An interview with green evangelical leader Richard Cizik
Polluters will have to answer to God, not just government, according to Richard Cizik. Vice president of governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, Cizik is a pro-Bush Bible-brandishing reverend zealously opposed to abortion, gay marriage, and embryonic stem-cell research. He is also on a mission to convert tens of millions of Americans to the cause of conservation, using a right-to-life framework. Cizik has been crisscrossing the U.S. in recent months, spreading the doctrine of “creation care” to evangelical Christians.
Thanks to his leadership, NAE, one of the most politically powerful religious advocacy groups in America, released a manifesto last year urging its members to adopt eco-friendly living habits and exhorting the government to lighten America’s environmental footprint. Next month, the organization will begin circulating a charter calling on its member network and top-level Beltway allies to fight global warming.
Cizik spoke to Grist recently from his hotel in New York City, where he was preparing to appear at a religious rally and wax evangelical on climate change — a crisis, he says, of “biblical proportions.”
How has the National Association of Evangelicals been involved in political and social issues, and what led you, most recently, to take a stand on the environment?
The public has long acknowledged our involvement on family values and pro-life issues, and they’ve begun to take notice of our engagement on concerns like human rights, slavery, and AIDS. Only recently have we begun to adequately address the challenge scripture presents to us to be faithful stewards of God’s creation. We released a paper in 2004 titled “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility” [PDF], which calls on our movement to articulate a public theology to address what we call “creation care.” It urges our 30 million members to live their lives in conformity with sustainable principles, and our government to reduce pollution and resource consumption.
Can you unpack this term “creation care”? How does this differ from environmentalism?
It is simply our articulation of a biblical doctrine, which is that we are commissioned by God the Almighty to be stewards of the earth. It is rooted not in politics or ideology, but in the scriptures. Genesis 2:15 specifically calls us “to watch over and care for” the bounty of the earth and its creatures. Scripture not only affirms this role, but warns that the earth is not ours to abuse, own, or dominate. The Bible clearly says in Revelation 11:18 that “God will destroy those who destroy the earth.”
Do you believe that polluters will literally be destroyed by God?
It’s very difficult to comprehend the full ramifications of this Bible verse, but I can tell you it’s a warning: Destroyers beware. Take heed. It was by and for Christ that this earth was made, which means it is sinfully wrong — it is a tragedy of enormous proportions — to destroy, degrade, or despoil it. He who has ears, let him hear.
The Bible also says that humans have “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing.” Some in your community interpret this as a license to exploit natural resources.
That is a deeply flawed interpretation. Dominion does not mean domination. It implies responsibility — to cultivate and care for the earth, not to sully it with bad environmental practices. The Bible also teaches us that Jesus Christ is not only redeeming his people, but also restoring God’s creation. Obviously, since the fall of man and entrance of sin into the world, all of creation has yearned for its redemption from sin and death and destruction. That will occur with the Second Coming of Christ. But in the meantime we show our love for Jesus Christ by reaching out to and healing the spiritually lost and by conserving and renewing creation. Christ’s call to love nature is as simple as his call to love our neighbors as ourselves.
What specifically are you doing to get people involved in these issues?
We ask Christians to shape their personal lives in creation-friendly ways by practicing effective recycling, conserving resources, and experiencing the joy of contact with nature. We urge government to encourage fuel efficiency, reduce pollution, encourage sustainable use of natural resources, and provide for the proper care of wildlife and their natural habitats. There are still plenty who wonder, does advocating this agenda mean we have to become liberal weirdos? And I say to them, certainly not. It’s in the scripture. Read the Bible.
Have you endorsed any specific policy recommendations related to fuel efficiency, pollution caps, or biodiversity?
Not yet. We are currently working on a paper that is scheduled to come out this month on climate change that will get into some policy details, but for the moment we have no specific positions on any environmental legislation.
Why have you declined to collaborate with environmental groups?
It’s not that we’ve ruled it out, it’s just that we aren’t ready. We are not “me too” environmentalists. We need to develop our own voice and strategies and tactics, and once we’ve gotten our own feet on the ground, then we can talk about possible cooperation.
