Filtering by Category: Creation Care

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Northland Film Builds Bridge Between Evangelicals and Environmentalists

SOURCE: Jeff Kunerth, Orlando Sentinel It's not easy turning an evangelical into an environmentalist.

But a new documentary from Northland, A Church Distributed aims to do just that by focusing on Scripture instead of science, faith instead of logic.

In "Our Father's World," Northland pastor Joel Hunter makes the argument to conservative Christians that saving energy, recycling waste and reducing your carbon footprint are all based on Scripture.

"The Bible provides a direct mandate to be caretakers of the garden," Hunter says in the documentary. "While creation still belongs to God, he has graciously entrusted it to our care and stewardship."

But the film also points out that evangelical Christians have abdicated the care of God's creation to the New Age and secular environmentalists. To become an evangelical environmentalist is to be associated with the tree-huggers, pagan nature worshippers and liberals.

"What has happened is the environmental movement has been generally championed by the liberal wing of the church, which appeals to logic and science," said Tony Campolo, a Pennsylvanian pastor who appears in the Northland film. "They make their case brilliantly, but they don't understand that evangelicals will not take seriously any case that is not based on the Bible."

In advocating for Bible-based environmentalism, Hunter gets pushback from both sides.

"We get shut out of the conversation with scientists because of our faith, but we also get a lot of flak from the fearful people in the religious community who think environmentalism is something pagan," Hunter said. "This is right where we want to be. If you aren't getting it from both sides, there's no need for a bridge."

Building a bridge of common ground between the faith and secular communities is starting to work, said the Rev. Andy Bell, executive director of Sunshine State Interfaith Power and Light, a St. Petersburg faith-based environmental group created in 2010.

"The secular environmentalists say, 'Welcome, we've been waiting for you guys,' '' said Bell, a United Methodist minister whose group includes Northland and 14 other Central Florida religious organizations.

It's a natural alliance because most people who care about saving the earth are spiritual, if not religious, said Frank Jackalone, senior organizing manager for the Sierra Club in St. Petersburg. The love of nature and the determination to prevent its destruction speak to the soul of mankind, he said.

"Most environmentalists see the protection of the planet as a spiritual expression no matter what their faith," Jackalone said.

What the evangelicals bring to the movement is more than just a spiritual love of nature, said Sister Patricia Siemen, a nun and environmental activist. It's a moral and ethical argument that comes with a religious conviction.

"Evangelical Christians bring a lot of passion and moral force to climate change," said Siemen, director of the Center for Earth Jurisprudence at Barry University School of Law in Orlando. "I think their leadership is very important. I hope they can go shoulder to shoulder with other environmentalists, whether spiritual or not."

In the documentary, Hunter makes the point that protecting the environment and saving Earth from destruction do not belong to one group or faith. He states that every major religion has tenets for taking care of Earth and all its living things.

"One of the things I love about living in this age is God is giving us problems so big no one faith community can really solve them," he said. "Therefore, we need to work together and we need to find common ground both with believers of other religions and with those who believe in no religion."

If faith leaders such as Hunter can marshal the legions of evangelicals to join the environmental movement, it could have a profound impact on climate change, Bell said.

"The game changer for climate change will be people of faith," he said. "The secular environmentalists were ahead of us because we dropped the ball. We let things get out of hand without raising the moral questions related to our ability to care for the Earth."

"Our Father's World" is available to view and download for free at or 407-420-5392

What they believe

Evangelical environmentalists believe:

They will be held accountable by God if they harm or destroy the environment.

They are obligated by Scripture to be good stewards of Earth.

They are called by God to sacrifice, and conservation requires sacrifice.

They have a moral, ethical and religious responsibility to protect Earth.

Mankind does not own Earth, which belongs to God.

Sources: Our Father's World, Sentinel research

Copyright © 2013, Orlando Sentinel

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Joel Hunter's 'Our Father's World' Documentary: Christians Must Stop Neglecting Environment

Our Father's World from Northland Church on Vimeo.

Dr. Joel C. Hunter, senior pastor of the 15,000-member Northland church in Florida, has released a new documentary titled "Our Father's World," where he reminds Christians that God made people stewards, not owners of the planet, and that environmental issues are Christian issues.

