Christians preach environmental gospel

  • Cartoon: Noah's Ark

    Toles/The Buffalo News, courtesy Universal Press Syndicate

God's handiwork can only be destroyed by its maker, Wisconsin Evangelical Calvin DeWitt recently told National Public Radio. "If you didn't make it, you'd better keep your hands off," he warned, buttressing his argument with a verse from Revelation that says those who destroy the Earth will be destroyed.

Evangelical Christians are only one source of a rising tide of environmentalism emanating from churches, temples, meeting houses and mosques all over the country.

This month, the Evangelical Environmental Network, which DeWitt helped found, launched a $1 million advertising campaign promoting support for the Endangered Species Act. The commercials, which are airing over Cable News Network, compare the act with Noah's ark, saying both saved God's creatures from destruction.

Meanwhile, in Portland, Ore., Monica Bond has helped organize the Interfaith Network for Earth Concerns, an affiliation of 17 denominations.

Bond, who is a Catholic, says the group includes Methodists, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Moslems, Hindus and Jews.

"The movement is really starting to grow," Bond says. "People should know that the Christian Coalition doesn't speak for most Christians."

Bond's group is circulating letters to Oregon and Washington churches asking for their support in stopping the Republican-dominated Congress from gutting the Endangered Species Act. In March, the letter will be presented to members of Congress who are likely to vote against the act. Bond believes many faiths espouse environmental consciousness and that the attack on the act has ignited them to political action. "We are encouraging Christians to start acting and voting according to their faith," she says.

Peter Illyn, leader of the Christians for Environmental Stewardship, has taken on the job of convincing Western charismatic and fundamentalist Christians to join the movement. He says many rural Christians equate wilderness and wild animals with evil. "They read that Adam and Eve were kicked out of paradise and sent into the wilderness," says Illyn.

He says Christians must read further into the Bible to see what God really meant for them to do on earth. "In Genesis," Illyn says, "God made a covenant with Noah to protect every living creature on Earth for all the generations to come."

He points out that Noah spent tremendous resources and more than 100 years building an ark to save every sort of animal. When it comes to a choice between jobs and species, Illyn says, God's mandate seems to be to save species.

"Man only has dominion over animals like parents have dominion over their children and shepherds over their sheep," says Illyn. "In that sense dominion includes responsibility." By using Bible scripture, Illyn hopes to bring more people from the Christian Right into the fold.

"These are people who take the Bible literally, and believe it is a moral guidebook in life," he says.

What is dominion?

Illyn probably will have a tough fight on his hands when it comes to wooing members of the Christian Coalition, which has a strong influence on Republican members of Congress. For many environmentalists, the Christian Coalition is synonymous with the wise-use movement, a philosophy which adherents claim is supported by the Bible when it tells humans to "subdue" the earth and take "dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."

The notion that development of the land equals progress has been a mainstay in the nation's religious philosophy since Colonial times, when the Puritans saw themselves as creating a paradise in the wilderness.

The Montana spokeswoman for the Christian Coalition, Laurie Koutnik, says her organization believes that God "gave us the animals to use wisely." The Endangered Species Act "was well intentioned in the beginning," she says, "but now it is absurd. We need a balance with nature, but not at the expense of people's livelihoods and private property rights."

But national leaders of the evangelical environmental movement say they will put Congress on notice that its members are jeopardizing their souls by jeopardizing the work of God.

Everyone's got religion

The Clinton administration has taken the Noah's ark philosophy to heart. In a November speech, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt called God's covenant with Noah an "everlasting covenant (that) was made to protect the whole of creation, not for the exclusive use and disposition of mankind." To Babbitt, the evangelical environmental movement comes as an endorsement of ecosystem management.

But Republican politicians aren't about to surrender evangelical support without a fight. Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, well known for justifying some of her votes in Congress with scripture, recently accused Babbitt of trying to turn environmentalism into a religion.

In a speech to the U.S. House of Representatives Jan. 31, Chenoweth said, "I have no problem with public officials maintaining deeply held beliefs. The problem comes when those beliefs become the driving force for environmental policy that punishes individuals who don't share those beliefs."

Conservative political pundit Alston Chase also took a swipe at Babbitt in an editorial in the Washington Times, saying "environmentalism is clearly a religion and its catechism is official U.S. law and policy." He added that "it may be only a matter of time before America becomes a complete theocracy - a place where, in the name of environmentalism, science and religion fuse with civil authority to rule the populace."

People involved in the movement, such as Monica Bond, say such attacks come out of desperation. "They just don't know how to react to us," she says.

Meanwhile, the grassroots effort to enlist religious backers for the Endangered Species Act seems to be growing. Tim Stevens and his wife, Amy Titgemeier, of Livingston, Mont., have been recruiting students at Christian colleges nationwide through the Christian Environmental Association. They started the "Rescue God's Creatures' campaign late last year by mailing announcements to 95 colleges. In little over a month they received 80 supportive responses from such institutions as Carroll College in Helena, Mont., Whitman College in Spokane, Wash., and Seattle-Pacific College in Seattle.

In March, Stevens' group will help send 30 students to Washington, D.C., to lobby their representatives. Participants will receive lobbying training from The Wilderness Society and the Environmental Information Center.

"We're bringing a new cadre of people into the fight to protect the Endangered Species Act," Stevens says. "This is the most encouraging sign I've seen since the act came up for renewal. And we're just beginning."

Mark Matthews freelances in Missoula, Montana.

For more information, contact Christians for Environmental Stewardship, 360/573-4019 or Interfaith Network for Earth Concerns, 503/236-0148.

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