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4/13/2006

Feature > Feature

WHAT WOULD JESUS DO ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING?
More than many Christians, says one local evangelical leader

 

Christians and Republicans – like Batman and Robin, or Lennon and McCartney – just seem to go together. The duo has teamed up to fight the evils of evolution, abortion, gay marriage and stem cells.

But in early February, a Yoko appeared in the form of the Evangelical Climate Initiative and put a wedge between these seemingly inseparable political teammates. A group of evangelical Christian leaders (90 and growing) have signed their names to the ECI statement, which says that global warming is real, that humans are causing it and that we need to do something about it.

The ECI arrives just in time to jump on the global-warming bandwagon. The New Yorker ran a three-part series on the issue in 2005. Rolling Stone also blew out their coverage of climate change in a recent issue. And Time magazine's April 3 cover on the topic read: "Be worried. Be very worried."

And these Christians are worried. The ECI states that the debate on climate change is over, and "millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors."

It's not just a bunch of liberal Unitarians signing on, either. Among the signers are such evangelical heavyweights as Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life; Todd Bassett, national commander of the Salvation Army; and the presidents of 39 evangelical Christian colleges, including the president of Wheaton College. (Wheaton lifted its ban on dancing only three years ago.)

Not all evangelical leaders are so green. Jim Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, and Chuck Colson, Watergate felon and founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, signed on to the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, a group that disputes many of the ECI's claims. Jerry Falwell came out saying the ECI signers were being misled into signing, and Joseph Farah, the co-founder of conservative news website WorldNetDaily.com, implied that the signatories' salvation was in question.

The face of the controversial ECI, at least on their national television commercial, is Joel Hunter, the senior pastor at Northland Church in Longwood. Hunter is on the board of directors of the National Association of Evangelicals, of which 34 high-ranking members have signed onto the ECI. In the TV spot, Third World-country children walk over desolate water-starved land as Hunter intones, "As Christians, our faith in Jesus Christ compels us to love our neighbors and be stewards of God's creation."

We talked with Hunter recently about the Evangelical Climate Initiative.

Orlando Weekly: How did you first get involved in the ECI?
Joel Hunter:
I've always had a desire to see the witness of Christ expanded beyond a couple of hot-button issues, and I've always had an interest in how we treat the Earth. But recently with the growing evidence of the environmental tipping point we're at, there were several evangelical leaders that wanted the church to have a voice in this matter, simply because it is a moral mandate from the Bible. Friends of mine [at NAE] asked me if I would be involved, and I said I would.

OW: Did you have an "a-ha" moment?
Hunter:
No moment, just a confluence of events. I've read several books and articles about the matter. Back in the 1980s [global warming] was more on our agenda as part of the pro-life stance. We should be in favor of life post-partum as well as pre- partum. We should care about the poor and care about everybody, not just Christians. More recently, with the conclusions reached by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control and the academies of science of all the G-8 countries, plus NASA, it became so evident that we are at such a critical point here that I felt more compelled by the circumstances.

OW: The ECI uses the term "creation care" instead of "environmentalism." There's also a question on the ECI site that asks, "Does addressing climate change mean we're becoming liberals?" How much discussion was there about distancing yourselves from those terms?
Hunter:
Yes, there's a distinction we want. Even though we work with other people for common causes, there's a distinction we want to make between us and the traditional environmentalists. As somebody said, "We're not treehuggers, we're God- huggers." The distinction we want to make is that we don't see the environment as God. We see the environment as a gift from God, and he mandated in Genesis 2:15 that we take care of it, protect it. We wanted very much to do this not out of an ideology, not out of a political position, but out of a moral obedience of what it says in the word.

OW: Some scientists say Christianity is antagonistic toward science. Is that generally accurate? How is what the ECI says different?
Hunter:
I think there are probably some parts of the [Christian] family that are anti-intellectual or are so conservative theologically that they want to focus in on a very narrow part of what is allowable. But I think the history of Christianity is that we've been the pacesetters in scientific development. And many, many scientists are still evangelical Christians. Are Christians against science? Absolutely not. Are we afraid of science? Absolutely not.

OW: The ECI is being attacked by Chuck Colson and Jim Dobson, who say the evidence supporting global warming is not conclusive. Why should Christians listen to the ECI and not Colson and Dobson?
Hunter:
First place, every time we come up with a general health scare there will be people who have a general investment in that field who for years come up with scientific evidence that says this isn't conclusive. They did this with tobacco. They did this with asbestos. There's always going to be a skepticism that has kind of a protectionistic attribute to it.

I have tremendous respect for Chuck Colson and James Dobson, but I think they're working off an old agenda. The old agenda is that the only way to approach this issue is to put in more government regulation, and that will hurt business. And I've heard the argument that if you hurt business, you hurt the poor.

That's an old paradigm. We are for – and you can read this at our website – we are for market-based approaches. We believe the economy can actually be stimulated by doing what's right, rather than suppressed.