"Scientific evidence now is very much backing up the Scriptural mandate that we need to take care of this Earth. All of the credible scientific organizations of the world are showing the degree to which the environment is being harmed by our pollution, by the disobedience to the first commandment that He (God) gave us," Hunter says.

The 26-minute long documentary is available for viewing and download free online, and includes interviews with leading evangelical scholars, including Bill and Lynne Hybels, Tony Campolo, James Merritt and Mark Liederbach.

One of the main points made in the film is that many Christians seem turned off by the environmental movement because they believe it has been hijacked by political ideals.

"Many Christians still see environmental stewardship as a political issue, rather than seeing it as a biblical issue. Scripture clearly teaches us to be good stewards of our finances, time, talents and relationships, and the church is beginning to realize there is another form of stewardship that we have neglected to embrace," says Raymond Randall, leader of Northland's Creation Care Team.

Caring for the planet is one of the very first commandments God gave to man, Pastor Hunter reminds viewers.

"This was our first calling, recorded early on in Genesis 1 and 2, and we remain God's caretakers over all creation today," Hunter explains.

The documentary reminds viewers that the Earth, its creatures and its resources do not belong to people – they belong to God, and humans are called to be stewards of creation and to protect it, not exploit it and destroy it.

"I don't know why this issue is so complicated from a biblical standpoint. Those of us who are Christians believe that God created the Earth. We don't believe that the Bible is a book of science, it doesn't exactly tell us how He created it but certainly throughout the Bible, we read of God's relationship with creation, that he was that life force that brought it all into being in the beginning, that He said it was good," says Hybels, co-founder of Ten for Congo, an advocate group spreading awareness about the hardships people face in Congo.

"He called us to have dominion, to rule, to subdue it, to till it, to work it, and a lot of people have taken that to mean that we can dominate and rule in a harsh way."

Despite God's clear message to believers, many people today have chosen to ignore or dismiss that calling, the film says, which has led to huge environmental problems, including deforestation, the destruction of habitats and the extinction and endangerment of many species.

Bob Giguere, the Emmy and Telly award-winning director of "Our Father's World," insists that environmental issues are not a concern only for the secular world, a message that the film drives forward hard.

"I know many Christians who commonly mistake environmental responsibility as a task for the secular world," Giguere says. "Upon seeing this film, it should be obvious that the Christian walk can be a very green path."

Apathy toward the environment does not simply impact wildlife and nature; poor communities around the world are hit hard when they lose access to natural resources that they greatly depend on to survive.

"A growing number of evangelical Christians worldwide are uniting in their belief that environmentalism is not merely a moral obligation. It's a matter of justice for the poor and for the generations to come," Giguere stresses.

In "Our Father's World," Hunter calls on Christians and people of all faiths and backgrounds to unite and take meaningful steps to truly become stewards of the planet.

"God has given us problems so big, that not one faith community can solve on its own. Therefore, we need to work together, and we need to find common ground, both with believers of other religions and with those who believe in no religion," the Northland pastor urges.

"Biblical justice is social justice, and it calls for interfaith cooperation."

"Our Father's World" is "ideally suited for presentation at churches and study groups," a press release noted.

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Joel Hunter’s environmental documentary seeks to inspire Christians, avoid controversy

Evangelical mega-church pastor Joel Hunter has never been afraid of controversy. He’s taken bold positions on a range of topics throughout the years and has been attacked by some for serving as a spiritual advisor to President Obama. But as he and his media team release a new documentary urging Christians to care for creation, they seek to sidestep the scandal and opt instead for inspiration.

The film is titled “Our Father’s World” and features a wide range of evangelical influencers including, Tony Campolo, Bill and Lynne Hybels, Matthew Sleeth, and Mark Liederbach, a Southern Baptist seminary professor. The video was carefully developed over several years, and you’ll notice that a younger version of me and my father, James Merritt, even make a couple of appearances throughout. At the time, I had just released my own book on the matter–Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet.

But the sweeping array of voices featured is not the only attempt to unify. The film takes particular care to avoid more divisive topics, such as climate change. Instead, the film makes the case for Christians to reengage an issue that, according to the Bible, is their God-given responsibility.

