel at 15. She's wearing a ponytail and a high school volleyball sweatshirt, but her dad pans the camera right past her. And then he takes these long shots of a snowy glacier, a frozen lake, a mountain goat so close you could pet it.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That's where Rachel was just standing.

WARNER: And Rachel says this reverence for nature was something her dad always instilled.

RACHEL LAMB: My dad emphasized that, like, God - he's a creator, so he created the world and the beauty of it.

WARNER: Her father was the pastor of their evangelical church, and he would talk in his sermons about loving God's creation. Psalm 24:1 - the Earth is the Lord's and everything in it. But were anyone to make the mistake of calling her father an environmentalist, he would say no.

LAMB: Oh, well, Democrats care about that. And I, as a Christian - I should be wary or skeptical about liberal issues. I didn't even know you could study the environment until I was a senior in high school, and I decided to take this, like, intro to environmental science class.


LAMB: I was like, you know, I've inherited a skepticism about this. So I took it, and I was like, oh, wow. It was, like, a very intense reaction. I remember feeling really, like, convicted, like, the spirit convicted me. Like, as a Christian, I had to take this seriously, and I had to do something about it.

WARNER: Rachel started caring for environmental causes not despite her Christian faith but because of it.

LAMB: It's biblical and so connected fundamentally to what it means to be a Christian. Why is it that all of these Christians that I knew didn't see it that way?

WARNER: Why was that? It turns out that Rachel was not the only one asking this question and not the only one trying to weave together Christianity and conservation. That same year - 2008 - that Rachel was taking that high school class, two men were sitting on a couch. Actually, the couch was on the beach.


PAT ROBERTSON: Al, let's face it. We're polar opposites.

AL SHARPTON: We couldn't be further apart.

WARNER: In this TV spot, you see Reverend Al Sharpton, left-wing activist from New York City, sitting next to right-wing evangelist Pat Robertson, talking about the one issue they both support.


SHARPTON: Tell them what it is, Reverend Pat.

ROBERTSON: That would be our planet. Taking care of it is extremely important.

SHARPTON: We all need to work together, liberals and conservatives.

ROBERTSON: So get involved.

WARNER: This was a time when a lot of evangelicals were saying that fighting climate change was the Christian thing to do. Today Pat Robertson sounds very different.


ROBERTSON: It's getting warmer, you know, in Jupiter...

WARNER: The whole world sounds different.

ROBERTSON: And they don't have any SUVs driving around in Jupiter.

WARNER: And it's not just around climate change - all kinds of science.


ROBERTSON: Instead of just cowering in our cars and in our social distancing, I think it's time that we stand up and speak the word of God and command that thing to leave us.

WARNER: This is ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. Our series School Of Scandal looks at people breaking unspoken codes of conduct to try to change the status quo. And the status quo being challenged in this story is that God and science don't mix, that to be evangelical is to distrust climate science, or honestly any science, from evolution to epidemiology and coronavirus and whether we should all wear masks. And the scandal in this story - it centers around one evangelical Christian's second conversion...

RICHARD CIZIK: It was a conversion to the science.

WARNER: ...And what happened when he tried to spread that gospel.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Environmentalism has become a radical movement, and it is deadly to the gospel of Jesus Christ.


WARNER: That story when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.


WARNER: Who's this?

CIZIK: That's me.

WARNER: That's you, right?

CIZIK: Yeah. That's Richard Cizik at about 12 years of age.

WARNER: Richard Cizik always dreamed of being a diplomat, brokering agreements and alliances abroad for the United States.

CIZIK: I have old passports...

WARNER: Instead, for most of his life...

CIZIK: ...Little mementos...

WARNER: ...He worked on Capitol Hill as what he calls a diplomat for God. He represented the largest network of evangelical Christians - the National Association of Evangelicals, the NAE. And we should just add that, while the NAE represents a wide swathe of evangelical Christians, when we use the term evangelicals in this episode, we're going to mean white evangelicals, whose politics and dynamics are very different from the Black evangelical church.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: They've spotted Senator Hillary Clinton...

