An Interview with Green Evangelical Leader Richard Cizik
Polluters will have to answer to God, not just the government, according to Richard Cizik. Vice president of government affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, Cizik is a pro-Bush, Bible-wielding reverend who zealously opposes abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research. It also has a mission to convert tens of millions of Americans to the cause of conservation, using a right to life framework. Cizik has criss-crossed the United States in recent months, spreading the doctrine of “care for creation” to evangelical Christians.
Through his leadership, NAE, one of the most politically powerful religious advocacy groups in America, released a manifesto last year urging its members to adopt environmentally friendly lifestyles and urging the government to alleviate America’s environmental footprint. Next month, the organization will begin disseminating a charter calling on its network of members and high-level allies to fight global warming.
Cizik spoke to Grist recently from his hotel in New York, where he was preparing to attend a religious gathering and become an evangelist on climate change – a crisis, he says, of “biblical proportions”.
How has the National Association of Evangelicals become involved in political and social issues, and what has led you, most recently, to take a stand on the environment?
The public has long recognized our commitment to family values and pro-life issues, and they have begun to notice our commitment to issues such as human rights, slavery and AIDS. Only recently have we begun to respond adequately to the challenge that Scripture presents to us to be faithful stewards of God’s creation. We published an article 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 accordance with the principles of sustainability, and our government to reduce pollution and resource consumption.
Can you unpack that term “creation care”? How does this differ from ecology?
It is simply our articulation of a biblical doctrine, which is that we are commissioned by Almighty God to be stewards of the earth. It is not rooted in politics or ideology, but in scripture. Genesis 2:15 specifically calls us to “watch and care” for the bounty of the earth and its creatures. The scriptures not only affirm this role, but warn that the earth is not ours to abuse, possess 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 is very difficult to understand all the ramifications of this Bible verse, but I can tell you that it is a warning: destroyers, beware. Take care. It was by and for Christ that this earth was created, which means that it is wrong to destroy, degrade or despoil it – it is a tragedy of enormous proportions. He who has ears, let him hear.
The Bible also says that humans have “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over cattle, and over all the earth, and over all creeping things.” Some in your community interpret this as a license to exploit natural resources.
This is a deeply erroneous interpretation. Domination does not mean domination. It involves the responsibility to cultivate and care for the land, not to defile it with bad environmental practices. The Bible also teaches us that Jesus Christ not only redeems his people, but also restores God’s creation. Obviously, since the fall of man and the entry of sin into the world, all creation has longed for redemption from sin, death, and destruction. This will happen with the second coming of Christ. But in the meantime, we show our love for Jesus Christ by reaching and healing those who are 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 are you actually doing to involve people in these issues?
We ask Christians to shape their personal lives in creative ways by practicing effective recycling, conserving resources, and experiencing the joy of contact with nature. We urge the government to encourage energy efficiency, reduce pollution, encourage the sustainable use of natural resources, and care for wildlife and their natural habitats. There are still many who wonder if defending this program means we have to become liberal crackpots? And I tell them, definitely not. It’s in the Scripture. Read the Bible.
Have you endorsed any specific policy recommendations related to energy efficiency, pollution caps or biodiversity?
Not yet. We are currently working on a document due out this month on climate change which will go into some policy detail, but at this time we have no specific position on any environmental legislation.
Why did you refuse to collaborate with environmental groups?
It’s not that we ruled it out, it’s just that we’re not ready. We are not “me too” environmentalists. We need to develop our own voice, strategies and tactics, and once we have our feet on the ground, then we can talk about possible cooperation.
If I understand correctly, you publicly rejected an offer from the leaders of the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation to join forces.
Listen, there are people in my community who worry that environmentalists are the advocates of population control, big government solutions, or New Age religion, and have apocalyptic tendencies. In the latter case, there is a certain irony in my opinion. It’s as if the pot called the black kettle.
I try to reason with my community that we have earned our spurs in co-belligerence – collaborating with groups we would not 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 are you confident that your community will come to see the common goals it shares with environmentalists?
As long as we explain it the right way. Take mercury. If you reframe mercury regulation as a pro-life issue — reducing 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 sign at a pro-life rally that read, “Stop Mercury Poisoning of Unborn Children.” I handed out flyers showing that one in six babies are born with dangerous mercury levels and urged protesters to demand improvements to the Clear Skies Act. People were a little puzzled at first, but they got it.
Is there a clash between evangelical beliefs and science?
For some people in the evangelical community, there is distrust of science in general and distrust of climate science in particular. There’s a basic formula that says 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 – kinda like Social Security. We have to go beyond that. Fortunately, there are a growing number of evangelical scientists helping us overcome this barrier.
Have you endured criticism from other evangelicals about your environmental advocacy?
There are those who fear that by taking this path of care for creation, we are saying that plants and animals are superior to humans. Again, a big part of the challenge is to reframe the environmental issue for the evangelical community as a people issue. We must say, for example, that the fight against climate change is a way of saying that we care about the millions of people around the world who may have to endure enormous suffering and displacement due to droughts, hurricanes and flooding associated with global warming. Certainly, the human trauma caused by Katrina has brought this problem home.
What is your opinion on the Bush administration’s environmental record?
I’m a pro-Bush conservative, but I believe this isn’t a conservative problem, or a liberal problem, or a republican problem, or a democrat problem, or a red problem, or a blue problem, or a green problem. . 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 in the general public. I am convinced that the administration can change direction and we can help it do so.
What influence do you think you have on the leadership of the Republican Party?
Our membership numbers 30 million members, with 45,000 churches, 7,000 mega-churches, some with billion dollar budgets. We represent 40% of the Republican Party. There’s a saying that “as evangelicals go, so does the West” – meaning our community sets the trends. Is everyone in our community ready to support a program of creation and care? Certainly not. But conservation is conservative at its roots, and they can be pushed back.
Did you have some kind of moment of conversion 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 off the boy. I have always had a love for nature. I’ve often joked that I learned growing up that the weather can have a serious impact on a farm family’s income. There were a few storms that came in and destroyed our cherry crops. We have learned the hard way that we cannot subjugate Mother Nature.
Later in life, I had a conversion experience on the climate issue that is reminiscent of 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, etc. I suddenly realized, 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?
More importantly, we sold our motorhome, which got about five miles per gallon, and bought a Prius, which got about 10 times that. I should get a commission from Toyota for the number of people I converted to Prius.