Rich Cizik

Photo: National Association of Evangelicals

As vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), Rich Cizik represented 4,500 congregations serving 30 million members. Considering himself a “Reagan conservative” and a strong initial supporter of George W. Bush, Cizik had been with the organization since 1980, serving as its key advocate before Congress, the Office of the President, and the Supreme Court on issues like opposition to abortion and gay marriage. During the Clinton era, he had begun to expand the organization’s agenda by tackling such issues as human trafficking and global poverty, working with groups across the political aisle. Later he convinced the organization to take a stand against torture.

But he thought little about climate change until 2002, when he attended a conference on the subject and heard a leading British climate scientist, Sir John Houghton, who was also a prominent evangelical. “You could only call the process a conversion,” Cizik said. “I reluctantly went to the conference, saying, ‘I’ll go, but don’t expect me to be signing on to any statements.’ Then, for three days in Oxford, England, Houghton walked us through the science and our biblical responsibility. He talked about droughts, shrinking ice caps, increasing hurricane intensity, temperatures tracked for millennia through ice-core data. He made clear that you could believe in the science and remain a faithful biblical Christian. All I can say is that my heart was changed. For years I’d thought, ‘Well, one side says this, the other side says that. There’s no reason to get involved.’ But the science has become too compelling. I could no longer sit on the sidelines. I didn’t want to be like the evangelicals who avoided getting involved during the civil rights movement and in the process discredited the gospel and themselves.”

One day during the conference, Houghton took Cizik on a walk in the gardens of Blenheim Palace, Winston Churchill’s ancestral home. It was a lovely day, sunny and bright. Houghton said, “Richard, if God has convinced you of the reality of the science and the Scriptures on the subject, then you must speak out.”

“Let me think about it,” Cizik responded. He knew he’d meet resistance from his colleagues and board. But Houghton convinced him that the world couldn’t solve the issue without serious American participation, and that the Republican Party was the major political force blocking action in the United States (in contrast to Europe, where conservative parties had helped take the lead on the issue). “As evangelicals, we’re 40 percent of the Republican base, so if we could convince the evangelical community to speak out, it could make the key difference,” Cizik said. American evangelicals, Houghton told him, might literally hold the fate of the planet in their hands.

After leaving the conference, Cizik began reading and learning. Flying over the Sahara, he got a sense of the “tens of thousands of acres that are lost to climate-related desertification each year,” which in turn leads to major refugee migrations and potential wars over water. He coordinated a retreat with key evangelical leaders, like Rick Warren, and major scientists, like Houghton and Harvard’s E.O. Wilson. Then he took a similar group to Alaska to witness the melting glaciers and permafrost, the disruption of native communities, the spruce trees dying because the bark beetles now survived the warmer winters. They visited Shishmaref, a native village that is being forced to relocate because the permafrost has crumbled beneath it and the sea ice that once served as a storm buffer is gone. “Our first night there, we saw a lunar eclipse, shooting stars, and the Northern Lights.” It reminded him of the phrase in the psalm, “Creation pours forth its praise to its creator … The heavens give witness to God’s glory.”

His Alaska group, said Cizik, “included those who believe life on earth was created by God, and those who believe it evolved over three and a half billion years. What became obvious to both groups is that this earth is sacred and that we ought to protect it. God isn’t going to ask you how he created the earth. He already knows. He’s going to ask, ‘What did you do with what I created?’ If we’re leaving a footprint that destroys the earth, we’ve failed to be good stewards.”

The more Cizik learned, the more it challenged him to “treat caring for God’s creation as a moral principle,” and to continue enlisting others. In 2004, Cizik convinced the NAE to release a paper called “For the Health of the Nation,” which urged its members to live in conformity with sustainable principles, talked of “creation care,” and stated, “Because clean air, pure water and adequate resources are crucial to public health and civic order, government has an obligation to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation.” Two years later, he helped organize the Evangelical Climate Initiative, a major statement from 86 key evangelical leaders, including major megachurch pastors like Warren, the presidents of 39 Christian colleges, and the national commander of the Salvation Army. The statement described climate change as an urgent moral issue for Christians and called for the government to act on it.

Cizik also joined James Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network in carrying a placard to a pro-life rally that said, “Stop Mercury Poisoning of the Unborn,” and handing out fliers explaining that most of the birth-defect-producing mercury comes from coal-burning power plants. “If you care about the sanctity of human life,” he said, “then care about whether people live desperate lives and care about the mercury from power plants.”

As Cizik expected, not everyone was happy with his taking environmental stands. “I had people on my board who said, ‘Don’t touch the issue. If you do, we’ll make your life very difficult.'” Twenty-two evangelical leaders signed a letter urging the NAE not to take a position on global climate change. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, and major conservative activists like Heritage Foundation founder Paul Weyrich and the Family Research Council’s Gary Bauer called for Cizik’s firing.

Some of this Cizik attributed to “simple ignorance of the science” and some to “bad theology — people who believe the earth is going to be destroyed anyway, so why bother.” But he also wondered how much came from people “afraid they’ll lose their power, influence, capacity to raise money, what they perceive to be their priorities. They’re afraid they’ll offend political allies.”

But Cizik and the others persisted. “As a biblical Christian,” he said, “I agree with St. Francis that every square inch on Earth belongs to Christ. If we don’t pay attention to global climate change, it’s pretty obvious that tens and or even hundreds of millions of people are going to die. If you have a major sea-level rise, then Bangladesh becomes uninhabitable. Where do you put its 100 million people? Do you put them in India? In China? They’d have no place to go. Britain’s Christian Aid talks of climate change impacting one billion people by mid-century, with drought, floods, disease, and malnutrition. I’ve asked African-American leaders whether, as a white man, I can call climate change ‘the civil rights issue of the 21st century.’ Unanimously they say, ‘You not only can, but you must.'”

Cizik believed he could still preach the gospel while also talking about these kinds of issues. “You need both. To go to bed at night and say that over a billion people live on a dollar a day and can’t go to bed themselves with a full stomach, can you live as a Christian happily in your suburban home, driving your SUV? Of course you can’t. Not as a real Christian. And if you happen to be a liberal, conservative, or centrist, I don’t care. The gospel has priority over politics.”

Although Cizik and his allies never quite convinced the NAE to take an official stand on climate change, and he eventually got forced out after telling radio interviewer Terry Gross that he was beginning to rethink his opposition to gay civil unions, the organization reaffirmed the moral importance of “creation care,” a core perspective that encouraged further dialogue. And Cizik has gone on to start an organization, The New Evangelicals, devoted to issues like poverty and environmental engagement. He called his fellow evangelicals “a slow-moving earthquake. They don’t quite understand themselves how they’re changing, but they are.”

“The issue shook my theology to its core,” Cizik told me. “It changed me as much as my being born again 30 years before. This threatens the whole planet, so it raises a basic issue of who we are as people. Climate change isn’t just a scientific question. It’s a moral, a religious, a cosmological question. It involves everything we are and what we have a right to do.”

This piece is adapted from the wholly updated new edition of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times by Paul Rogat Loeb. Copyright © 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Griffin.