“One of the things that evangelicals are very afraid of, and legitimately so, is that in our reticence, we have allowed the New Age movement to hijack the environmentalist movement and make it their own. The result is that the minute we start talking about environmentalism, evangelicals begin to say, ‘Hey you sound like a New Ager,’” Tony Campolo says in the film. “The fact that the New Age people have committed themselves to some thing that really belongs to the church does not mean that the church should not be involved in this.”

By Jonathan Merritt.

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The new evangelicals: A return to the original agenda of Christ

I am one of those evangelicals who, in Professor Marcia Pally’s words, have “left the right.” As a former President-elect of the Christian Coalition of America, I resigned that position and all other positions that would box me into ideologies that were becoming insidiously narrow and negative. As a 64-year-old pastor, I may not yet be representative of my generation or profession in my political openness, but I am one of a growing number of white evangelicals who are making biblically-based decisions on an issue-by-issue basis, in a wider circle of conversations than ever. We are put off by the “hardening of the categories” that is stifling not only intellectually, but also spiritually. Part of this transition is cultural. As Professor Pally pointed out, it is not only a generational shift that naturally declares independence from traditional religious reactions (especially paternalistic ones). The transition is for others a distancing from the institutionalism of the church and the inelasticity of a movement that began as personally charitable but has become dogmatically xenophobic.

The greater part of this change, however, is a generic return to the original agenda of Christ. As the world becomes more complex and less predictable, we are seeing a “back to basics” trend. It is an expansion beyond a preoccupation with the more recent monitoring of sexual matters, to a more ‘whole life’ helpfulness. It is the turn from accusation to compassion, and it is much in keeping with the priorities and example of Jesus. His focus on helping the most vulnerable is also our concern. Thus more and more evangelicals are expanding the definition of pro-life. They are including in a pro-life framework concern with poverty, environmental pollution, AIDS treatment, and more. And issues like abortion are being expanded from focusing on only “in utero” concerns—increasing numbers of evangelicals now see prevention of unwanted pregnancy and support for needy expectant mothers as pro-life.

More evangelicals simply want to live our lives according to our spiritual values—unselfishness, other-centeredness, non-presumptuousness—so that when people see “our good works, they will give glory to our Father in heaven.”

Lastly, practically all sustainable change is relationally based. In an increasingly connected world, an increasing number of evangelicals are developing a broader range of relationships, both interfaith and inter-lifestyle. These make us think twice before we declare those who have different values as adversaries. As we “love our neighbor,” we want to cooperate in ways that express our own values while allowing others to express their own.

Professor Pally has established a masterful and nuanced summary of the change in the evangelical political voice. I hope that we will continue the dialogue.


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Evangelicals and Climate Change: What Does the Future Hold? (Pt. 1)

Screen Shot 2012-06-15 at 9.42.38 AM When it comes to the issue of global warming, the label conservative and liberal won't necessarily help you determine if an evangelical Christian is a proponent or skeptic. Why? Because even within the inner core of conservative evangelical circles people are divided over the issue, with both sides asserting that science is clearly on their side. Take The Christian Post, for example: Dr. Richard Land, CP's executive editor, is among those who are skeptical that humans tip the scales toward global warming, while Dr. Joel C. Hunter, CP's senior editorial adviser, believes controlling human behavior may be in order.

Moreover, the prospects for a global decision to control carbon because of warming have dropped precipitously over the last three years because of a worldwide economic downturn, much to the consternation of evangelical and secular activists alike. Skeptics are delighted. But activists also point to a recent article in The New Yorker, which reports that President Barack Obama will make climate change a priority if he gets elected to a second term.

So which side is correct? And how should Christians view the future of the global warming debate, both inside the Christian community and out?

The Christian Post will publish a multi-part series on evangelicals and climate change to look at both sides of the argument, and, more importantly, to look at the science underlying the debate.

Causes of Global Warming

Before one can properly understand the dynamics of the debate, a proper understanding of what science can and cannot determine is essential. When fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – are burned, they release carbon (mostly in the form of carbon dioxide, but also as carbon monoxide) into the air. Carbon dioxide is an essential component of the atmosphere. Plants need it to grow. Humans and animals release carbon dioxide every time they exhale or pass gas. Plants use the carbon dioxide for photosynthesis and return oxygen to the atmosphere for animals to breathe.