My understanding is that you publicly rejected an offer by the leaders of the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation to join forces.
Look, there are those in my community who are concerned that environmentalists are advocates of population control, of big-government solutions, or New Age religion, and have apocalyptic tendencies. In the latter case, there’s some irony in my opinion. It’s like the pot calling the kettle black.
I am trying to reason with my community that we’ve earned our spurs in co-belligerency — collaborating with groups we wouldn’t otherwise work with, in the name of the common good. I say, if we’ve worked with Free Tibet on religious freedom, the Congressional Black Caucus on slavery, Gloria Steinem and feminists on rape, and the gay and lesbian lobby on AIDS, why can’t we work with environmentalists?
So you are confident that your community will come to see the common goals it shares with environmentalists?
So long as we explain it the right way. Take mercury. If you reframe mercury regulations as a pro-life issue — curbing mercury emissions protects children from learning disabilities and unborn children from brain damage — that gets people’s attention. Last January, Jim Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network and I carried a placard to a pro-life rally that said, “Stop Mercury Poisoning of the Unborn.” I distributed flyers showing that one in six babies is born with dangerous mercury levels, and urged protestors to demand improvements in the Clear Skies Act. People were a little perplexed at first, but they got it.
Is there a clash between evangelical beliefs and science?
For some people in the evangelical community there is a mistrust of science in general and a mistrust of science on climate in particular. There is a basic formula that goes: science supports evolution, evangelicals oppose evolution, ergo there’s a conflict between science and evangelicals. Evolution is like the third rail — if you touch, you die — sorta like Social Security. We need to move beyond that. Happily, there’s a growing number of evangelical scientists who are helping us overcome this barrier.
Have you endured criticism from other evangelicals over your environmental advocacy?
There are those who are concerned that by going down this road of creation care we are saying that plants and animals are superior to people. Again, much of the challenge is reframing the environmental issue for the evangelical community as a people issue. We have to say, for instance, that addressing climate change is a way of saying we care about the millions of people worldwide that might have to endure tremendous suffering and displacement from the drought, hurricanes, and flooding associated with global warming. Certainly the human trauma caused by Katrina has brought this issue home.
What is your opinion on the Bush administration’s environmental track record?
I am a pro-Bush conservative, but I believe this is neither a conservative issue, a liberal issue, a Republican issue, a Democrat issue, a red issue, a blue issue, or a green issue. Has the Bush administration done what I think it should do in terms of reducing pollution and resource consumption? No. But I am modestly optimistic that there has been some momentum in the discussion in Washington and the public at large. I am confident that the administration can change its direction, and we can help them do that.
How much influence do you think you have on the direction of the Republican Party?
Our membership is 30 million strong, with 45,000 churches, 7,000 megachurches, some with billion-dollar budgets. We represent 40 percent of the Republican Party. There is a saying that “as evangelicals go, so goes the West” — meaning our community sets trends. Is everybody in our community ready to support a creation-care agenda? Certainly not. But conservation is conservative at its roots, and they can be regrown.
Did you have a conversion moment of sorts on this issue?
Well, I grew up on a farm in the Pacific Northwest, and you know how they say: You can take the boy off the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy. I’ve always had a love for nature. I’ve often joked that I learned growing up that climate can seriously impact a farm family’s income. There were a few rainstorms that came along and destroyed our cherry crops. We learned the hard way that you can’t subdue Mother Nature.
Later in life I had a conversion experience on the climate issue not unlike my conversion to Christ. I was at a conference in Oxford where Sir John Houghton, an evangelical scientist, was presenting evidence of shrinking ice caps, temperatures tracked for millennia through ice-core data, increasing hurricane intensity, drought patterns, and so on. I realized all at once, with sudden awe, that climate change is a phenomenon of truly biblical proportions.
What have you done in your own life to reduce your environmental impact?
Most importantly we sold our RV, which got about five miles per gallon, and bought a Prius, which gets about 10 times that. I oughta get a commission from Toyota for the number of people I’ve converted to the Prius.