WARNER: Cizik describes his job as being a lobbyist for 30 million evangelicals.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Well, I have followed what you have done.

CIZIK: Thank you.

WARNER: He's got floppy, blond hair, blue eyes, an elastic sort of face.


CIZIK: We're counting on you to...

WARNER: Growing up on the family farm, his mom was a Kennedy Democrat. And his dad was a Nixon Republican.

CIZIK: And so I was always the bridge-builder, the diplomat.

WARNER: In college, he protested against the Vietnam War, but he also signed up for ROTC.

CIZIK: And when I marched on Saturdays, my anti-war friends threw eggs at us.

WARNER: Cizik enjoyed being the kind of person who could move between worlds, listen to both sides. But he also felt confused about what he believed in.

CIZIK: And so I came home from my third year of college to work for college tuition, and I was invited by a friend to a Baptist church. And I heard an altar call; didn't know at the time even what an altar call was.

WARNER: And, actually, what is an altar call?

CIZIK: Where the preacher, the evangelist or the pastor says, receive Jesus Christ as your personal savior. And if you don't, you're turning away God. You're saying no to the creator.


WARNER: In 1972, when Cizik became an evangelical, that did not mean subscribing to one political party - voting Republican. That would happen by the end of the decade.


UNIDENIFIED PERSON #5: On behalf of more than 30 million evangelical Christians in America, we welcome you, Governor Ronald Reagan.

WARNER: That's when Cizik gets a job at the National Association of Evangelicals.

CIZIK: It was clear that evangelicals were a force to be reckoned with - you know, opposing gay rights, opposing abortion.

WARNER: But he wants to do more than the family values stuff. He imagines an even bigger role for Christians in politics.

CIZIK: I wrote a letter to the White House suggesting to the president, newly elected Ronald Reagan, that he ought to give a major speech on the morality of the Soviet Union and nuclear arms. And speechwriters at the White House - they called me up and they said, we like this. Come meet with us.


UNIDENIFIED PERSON #6: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States, Ronald Reagan.

WARNER: This speech that Reagan gave to Cizik's group in March of 1983...


RONALD REAGAN: Thank you very much.

WARNER: ...Would become one of his most famous.


REAGAN: Those of you in the National Association of Evangelicals...

WARNER: He's not just going to talk about the issues that Christians are known to care about.


REAGAN: ...Teenage sex, pornography, abortion and hard drugs.

WARNER: He's going to talk about the Cold War.


REAGAN: America has kept alight the torch of freedom.

WARNER: Two words made this speech so famous.


REAGAN: ...Of an evil empire...

WARNER: He calls the Soviets an evil empire.


REAGAN: ...The focus of evil in the modern world.

WARNER: Reagan took something that had not been a Christian issue and made it one.

CIZIK: Reagan was challenging the evangelicals not to sit on the sidelines.

WARNER: Were you pleased?

CIZIK: Oh, of course. I mean, this was like a coup on my part.

WARNER: He was the guy who invited Reagan to speak.

CIZIK: My cred - my street cred with this conservative group that I'd come to work for was established.

WARNER: Eventually, Cizik became vice president for government affairs at the NAE. And as evangelicals started getting more political power, this funny thing happened where non-Christians would approach Cizik just to get his support on some piece of legislation. And Cizik was open.

CIZIK: We'll join with the ACLU - the dreaded ACLU - to pass the Prison Rape Reform Act.

WARNER: He felt like speaking out on other issues - that would actually give evangelicals more clout.

CIZIK: We'll join with feminists to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

WARNER: And then Cizik gets an invitation that he has to think hard about. The invitation is to Oxford, England, for a big conference on global warming.

So you're at your desk. You get this invitation. You automatically - you're sure you want to take it. Is there any doubts?

CIZIK: No, no, no. I, again, have to calculate, and I ask the chair of the board at the time. And she says, you shouldn't go.

WARNER: Because why?

CIZIK: One - skepticism about mainstream science. You know, there is this syllogism. Scientists believe in climate change. Scientists believe in evolution, so we don't believe the scientists.

WARNER: Right. So you can do prison reform. You can talk about nuclear arms. You can certainly talk about poverty.