OW: Example?
Hunter:
Well, there used to be an issue with fluorocarbons and how they were hurting the ozone. There were people that said this wasn't true. DuPont, the main producer of fluorocarbon-based propellant, decided maybe we could make another kind of propellant that wouldn't hurt the environment. They did it and made more of a profit. Those are the kinds of market-based solutions that I think will really be good for people.

I do want to say this, though. Even if it costs us, even if it does suppress the economy somewhat – and I'm not convinced it will – the cost of not doing anything could be staggering in comparison.

Plus, when you're working from a moral basis, you do what is right, no matter what the cost.

OW: Some Christians have decried money you received from groups such as the Hewlett Foundation, which has funded Planned Parenthood in the past. Do you have any issues with taking money from liberal groups?
Hunter:
Nope. [Laughing]

OW: That was an easy answer.
Hunter:
Look, if this money can be used for a good cause, and they're willing to give the money in a way that can help a whole lot of people, great. We realize there's going to be people that are linked by this kind of issue that we wouldn't agree with on other issues, but that's just part of how God gets things accomplished. Sometimes, that's how God starts a conversation, and that's even more important than the money that's being donated.

OW: Jerry Falwell said in a column on WorldNetDaily.com that you guys were misled when you signed on. Another writer on WND, Joseph Farah, implied that your salvation was in jeopardy. Were you misled into signing this? And is your salvation in peril?
Hunter:
[Laughing] We know our hearts. A lot of our [Christian] brothers – I don't think any of them are being insincere. But I think many of them make the growth of their ministry dependent upon strong statements, and they come out strongly because they know people want a simple answer.

As is said, nowadays, they're playing to the base. With Falwell – and I like Jerry, he's an acquaintance of mine – he was saying that somewhere along the line a liberal group contributed to us so these ads could go on TV.

It kind of smacks of the old McCarthyism where they think they've traced a link to these leftists, so therefore we're in danger of being traitors to the cause. Once you decide to take a stand, it's not unusual that a lot of the reaction will be friendly fire. Again, there's a huge segment of the traditional Christian leadership that has one or two core issues that they really want to focus on, and they don't want to go into other areas.

OW: That's one of the biggest criticisms from left-leaning Christians, that evangelicals pick and choose the biblical passages that fit into their political agenda – mostly social issues – and ignore God's call to help the poor or his call to be good stewards of Earth.
Hunter:
I think there's an emerging part of evangelical Christianity that is looking for new leadership that will talk about the moral responsibilities we have, such as poverty, such as AIDS, such as pollution. You go down the line of those things that really help everybody and are not just a pro-life or gay-marriage issue. I think there's a broadening of the leadership, and there's going to be a reaction to those people that have made their ministry only out of particular social issues. I don't question their integrity, nor am I surprised by some of their attacks.

OW: Did you realize how much of a break from the traditional Christian-right stance this statement is?
Hunter:
We fully realized that. The point is that this is not an ideological or political question. This is not about Republicans. This is not about holding the party line, whether it be traditional conservative Christianity or traditional conservative politics. This is about doing what scripture says. I'm not sure there's a whole lot of Christians in the world that, if asked, "Do you think it's a good idea to take care of the gift that God gave us?," that wouldn't say, "Well, sure."

OW: How would you characterize your political beliefs?
Hunter:
That would be hard to do, and I'm not sure I could.

OW: Richard Land, a giant in the Southern Baptist world, said, "Human beings come first in God's created order." He thinks God gave us dominion over the Earth and nature comes second. How is his view different from yours?
Hunter:
[Laughing] Well, that's pretty opposite of what I believe. The root meaning of that Hebrew word [dominion] is "to serve." Even dominion is a way that both reaps from the Earth but, on balance, keeps it. So dominion means we will both develop the earth and enjoy the fruits of the Earth, but at the same time we will protect Earth and not damage it.

OW: I've read comments from some evangelicals who believe that if the calamities generally associated with global warming happen, that it's part of God's will, possibly part of God's plan for the end of days. What are your thoughts on that?
Hunter:
I think it's morally wrong to say that "Well, this is all God's will and he's coming back soon anyhow, so we shouldn't be attending to it." OK, so what if he is coming back? Well, don't you want to be found doing what he asked? If he's coming back, we want to be found protecting the Earth, whether it's of any use or not because that's the right thing to do.

OW: Yeah, that argument seems like a nice little self-fulfilling prophecy: "We created these changes, now we're saying they're signs from God of the coming apocalypse."
Hunter:
I don't believe that it's God's will that out of our stupidity or hubris or desire for our own wealth that we would take a chance with the lives of millions of people that could be affected by climate change. I think anything done out of a selfishness of wanting more resources for ourselves or because we're more insulated from the potential damaging effects is wrong.

OW: How are you taking what started with the Evangelical Climate Initiative and applying it locally?
Hunter:
I'm going to be doing a series of messages for pastors on just how to approach this in a way that makes sense, and in a way that individuals can respond or churches can be of help.

For individual Christians, it's really very simple: Recycle and do an energy audit and consider the size of car you're buying. It's pretty simple stuff, but it's also pretty doable.

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