With the burning of fossil fuels, however, humans are increasing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Changing the atmosphere in this way is causing the Earth to get warmer. The debate is over whether this additional carbon is actually affecting climate negatively enough to warrant regulating carbon emissions.

Molecules in the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, trap some of the heat from the sun while the rest escapes back into space. If the amount of heat-trapping molecules is increased, then the Earth's natural "greenhouse effect" will increase, thus trapping more heat than usual. There are also some "multiplier effects" that further contribute to the greenhouse effect, such as additional water vapor in the air caused by warmer temperatures and less heat reflected into the atmosphere because there is less white (snow and ice) on the Earth's surface.

Cyclical Change to the Earth's Temperature

But there is debate over whether humans are taking the earth out of balance. The Earth's temperature has not been steady, even before industrialization. The 10th-14th centuries, for instance, are known as the "Medieval Warm Period." Temperatures in Europe were about one degree Celsius warmer than they are today. This led to greater harvests, which contributed to a flourishing of art, literature and science.

The Medieval Warm Period was followed by the "Little Ice Age" from about 1300 to 1870. Average temperatures during the coldest part of the Little Ice Age were about one degree Celsius colder than they are today. (For more information, see the website of Dr. Jan Oosthoek, an environmental historian at the University of Newcastle in England.)

Part of the debate over global warming has to do with whether the current warming period is mostly due to another warming period in Earth's natural warming/cooling cycles, or if the changes that humans have made to the Earth's atmosphere are pushing the planet beyond its ability to regulate itself. Those who believe the latter argue that the amount of warming taking place warrants considerable action to reduce the amount of carbon humans are putting into the atmosphere. For this series, this will be called the "global warming activist" position. Those who disagree will be called "global warming skeptics." Not because they are skeptical of global warming caused by atmospheric carbon, but because they are skeptical of the need for significant action to reduce atmospheric carbon. This will be discussed in more detail in part 3.

Global Warming Activists

A 2009 survey conducted by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life showed that white evangelical protestants were less likely than any other major religious group to say that the Earth is warming because of human activity (34 percent), followed closely by black protestants (39 percent). By comparison, 58 percent of the unaffiliated, 48 percent of white mainline protestants and 44 percent of white non-Hispanic Catholics said that the Earth is warming because of human activity.

Among evangelicals, there have been two main groups representing either side of this debate. The Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI) represents global warming activists while Cornwall Alliance represents global warming skeptics.

The ECI issued a statement, "Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action," in 2006 expressing the view that global warming will have significant consequences warranting immediate action to greatly reduce the amount of carbon entering the atmosphere. It called for legislation that would limit carbon dioxide emissions.

"In the United States, the most important immediate step that can be taken at the federal level is to pass and implement national legislation requiring sufficient economy-wide reductions in carbon dioxide emissions through cost-effective, market based mechanisms such as a cap-and-trade program," the ECI statement reads.

Many evangelical leaders have signed the statement, including Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals (he was not with NAE at the time he signed) and senior pastor of Wooddale Church, Eden Prairie, Minn.; Rob Bell, former senior pastor of Mars Hill, Grandville, Mich.; Andy Crouch, editorial director of The Christian Vision Project for Christianity Today; David Gushee, professor of ethics, Mercer University, Atlanta, Ga.; Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed, Longwood, Fla. and a senior editorial adviser for The Christian Post; Brian McLaren, Emergent leader; Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action; Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners; and Rick Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, Calif.

Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) also represents the global warming activist position. Founded in 1993, EEN publishes Creation Care magazine and speaks broadly on environmental issues. Its executive vice president, Jim Ball, has written a book on climate change called Global Warming and the Risen Lord: Christian Discipleship and Climate Change.

Some politically liberal evangelical organizations, such as Sojourners and Evangelicals for Social Action, can also be counted among the global warming activists.

Global Warming Skeptics

On the global-warming-skeptic side of the debate, The Cornwall Alliance began in 2005 as The Interfaith Stewardship Alliance. The name was changed in 2007 to reflect its founding document, The Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship. The Cornwall Declaration was first drafted by Dr. E. Calvin Beisner, the current spokesperson for the organization, in the fall of 1999 and was initially signed by 35 scholars who met in Cornwall, Conn.