CIZIK: Yeah.

WARNER: But climate change...


WARNER: And there was another problem - one sticky word in the Bible.


UNIDENIFIED PERSON #7: And God said, let us make man in our image after our likeness and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea...

WARNER: Dominion over the Earth - it's right there in the scripture. Mankind can do with the planet as he sees fit.


UNIDENIFIED PERSON #7: ...And over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the Earth.

WARNER: The way a lot of Christians understood dominion is that people are the reason for creation. The only thing that matters to God is that people's souls are saved, so it's irrelevant how many animals go extinct. And according to that interpretation, Cizik had no business at a global warming conference. But some Christian thinkers had been chipping away at this interpretation of the word. They'd gone back to the original Hebrew and argued that dominion was more like stewardship, like a parent taking care of their child. And this was part of a whole eco-theology that became known as creation care, saying that environmental science and Christian values actually had a lot in common.

Advocates of this idea would send out packets to pastors with ideas for eco-sermons and Bible verses like Revelation 11:18 - the time has come to destroy those who destroy the Earth - which brings us back to that invitation that fell on Cizik's desk in 2002. It came from a fellow evangelical, who is also a climate scientist.


SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: The two things belong together. You can't divorce science from the creator who made it all.

WARNER: Sir John Houghton organized the Oxford conference. And as he later told PBS, he'd zeroed in on Cizik, God's diplomat.


JOHN HOUGHTON: And if he, with the influential position he had, could do something about it, I was just hoping he would.

WARNER: Cizik had asked the chair of the NAE about this Oxford conference, and she warned him...

CIZIK: You shouldn't go. And I said, well, I'm inclined to go. And she said, well, if you are, then Richard, just don't sign any statements or champion any causes. Just go and learn. I said, don't worry.


WARNER: Cizik flies to Oxford.

CIZIK: Oh, yes. It was four days in a large auditorium - scientific evidence, the counter-arguments and what they are...

WARNER: So listening to these PowerPoints by these famous scientists, you're sort of thinking what?

CIZIK: That something had happened that had never happened to me in my life. I came away from that event convinced that God had done something there.


WARNER: Cizik even remembers the exact moment that he heard God's call. It was toward the end of the conference. Sir John the evangelical scientist invited him to take a walk outside, just the two of them.

CIZIK: I look on that walk in the garden, so to speak, as probably as significant a change in my life as my first change.

WARNER: His first conversion was when he heard that altar call in the Baptist church. This - it was like a second calling.

CIZIK: It was a conversion to the science.

WARNER: Well, what's the difference - help me understand. What's the difference between just going and having your mind changed - you know, hearing some convincing science and being persuaded - to actually having a conversion?

CIZIK: Well, in a certain sense, you don't have a genuine conversion without repentance. My conversion was a repentance for all the disbelief and wrong-headed attitudes I had. It's a repentance that says, I have disobeyed God's very commands about what I am to do and be. And we have to repent of the way we think. We have to repent of the way we care or don't care. And we have to repent of what we haven't done.

WARNER: Cizik and his wife Virginia come back from Oxford. They sell the RV and buy a Prius. And then Cizik makes it his mission to convert other Christians to the cause. Now, evangelicalism is not like the Catholic Church. There is no pope or Vatican issuing decrees, telling people what to believe. But there are evangelicals who are louder than others.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Now, here is Jerry Falwell.

JERRY FALWELL: This is the day Christians have longed and prayed for for a very, very long time.

CIZIK: Jerry Falwell, televangelist, had his own evangelical political movement he called the Moral Majority.


FALWELL: There is a Moral Majority out there...

CIZIK: And he believed not in global warming but in the apocalypse.


FALWELL: The environmentalists will really be shook up then because God is going to blow it all away and bring down new heavens and new Earth.

WARNER: And Falwell and his ideas were hugely popular.

CIZIK: Most of the constituency that I was representing thoroughly endorsed Falwell's views. Many of the board members endorsed Falwell's views. I said to myself, well, I'm going to have to really walk this plank in a very careful way.

