Bill Moyers discusses the spread of environmental concern among evangelicals
Just after the 2004 election, in his 70th year, legendary journalist Bill Moyers retired from full-time television, giving up the reins of his beloved PBS show Now. But Moyers has not left behind his vocation or his network. This month, PBS will air a new three-part special, Moyers on America.
The second part — Is God Green?, airing Oct. 11 — traces the growing environmental consciousness of conservative evangelical Christians.
In discussing the subject, Moyers sounded as passionate, quick-witted, and indefatigable as ever. Like so many people, he seems to regard conservative evangelicals with an unresolved mix of admiration and exasperation, at once vexed by their political alliances and hopeful about their ability to pull their compatriots in a green direction.
What brought you to this story?
It was a letter to the editor that I saw in an environmental magazine, right after the election of ’04, from a pastor in North Carolina named Joel Gillespie. I don’t remember the name of his church, but it was a letter of great anguish. He said, “I went into the voting booth on Election Day, and I wanted to vote for George W. Bush because he’s right on abortion, family values, gay marriage. But I had trouble pulling the lever, because he has a horrendous environmental record.”
That was the first time I’d heard a conservative evangelical wrestle publicly with the conflict in his soul over his political allegiance to the president and the Republican Party. And I thought, is that a harbinger or just an accident?
A trail led from one concerned conservative evangelical to another. We all know that progressive evangelicals have been active advocates of environmental concern for a long time. That story didn’t interest me, because it’s been done. But this story of conservative evangelicals beginning to wrestle with environmental issues … there’s something going on here that’s different from the past.
When news leaked of the impending statement by 86 evangelical leaders [on global warming], the other side hit back so hard and so fast and with such firepower. That letter [PDF] from Chuck Colson, James Dobson, and Richard Land came so quickly that I knew it had to originate in the White House, inside the political religion. I knew it was an orchestrated response, because Karl Rove was upset at what these evangelical leaders were letting loose.
As a Christian, did the testimony you heard from religious evangelicals about environmental issues resonate with you? Are their reasons your reasons?
I come out of a conservative Christian culture — the Central Baptist Church in Marshall, Texas, where I grew up and where I still have deep roots — and the language of faith is familiar to me.
I grew up in that church and I’ve been to a lot of other churches since, and I’d never heard a sermon on the environment. I rarely heard them anywhere, even in progressive or liberal churches, up until the last few years.
But the language, the references, the biblical quotations, the framework in which language is shaped, yes, all of this was very familiar to me. Genesis 1:28 is a very familiar passage. I wrestled with the meaning of it myself.
What you hear from this green evangelical movement is a kind of sudden, wholesale conversion. What do you think accounts for this propensity to make such huge changes so suddenly?
That’s an astute observation. I think you’re exactly right. This didn’t take the hundred years it took for the abolitionists to rally opposition to slavery. It didn’t take as long as the suffragette movement, or William Jennings Bryan’s populism. This has been like a viral infection, instantly.
There are a number of factors behind that.
First of all, the people have not heard this before. It is good news that we can do something about the environment. They heard the good news, and like the first Christians hearing the story of Jesus, they were born again, this time through the environment.
The second thing is the nature of modern communications. There is instantaneous movement today of ideas across cyberspace. Word travels faster than Paul did when he went from Jerusalem to Greece, to Asia Minor, on to Rome. It took him a long time to spread the Gospel. But today, Paul would be sitting right there with you, writing messages to the churches of Corinth and Ephesus and Colossae.
Third is the intrusion of reality. Global warming is not something you can treat abstractly anymore. It’s not about the icebergs melting in the Arctic. It’s about Katrina blowing your house away in New Orleans. It’s what brought Pat Robertson to admit on the 700 Club just a few weeks ago that he’s become a convert to the threat of global warming. Reality has undermined ideology, and even theology. No matter what your theological position on Genesis 1:28, dominion theology is not an air conditioner in a summer month when the temperature is 8 degrees above normal because of carbon emissions. Evangelical Christians decided they could no longer ignore the reality, despite what they were being told by their political leaders.
You see a lot of conversion experiences about the environment in your PBS special, but you don’t see any conversion experiences about environmentalists. Environmentalists are caricatured rather brutally by several of the interviewees. There doesn’t seem to have been any softening of that stereotype, or that hostility. Is that striking to you?
The next film I do should be about how environmentalists view religion …
The fact of the matter is, progressive Christians and mainstream churches and the environmental movement have had a lot in common for some time now. It’s the conservative evangelicals who have been, and I use this word advisedly, brainwashed by the political right and the political right’s religious allies.
The James Dobsons, the Pat Robertsons, the Jerry Falwells have demonized environmentalism as the work of Satan or Hollywood wackos or treehuggers. Orwell was right: you can change the language until you change behavior. By demonizing good, serious, sincere environmentalists, the political right and its religious allies were able to make it impossible for people in the pews, people in the churches, people in the local congregations to hear environmentalists.
I’m sure it would be fine with Karl Rove if every church in the country started planting trees or recycling. He’s going to get upset if they start lobbying for CO2 emission caps. Do you see any sign of movement from the private to the public realm with this?