Cornwall Alliance agrees that atmospheric carbon is warming the planet, but does not believe that the warming will be significant enough to warrant efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Further, it argues that those efforts would be harmful to the poor and vulnerable.

In 2010, Cornwall Alliance published its own statement, "An Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming," which was initially signed by over 450 evangelical scholars, pastors, theologians and ministry leaders. The signers include David Barton, president of Wallbuilders; Joel Belz, founder of World Magazine; Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and executive editor of The Christian Post; Tom Minnery, executive vice president of Focus on the Family; Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council; and R. C. Sproul, Jr., president of Highlands Ministries.

Among evangelical denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention has passed resolutions on climate change that reflect a view similar to the Cornwall Alliance. The Southern Baptist Convention is the nation's largest evangelical denomination but is not a member of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Part two of this series will take a closer look at the activist position and discuss a debate among some of the activists on the best way to present their views. Part three will explain the skeptic's position.


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Caring for the Environment Is a Mandate From God

Screen Shot 2011-12-12 at 1.30.11 PM There are plenty of practical reasons to be concerned about the environment and unchecked growth. Sprawl leads to higher taxes. A drained aquifer could lead to water rationing and higher costs. Pollution affects all manner of living things, from plants to humans.

Still, those reasons aren't enough for everyone.

So the Rev. Joel Hunter offers people of Christian faith another reason to care for our natural resources — because God commands it. "It was our first commandment when we were placed down here: Take care of the garden." Hunter said. "Really, it's a matter of obedience." READ MORE

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Whatever Happened to the Evangelical-Environmental Alliance?

Screen Shot 2011-11-03 at 11.02.36 AM In the fall of 2005, Joel Hunter, the senior pastor of a 12,000-member megachurch in central Florida, signed on to the Evangelical Climate Initiative—a landmark public statement acknowledging that human actions were causing the Earth to warm. The central message—“creation care,” as it became known—was that the biblical commandment to protect God’s creation was relevant to modern-day environmental issues. Soon, Hunter had distributed 20,000 creation care pamphlets to pastors around the country, and his parishioners were sifting through garbage to see how much trash his church produced. At the time, a slew of news articles took Hunter’s commitment as a sign that environmentalism could become an ethical rather than a political issue. “Hunter and others like him,” wrote The Washington Post, “have begun to reshape the politics around climate change.” Today, with climate change skepticism hitting a new high, the same sentiment seems laughable. Whatever happened to the evangelical-environmental alliance?

Between 2006 to 2008, creation care seemed poised to transform evangelical politics. 86 evangelical leaders initially signed the Climate Initiative in 2006—it had more than 100 endorsers by the next year. Rod Dreher, a conservative columnist for The Dallas Morning News and a frequent National Review contributor, published a widely discussed book called Crunchy Cons in 2006; its lengthy subtitle celebrated “evangelical free-range farmers” among other conservative environmental types. In 2008, 45 members of the Southern Baptist Convention signed a statement saying they had been “too timid” on the issue of climate change, Pat Robertson appeared in a commercial about environmental issues with Al Sharpton, and Mike Huckabee—initially the favorite candidate of middle-America evangelicals in 2008—spoke openly about his global warming concerns.

The popularity of creation care was also taken as a sign that evangelicals cared about the environment andthat the GOP’s stranglehold on the evangelical vote might be loosening. Amy Sullivan argued this for The New Republic in 2006, and E.J. Dionne opined in 2007 that creation care was part of a larger reformation “disentangling a great religious movement from a partisan political machine.” In The New Yorker, Frances Fitzgerald argued that creation care advocates might change the GOP “beyond the recognition of Karl Rove.” When Obama captured five points more than John Kerry of the white evangelical vote, it was seen as an additional sign of shifting allegiances.