WARNER: Over the next few years, Cizik proceeds carefully. First, he goes quiet; doesn't say anything about environmentalism. Then he attends another conference on global warming, talks a lot to John Kerry, signs a statement, rescinds his signature. And all this time, like any good diplomat, he is acquiring allies and arranging discreet gatherings between creation care evangelicals and environmental scientists. They are invite-only.

JAMES GUS SPETH: Nobody ever told me that it was secret or that I should not talk about it.

WARNER: James Gus Speth co-founded some of the country's most important environmental groups. He was also a dean at Yale.

SPETH: Well, I hope you'll just call me Gus.

WARNER: Gus had grown up with Southern Baptists. He thought he wanted nothing to do with their view of the world, but now he was spending two days with a bunch of reverends, going on walks past the magnolia trees and the Spanish moss of Georgia and talking - a lot of talking.

SPETH: This collection of people coalesced. That was an epiphany for me. We're all saying the same things from very different backgrounds.

WARNER: The scientists and the reverends decide that they want to tell the world about their mutual understanding, so they all get around a big conference table. And the very first sentence that the evangelicals propose is this one. We search for common ground in the protection of the creation.

SPETH: One word was perhaps a bit challenging, and that was the word creation.

WARNER: So your concern was creation would suggest that the world has a creator.

SPETH: Of some type - you know, then there's this whole creationism out there.

WARNER: And if the word dominion had been the big hurdle for evangelicals, now there was a new problem - getting the environmentalists to accept a little God in the room. For Gus, he was not at all sure that he was going to be able to sign this thing.

SPETH: Well, I guess I paused for a period to think about it.

WARNER: In that pause, he thought of the many millions of voters who call themselves evangelical.

SPETH: There are a lot of evangelicals out there, and they're very effective politically.

WARNER: Gus thought about the sway that American churches had on lawmakers - lawmakers who were, at the time, seriously debating some of the policies that Gus had been fighting for.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Senator John McCain and Joe Lieberman unveiled their plan to require...

JOHN MCCAIN: We've got to start reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Thank you. Up next, a Republican perspective from a GOP senator who wants significant action on climate change.

WARNER: It seemed like this word, creation - it might be a kind of open sesame.

SPETH: Yeah, it's useful.

WARNER: And so Gus overcame his concerns.

SPETH: I got over it and, you know, took a broader view of the creation and was happy with the statement - very happy.


TERRY GROSS: Richard Cizik, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why have you taken on global warming as an issue?

CIZIK: Thank you, Terry. It's a delight to be with you.

WARNER: Cizik himself goes public as a spokesperson for creation care.


CIZIK: God makes a claim on them for it right in the scriptures.

WARNER: And he was convincing well-known pastors to take on the cause of climate change in a public way.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: It is the poor and the needy...

WARNER: They're talking about extreme weather patterns that disproportionately affect the poor...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: ...Tornadoes in the midwest and what appears to be a rise in the number of wildfires in the West.

WARNER: ...And calling out Christians to do something about it.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: I think of the words of Jesus when he said, love your neighbor as yourself.

SPETH: These folks were preachers.

WARNER: Gus Speth had a kind of conversion of his own. He thought about all the ways he talked about the environment over the decades.

SPETH: Biodiversity loss and pollution and climate change...

WARNER: And he realized these evangelicals were more persuasive.

SPETH: The main threats to the environment - they are selfishness and greed and pride. And for that, we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: So if we love our neighbor and we cherish God's creation, maybe we should ask, what would Jesus drive?

WARNER: Maybe the most surprising thing about listening to the speeches during this period was not that some evangelicals started sounding like environmentalists but that some environmentalists started sounding like preachers.


AL GORE: I don't proselytize my own beliefs, but I...

WARNER: You could even hear Al Gore adopting the language of creation care.


GORE: I believe that the purpose of life is to glorify God, and you cannot do it while heaping contempt on God's creation. And I think that the joining of this debate by the evangelical and faith communities...

WARNER: If you paused at this moment in history, it could really seem like Christians would be ready to not only sign on to the environmental movement but even take the lead. So what happened? When ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.