You have to start somewhere. For those people in the Boise Vineyard Church [featured in Is God Green?], it’s far more satisfying to go plant a tree than it is to send a letter to a congressman. It’s encouraging to me that they would immediately turn to doing something that affects their local community. All great social movements grow out of what people do at the local level: the abolition movement, the women’s suffragette movement, the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s. Look at Martin Luther King. He was a local pastor before he was a national leader. So I find it encouraging that they want to do hands-on, practical work in protecting the environment where they live.
Secondly, this national call by 86 evangelical environmentalists gave people like the congregants of the Boise Vineyard Church an understanding that there is a national movement for policy, that people are speaking to policy even as they address local concerns.
That’s what Karl Rove is afraid of: that the movement will meet in between, the movement of the 86 evangelical leaders with the Boise Vineyard Churches of America. That would be a formidable coalition.
That’s why he and his allies — I don’t know that he personally did it — moved quickly to try and undermine the 86 evangelicals. They understand that the planting of trees is harmless at a political level, but if it links up with a national group like the 86 evangelicals, they’ve got a problem.
You have long been an eloquent defender of reason and a critic of fundamentalism, particularly far-right fundamentalism. Did you find anything in the course of researching this show that changed your personal opinions about conservative evangelicals?
I came out of that movement; I respect those people.
I was the only journalist to do a documentary about the first gathering of the Moral Majority in Dallas, Texas, in 1980. I said on camera then: these are my people. They’re being hoodwinked by demagogues who will exploit their fears and leave them hanging down the road.
I was not surprised to discover that the people at the Boise Vineyard Church or the people in the hollows of West Virginia are decent, God-fearing, caring individuals. They’re being betrayed by their political leaders. These are good people who just haven’t been informed about what’s at stake. Now they’re seeing it for themselves, with global warming and the saturation of information that no reasonably well-attuned American today can ignore.
I’m not against these people. I’m an opponent of the closed mind, whether it’s practiced by a corporate executive or an ordinary parishioner in the local church. Reason is a powerful, God-given faculty that has to be exercised. My favorite scripture in the Old Testament is, “Come now, let us reason together.”
Do you think scientific information about the earth’s carrying capacity imposes countervailing ethical obligations, against or in tension with what the Bible says about multiplying and covering the earth?
Evangelicism for so long has been about personal conversion, the saving of the individual soul. This makes personal salvation the first priority, and it reinforces that individualism that is so intrinsic in the American frontier experience. Their preoccupation with personal salvation has been the main reason they have not been concerned about the here and now. Like Calvin Visner said [in the PBS special], “I’m going to heaven, no matter what happens.”
The only thing the Bible says is “go and increase,” and that’s open to a lot of interpretation. I come out of a school that says you read the Bible at the same time you read the daily newspaper. You weigh and wrestle with your ethical obligations based on your understanding of the Bible, but alloyed by, tempered by, or even challenged by the facts on the ground, and other sources of revelation, whether it’s the revelation of nature or the revelation of science. You weigh these against each other, and in the spirit of liberty, try to understand the obligations you have as an individual living in a society that is not like you.
It’s very easy to live in a homogenous community where everybody looks like you, sounds like you, thinks like you, talks like you, prays like you. That’s the intimacy of a small church. But when you leave the intimacy of that small church, you’re out in a world where most people are not like you. Therefore you have a need, a first imperative, to take what you’ve learned in the intimacy of that small circle and test it against other claims being made by other people that come out of their own intimate communities.
To me, the experience of faith is a constant wrestling match, within and without. You wrestle within to reconcile your own interests, needs, and values, and then you go out into the larger world and wrestle honorably with what you find there. That’s the difference between a fundamentalist and me, James Dobson and me. He has the answers, which he will announce to the world, and require the world to adopt. I have the questions.
There is a strain of environmentalism that says the root cause of our problems is our sense of being apart from the rest of the natural world — above it, in a position to decide what parts of it live, what parts die, and what parts we want to take. Evangelical Christianity endorses the notion that mankind is chosen by God and given dominion over the earth.
Certainly. That is a strain of dominion theology that had a very strong and powerful appeal. It has lost its appeal as we have gone from 1 billion to 2 billion to 4 billion to 6 billion-plus people now. To think that we are apart from nature becomes impossible when the water we drink is poisoned by the slurry from mountaintop removal [mining], or when the trout start dying in the Green River. Nature is affecting our lives, our bodies, our health, and our longevity.
There is a historic strain of dominion theology which says, taking its references from the Psalms, that man is made just a little lower than God, and that we are the crown of creation. That interpretation has come at the expense of the one that says when God, in the story of Noah, intervened to save human life against the flood, against the acts of nature, He did not stop with human beings. He made sure that every kind of animal was represented twice on that ark. That has been a subdued if not maligned strain in theology.
Theology gets tested by time and experience too, and by rising temperatures, polluted waters, poison in the atmosphere, poisons in our bodies. All are testing theology now in a way that is healthy. Theology needs to be tempered by reality and not just blinded by belief.