However, in late 2008, creation care’s momentum slowed, and the evangelical-GOP alliance grew stronger. Perhaps the first sign that creation care was sputtering was the abrupt departure from the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) of its chief lobbyist, Richard Cizik, the leading force behind the Evangelical Climate Initiative. Cizik was forced out after he voiced support for civil unions between gays and lesbians, but he and his critics both traced the roots of his ouster to his strident support of environmental issues. At the time, Cizik’s departure was regarded as a mere hiccup. But, in fact, it was a sign of a backlash that would be bolstered by the rise of the Tea Party, increased scientific skepticism, and the faltering economy.

The rise of the Tea Party after 2008 was detrimental to evangelical environmentalism for two main reasons: It commanded the attention of the Republican Partyand it made room for climate change skeptics. Although it’s impossible to say if politicians instigated or reacted to the increased climate change skepticism associated with the rise of the Tea Party, by late 2009 evangelical climate skeptics were out in full force—climate change denier Senator Jim Inhofe called it “the year of the skeptic.” Tea Party senate candidates Marco Rubio, Joe Miller, Ken Buck, Christine O’Donnell, Ron Johnson, and Sharron Angle—who called manmade climate change the “mantra of the left”—all proudly advertised their climate change skepticism in the 2010 GOP primaries. Meanwhile, moderate Republican candidates, such as Illinois’s Mark Kirk, renounced their votes for cap-and-trade or were booed by Tea Party throngs for defending them. Today, polls show Tea Partiers are markedly less likely than any voter group to believe that humans were causing global warming—or that the Earth is warming at all.

A new bout of skepticism over the actual science of climate change reinforced these political positions. Creationism and a “God is in charge” belief became prominent again, along with a sense that any attempt to take climate change seriously was somehow unfaithful—even unjust. At a December 2009 Heritage Foundation event, Craig Mitchell, a Southern Baptist theologian, derided cap-and-trade as “immoral,” while other evangelical leaders blasted the evidence for climate change. Measures to address climate change were disfavored for supposedly placing burdens on poorer nations. (Ironically, concern for poorer nations at risk due to climate change had been one of the main selling points for creation care.) The Cornwall Alliance (an influential evangelical group that bills its mission as “the Stewardship of Creation”) released a declaration that claimed the “Earth and its ecosystems … are robust, resilient, self-regulating. … Earth’s climate system is no exception.” A year later, the group put out “Resisting the Green Dragon,” a 12-part DVD series decrying the environmental movement. Scientific skepticism bled into cultural skepticism. Even among moderate evangelicals, creation care struggled against general ambivalence toward environment issues—rooted in opposition to the countercultural identity that American environmentalism gained in the 1970s. As David P. Gushee, one of the authors of the Evangelical Climate Initiative, put it: To them, “it’s Pocahontas talking to spirits in the trees,” and “flower-power.”

Finally, there was the economy. Once it nosedived, it became hard for anyone to talk about policy changes with significant up-front costs. Hunter points to it as one of the main reasons why his message didn’t take among members of his own church—parishioners were just too distracted by the downturn. The circa-2006 hope that pro-business evangelicals might get behind the cost-saving appeal of conservation disappeared in the face of arguments that environmental regulations would freeze economic growth. A recent Nature article points out that the Heartland Institute, a think tank that has spent millions of dollars on coordinated attacks on climate change science, mostly focuses on the economic costs of environmentalism. “I would argue that conservation … is not a luxury, but a moral imperative,” Rod Dreher, the Crunchy Cons author, wrote to me in an e-mail. “I would also get exactly nowhere with that argument among conservatives in this economy.”

It’s true that today the optimism of 2005 is nowhere to be found. The mood has shifted so far that GOP candidates must not only renounce any environmentally friendly policies, they must also explain their past support for them. As Grover Norquist recently put it, formerly environmentally-minded GOP candidates “better have an explanation, an excuse, or a mea culpa.” Despite all the theories that environmentalism might untie the GOP-evangelical alliance, most of the white evangelical vote, for now, remains inextricably linked to the Republican Party. A glum Hunter told me that he holds out hope for the next generation, conceding that his generation probably won’t be shaking up the climate change debate like they’d hoped. The old fault lines, which Cizik told The New Republic in 2006 were “no more,” are still very much alive.

Molly Redden is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.