WARNER: We're back with NPR's ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. We're going to go to the moment that everything turns for Richard Cizik in 2006. This is four years after his conversion to the science of climate change.


CIZIK: If the nation's 300,000 houses of worship...

WARNER: Cizik the Christian lobbyist was becoming a media darling - this remarkable specimen, the mainstream evangelical speaking out about climate change.


CIZIK: ...Of taking a million cars off the road.

WARNER: Richard, I want to ask you. They were very interested in showing that there was another side to evangelicals.

CIZIK: Sure. Of course.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: For Reverend Cizik, it was the last night in Shishmaref that hit him most. At 2 in the morning, the group scrambled out of their sleeping bags to watch two of nature's great wonders...

CIZIK: Where I am, looking into the heavens...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: ...A lunar eclipse.

CIZIK: And I've got with me arguably the top scientists in America helping me understand it. What better metaphor for what we need to do together as Americans?


CIZIK: Together.

WARNER: One charity actually paid for him to do a tour of colleges across the country, talking to young evangelicals - people like Rachel Lamb, the pastor's daughter who discovered environmentalism in high school. And Cizik felt like he could be a role model not only to those young Christians, but even to the secular world.

CIZIK: These evangelicals are not what you think they are.

WARNER: And that's when Cizik gets a call from the editors at Vanity Fair inviting him to be in their green issue of environmental influencers. He'll appear right after Daryl Hannah and before Bette Midler.

CIZIK: I go up to this brownstone with my suit on - pinstripe suit. You know, I'm ready for a photoshoot. And I go into the room, and I'm just shocked. There's this whole room that's filled with water. And the photographer's all set up, and I'm saying to myself and to him, wow. What's this about? And he says, now get that Armani suit on. I do that, and he says, now just roll up the pants more. And he explains to me that I have to walk on these clear bricks so that it looks like I'm walking on water.

WARNER: In the background are sculptures of dead tree trunks rising out of the smoky haze. Perched on one trunk is a great horned owl.

CIZIK: Actually, the owl was real.

WARNER: That's a real owl.

CIZIK: That's a real owl. And, you know, I'm saying, oh, my gosh. What is this?


WARNER: But did you feel, at any point during that photoshoot, that, maybe walking on water may be a bad idea for my image?

CIZIK: The thought occurred to me.


WARNER: But did you do anything with that thought?

CIZIK: Yeah. I walked in. I looked down, and I said, oh, no. I've already come here all this way. They've set this whole getup.

WARNER: So you didn't want to disappoint them.


CIZIK: On the one hand, I was concerned about the risk to me. If you were over 50, you would say, that is terrible. That is so disrespectful.

WARNER: But the young evangelicals he'd met on his college tour - they would see this as cool and irreverent in a reverendy (ph) sort of way.

CIZIK: If you're a millennial or the like, you say, that's a hoot.

WARNER: When that issue of Vanity Fair comes out in the stands, Cizik's wife tells him.

CIZIK: She said, I showed up at church.

WARNER: They're all talking about him in church.

CIZIK: And everybody's saying, Virginia, where has Richard gone off the deep end?

WARNER: They're saying, didn't you hear what James Dobson is saying about Richard on Christian radio?


JAMES DOBSON: We believe that Richard Cizik and his colleagues are dividing evangelicals and setting them at odds with each other.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: And, you know, I'd have to say...

WARNER: The following year, Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe takes the stage at a Conservative Political Action Conference - CPAC. It's the signature gathering of conservative activists and politicians. And Inhofe is warning the crowd about the new enemies of the Republican Party.


JIM INHOFE: Al Gore is one thing. There's another character that you don't know about. You only know about Al Gore. You don't know about the next one his name is - and I want you to meet Richard Cizik, the man...

WARNER: At the time, Senator Inhofe was the senior Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee. And he's holding up a copy of Vanity Fair - that magazine.


INHOFE: So here's Richard Cizik. This was his portrait on the front of a very liberal magazine.

WARNER: OK, Cizik is not on the front of the magazine. He's on Page 194.


