The evangelical debate over global warming has only intensified since Focus on the Family chairman James Dobson, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, and 23 other conservative evangelicals called for National Association of Evangelicals vice president for governmental affairs Richard Cizik to resign in March.
"Cizik and others are using the global warming controversy to shift the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time," read the March 1 letter to NAE board chairman Roy Taylor. "In their place has come a preoccupation with climate concerns that extend beyond the NAE's mandate and its own statement of purpose."
The letter claimed Cizik was unauthorized to speak for the 30-million-member NAE on global warming, which Cizik argues is central to the Christian mandate to care for creation. "If he cannot be trusted to articulate the views of American evangelicals on environmental issues," the letter read, "then we respectfully suggest that he be encouraged to resign his position with the NAE."
Yet irregularities surrounding the letter, postmarked March 5 and not received by Taylor until five days after Focus on the Family made it public, have prompted questions about the motives behind it. NAE interim president Leith Anderson said he first heard of the letter when reporters from Religion News Service and The New York Times called him on March 2 for comment.
"That didn't help the cause," said Jerald Walz, an NAE board member and vice president for operations at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, which has criticized Cizik. Walz was not involved in writing the letter, he said, but his concerns parallel it. "Unfortunately, it was delivered in a way that caused people not to receive it," Walz said.
Other critics of the letter cited its tone.
"I felt it was not in any way a productive or redemptive way to deal with the issue," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Land was asked to sign the letter but declined.
"First of all, I don't think the way you treat people you disagree with is to publicly reprimand them and put their job in jeopardy," Land said. "It's not how Christians should treat each other."
But Land also expressed concern that Cizik's advocacy on global warming has led to the impression that the NAE has taken a stand when many evangelicals have not.
"I do think Rich [Cizik] is well in advance of his constituency on the issue," Land said. "I don't think there is anywhere near that kind of consensus on the issue, at least among the evangelicals I know. They're not ready to accept it is a settled fact that human beings are the major cause of global warming."
Consensus or not, evangelical political influence makes them an important player in the broader debate. At a February 7 meeting of a Senate subcommittee on global warming, subcommittee chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and ranking member of full committee Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., both invoked evangelicals in their opening statements.
Lieberman cited Cizik and Jim Ball, executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network, as examples of "prominent evangelical leaders" who believe the earth is "seriously imperiled by human behavior." Inhofe, who has called human-induced global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," struck back with a "correction."
"As far as the evangelists' organization goes, I'm sure that neither of you are aware of this," said Inhofe, addressing Lieberman and Sen. John Warner, R-Va., "but the Richard Cizik you refer to is on his own, and I'm sure he's being well-rewarded for doing it. He has been rejectedhis ideasby the National Association of Evangelicals."
Anderson expressed shock at the statement.
"Well, that's new information to me. How a U.S. senator would know about the NAE rejecting something that I've never heard ofit's difficult to respond," Anderson said. " I don't know what the source of his information is. The NAE has not had a discussion about rejecting anything."
Global-warming skeptics and critics of Cizik don't plan to back down.
"The NAE is at a crossroads," Walz said. "It needs to decide if it is going to follow the gospel of Jesus Christ or political activism."
Anderson said the NAE has for more than 65 years taken myriad positions on all sorts of social issues, opposing abortion and human trafficking, for example.
"The NAE is clearly committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ," Anderson said. "The NAE's doctrinal statement has long been the gold standard of evangelical doctrinal belief."
Anderson said the NAE will continue to advocate all seven principles laid out in "For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Public Engagement," its landmark 2003 document.
This broad agenda, Anderson said, "is what is going to occupy the NAE well into the future."
Sheryl Henderson Blunt is a CT senior writer.
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