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Saving the Earth Is New Mission at More Churches

Screen Shot 2011-08-14 at 7.29.36 PM

At Christ Church Unity south of Orlando, they've replaced paper napkins with handmade cloth napkins, plastic forks and knives with metal utensils, disposable plates with china plates.

Leftover food scraped from the plates is fed to a church member's pig, Mr. Greengenes.

Northland, A Church Distributed is competing to become one of the most energy-efficient facilities in the United States in a contest sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In the past year, the Longwood megachurch has reduced its monthly electric bill by more than $500 a month.

Members of Winter Park Presbyterian Church grow food for the needy in a 28-plot community garden on church grounds.

In churches — and synagogues and mosques — across the country, saving the planet is becoming as important as saving souls. Nearly every religion, and almost every denomination, has added protecting the environment as a religious tenet.

"We've seen this explosion of activity at the individual and congregational level that is really a sign that this is firmly centered in terms of who we are as a religious people," said Matthew Anderson-Stembridge, executive director of National Religious Partnership for the Environment, a coalition of Jewish and Christian denominations formed in the early 1990s.

The greening of the church comes at the same time that concern for the environment is becoming a part of the cultural mainstream. Driving hybrid cars, unplugging household appliances, replacing disposable plastic water bottles with reusable metal ones, andseparating household trash into recyclables and garbage are no longer the intellectual property of hippies, tree huggers and communes.

"The surprising thing for me is there seems to be some consensus. We are seeing very conservative Protestant denominations embracing Earth care, and you are seeing some mainline, more-liberal denominations," said Darby Ray, associate professor of religious studies at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss.

In many ways, the change in the culture has produced a change in theology — a rethinking and reinterpretation of Scripture from a belief that God intended mankind to exploit the Earth for its own benefit to mankind's obligation to protect and preserve the Earth that God created. Much of the push for going green has come from the people in the pews rather than the people behind the pulpit, said Gerald Smith, religion professor at Sewanee: TheUniversity of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.

"I think it's congregation-driven rather than leadership-driven. This is what people are bringing to the church," Smith said.

But it also has come from church leaders, such as Northland pastor Joel Hunter, who was an early convert among influential evangelists in advocating saving the Earth.

"The moral issues of our times, including environmental care, are a part of the practice of our faith and thus very important," Hunter said, but added that nothing surpasses the importance of saving souls.

At Northland, employees put into practice what Hunter peaches. Each department looks for ways to recycle, reduce and reuse.

Printer paper is reused three times before it ends up in the recycling bin. Lights and air conditioning are turned off in the balcony of the church for services that are less than capacity, and the whole building is closed on Fridays. The children's ministry has a team that sorts through the trash cans to separate the recyclable paper, plastic and glass from the garbage. The information-technology department refurbishes and recycles old computers and other electronics.

Northland is following in the footsteps of another megachurch, First Baptist Orlando, which has won Energy Star recognition from the EPA for its reduced electricity use and recycling.

Though Northland's "creation care team" is comprised primarily of church employees, Christ Church Unity's "green team" is made up of members of the congregation. Based on green-team recommendations, the church uses a custom-made, 100-gallon rain barrel to water the church grounds, recycles Sunday programs, sells metal water bottles in the church bookstore to replace plastic bottles, and reminds everyone leaving a church restroom to turn off the lights.

Because of its efforts, the congregation was recognized as the first Unity church in the United States to be designated as certifiably "green."

"It's more than a buzzword or a popular trend with us. It shows up in everything we do," said Kathy Beasley, director of pastoral care.

Since March, Orange County has been contacting religious organizations on how they can save the planet and money at the same time.

"Our goal is to encourage the faith-based organizations to simply reduce their utility bills by 30 percent and then get into recycling and reusing," said Chris Kuebler, the county's faith-based community-outreach coordinator.

One of the churches Kuebler contacted was Winter Park Presbyterian. Senior pastor Lawrence Cuthill said his church is looking at installing solar panels to save energy. But the biggest step the church has taken is a community garden, which represents the growing spiritual commitment among many faith-based organizations to cultivate the Earth instead of just taking whatever resources it has to offer.

"We are part of that movement that says we need to be good stewards of the Earth," Cuthill said. "Our calling is not to exploit the garden, but to keep the garden."

by Jeff Kunerth, or 407-420-5392

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