INHOFE: And if you see, he's dressed like Jesus. He is actually walking on water. He's barefooted. But you can see the little ripples if you look down close. Now, I have to say this. It was a brilliant idea. Divide and conquer is something - a technique that can be used and used very effectively.

WARNER: The way that the senator from Oklahoma puts it - Cizik and his allies were not just trying to expand the evangelical tent to include a broader set of issues. They were trying to break up the marriage between Christians and the Republican Party.


INHOFE: If they can somehow drag the evangelicals away from their pro-life stance, of all their conservative agenda, their core values, then they win. And we lose.


WARNER: It's like you're either pro-life or pro-environment. You can't be both. The very same day as that senator's speech, 25 leaders of the Christian right published an open letter demanding that Cizik be sacked. Cizik's advocacy around climate change is, quote, "contributing to a growing confusion about the very term evangelical." Evangelical, the letter says, should mean being conservative in politics, in economics and in biblical morality.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: Make no mistake about it. Environmentalism is no longer your friend. It is your enemy. In the battle...

WARNER: This is the moment when you see the other side, the anti-climate change side, starting to hold their own strategy sessions and hone the message that Rachel Lamb and millions of other Christians will later absorb. You cannot be a Christian and also believe in climate change. Those two identities are at odds.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: And the battle is not primarily political or material. It is spiritual.

WARNER: This is from a documentary called "Resisting The Green Dragon."


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: The "Resisting The Green Dragon" video series will give you the armor you need to rise up, slay the green dragon and promote the true gospel of Jesus Christ.

WARNER: Is it harder to give an Earth Day sermon now than it was even in the '70s?

CIZIK: Probably harder now, yeah.

WARNER: As opposed to before...

CIZIK: It joined the pantheon, abortion and gay rights, as, here's what we're opposed to. And I didn't help that matter. I confess that. In fact, I not only - I helped create it. I was astute enough to know the controversy. It would be a piece of dynamite in the evangelical heartland of sorts.

WARNER: Looking back, Cizik admits that he was trying to expand the evangelical brand. He was the guy who wanted to say you can be pro-life and also pro-environment. As a Christian, you might vote Republican on some issues and Democrat on others.

CIZIK: See; you key in on what was my motivation here.

WARNER: It wasn't just about the planet.

CIZIK: My motivation wasn't solely about climate change. No, no, no. There was something more at stake, which was who we are as evangelicals and where we fit in the American scene politically.


WARNER: The odd thing as an outsider hearing this part of the story is realizing that the way we usually talk about this topic is backwards. What we're told is that evangelical voters are anti-environmentalist because it conflicts with how they understand the Bible. What seems closer to the truth is that if you wanted to choose one idea that was so compelling it could blur the usual lines of tribe and party, it was this idea of caring for God's Earth.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: The book of Genesis says in the beginning...

WARNER: And the amazing thing is that Cizik's gambit worked.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: ...Says Richard Cizik...

WARNER: The NAE, with all its conservative board members - they voted to support him. They told Cizik to go ahead and keep speaking out.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #19: We support the administration on some issues and not on others.

WARNER: And this was such big news in the evangelical world. It even made "The Colbert Report."


STEPHEN COLBERT: The NAE's governing board voted to reaffirm Cizik's pro-environmental, pro-human rights, anti-poverty policies.

WARNER: 2008, he made Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People" of the year. But the more attention he got, the more stress his family felt. People at church stopped talking to them. One night, a rock was thrown through their front window. And then he and Virginia finally separated. And that December, just before flying out to an environmental conference in Paris, Cizik sat down for a radio interview.


GROSS: Richard Cizik, welcome back to Fresh Air. I don't mean...

WARNER: President Obama's been elected but not yet sworn in.


GROSS: In interviews before the election, it sounded like you might be tilting toward Obama. So I'm going to ask you who you voted for, knowing that it's your right to not tell us. (Laughter) So...

CIZIK: I said, whoa, that's your first question? You got to give me a second to think about how to answer that. She said, OK, how much time do you need?

WARNER: Up until this point, Richard Cizik, like King David from the Bible, has outlasted everything that his opponents have thrown at him. They called on him to be sacked. He wasn't sacked. He dipped his toes in controversy, actually his whole foot, and on camera. And now Terry Gross is asking him, which side are you on?


CIZIK: Terry, let me answer it this way. In the Virginia primary, I voted for Barack Obama.

WARNER: The Virginia primary is open to voters of any party.


CIZIK: Other words...

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

CIZIK: ...I would rather not say in the election general, just...

WARNER: Later in the interview, Cizik spoke out in favor of gay civil unions. This was years before gay marriage. Days after that interview aired, Cizik was fired from the job he'd held for 28 years.

CIZIK: Yeah. I was not necessarily prudent. Prudence is a Catholic term, but I like it.

WARNER: When I asked Cizik why he answered that question the way he did, he said he was just trying to seem open-minded, something more than the evangelical stereotype. When I asked his wife Virginia, she has a different theory. She says the stress had gotten so much that he maybe wanted a way out.

And the question I kept thinking about while reporting this story is what would have happened if Cizik had been more prudent, if he hadn't embraced those other liberal positions, if he'd stuck to climate change, and he'd spent the last decade advocating for that issue as an evangelical leader at the NAE, with its tens of millions of members? Would the Republican Party be in a different place on climate change? Would it be harder for President Trump to be a climate change skeptic?

CIZIK: Those people who had invested a certain amount in me were very disappointed in me because they felt like you were in a position to make changes long-term that you sacrificed because of that comment.

WARNER: Which brings us back to the story of Rachel Lamb. It's been 10 years since that high school class where she felt called as a Christian to care for the planet.

LAMB: Yeah.

WARNER: She's now getting her Ph.D., thinking about ways to lessen the impacts of climate change.

LAMB: Trying to find the most strategic places to plant more trees.

WARNER: And she helped start a group called Young Evangelicals for Climate Action.


WARNER: She gives speeches to church groups and Christian colleges.


LAMB: Good evening. Whenever we talk about climate change, my expectation is we're coming at it from lots of different perspectives.

There's a lot of middle ground out there with people who we tend to write off. And that's because we've never taken the time to actually talk with them and understand what they care about and how they think. And you might find that there are ways to connect with people.

WARNER: As Rachel sees it, the legacy of Richard Cizik and his generation of advocates, it's mixed. On the one hand, it's harder to talk to Christians today about the scientific arguments behind climate change. On the other, many more Christians do accept the idea of creation care, that people should protect the Earth. In fact, a recent poll found that evangelicals, more than any other Christians, feel that God expects people to be good stewards of nature.

And so Rachel's approach is to start conversations about the planet with discussions of the Bible. And she never used the label environmentalist, even to describe herself. That almost never converts people to the cause.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Thou font of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace. Streams of mercy...

WARNER: Today's episode first aired in July of 2019. It was produced by Jess Jiang. Our editor was Marianne McCune And our ROUGH TRANSLATION team includes Derek Arthur, Tina Antolini, Lu Olkowski and Justine Yan. Editorial guidance from Eric Mennel, Hanna Rosin, Soren Wheeler, Sana Krasikov and Robert Krulwich. Thanks also to Virginia Cizik, Jim Ball, Cal DeWitt, David Gushee, Molly Worthen, Katharine Wilkinson and everyone at the Au Sable Institute in Mancelona, Mich. The ROUGH TRANSLATION executive council is Neal Carruth, Chris Turpin, and Anya Grundmann. Nicole Beemsterboer is our supervising producer. Will Chase fact-checked this episode. Research assistance from Greta Pittenger. Mastering by Isaac Rodrigues, with scoring by Marianne McCune and Mike Cruz.

If you'd like more stories like this in your podcast feed, give us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts. And as always, we love to hear your ROUGH TRANSLATION moments at roughtranslation@npr.org or on Twitter @roughly. I'm Gregory Warner. Next time on School Of Scandal...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #20: You don't need a bullet or a bomb. You just need your boobs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #21: Why? Why does that work?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #20: Scandal, like (gasping).

WARNER: That's in two weeks on ROUGH TRANSLATION.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.