Is God Green? Making Sense of the Environmental Debate Among Christians

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Is God Green?

Bill Moyers on America
Films for the Humanities & Sciences (2006)
60 minutes


The issue of the environment has clearly appeared on the radar screen of evangelical Christians over the past eight years. Is this a good thing or a not so good thing? A debate now rages among high-profiled evangelical leaders, most of whom know little or nothing about science. At the same time ordinary Christians are paying more attention to the environment than ever before, or so it seems to me.

This is the subject of a recent Bill Moyers’ documentary presentation called: Is God Green? It was produced in 2006, right in the middle of the fierce back-and-forth debate of two sides in the evangelical world. Moyers suggests that millions of Christians are now “green.” (I think his way of determining this sizable number is questionable, as I will soon show.) These Christians, he does show quite effectively, have taken on the care of the environment as a moral and biblical obligation. In the film he features a very interesting Vineyard Church in Boise, Idaho, that is very engaged in environmental issues and as a result is acting on their beliefs and also seeing non-Christians pay attention to their witness as a result. Such Christians believe, even more controversially, that it is their duty to do something about global warming. Included in this rising concern is the desire to preserve the loss of animal species and to clean up our air, food and water.

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My wife and I have clearly noticed an increased interest in these subjects among our peers over the last five years. We have made some changes and I expect we will make more. 

Moyers shows how this rising emphasis among evangelicals on the environment is also opposed by Christians who stress that the imminence of the End Times and the Rapture make such stewardship unnecessary at best.
Along with this type of approach the much more common response of evangelical leaders to this rising green interest is to suggest that younger evangelicals are being captured by the liberal left and the Democratic Party.

Moyers traveled around the country interviewing evangelicals on both sides of this debate. Included on the film are the usual critics such as James Dobson and Pat Robertson. At the end of the film Robertson is quoted in a way that shows his views might be changing after all. Rich_cizik
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The two primary evangelical leaders featured on the film are Richard Cizik (left), the Vice President for Governmental Affairs for NAE, and Calvin Beisner (right), a very conservative Reformed theologian and a professor at Knox Seminary in Florida.

First, why do I question Moyers on his use of numbers about the evangelicals who are really interested in this issue? He makes the faulty assumption that Cizik speaks for millions because of his title and position with NAE. He clearly does not speak for so many people because of his position. NAE speaks for so few evangelicals that it is, in my judgment, irrelevant to the discussion in the end. Cizik speaks for himself and less than a 100 other leaders who signed a document a few years ago. And he does this eloquently and with humility and grace. He does represent a growing movement for sure but no one can talk yet about how large it really is at the end of the day.

On the other hand Beisner speaks for some evangelicals as well, but one has to doubt that most evangelicals have never even heard of him, much less read his considerable work on the environment. In this video, whether you agree with him or not, Rich Cizik comes across as the reasonable, compassionate, and more caring person of the two. Beisner, sadly, fits some of the expected stereotypes of conservative Reformed arguments on such issues. For example, he rightly defends divine sovereignty but it comes across as clumsy and matter-of-fact. Moyers is appalled at his argument that God may actually be causing all of this. (Beisner rightly says God “sent” (decreed is the theological word here) Hurricane Katrina but it all sounds like fatalism to the ordinary viewer. While Reformed Christians rightly have a high view of divine providence they should believe just as fervently that humans can wreak havoc on the earth in ways that God does not (directly) “cause,” at least in the usual sense of the word “cause.” Beisner fails to adequately distinguish, in other words, between what God ordains and what man is responsible for causing because of his sin and moral foolishness. His Calvinism is so high that it leaves you breathless and gasping for some measure of balance.

Further, Beisner speaks of global warming with a note of considerable disdain and then proceeds to suggest that if God is actually causing global warming then we should do little or nothing about it. This response borders on a kind of macro-fatalism that is quite alarming to me, a Reformed Christian. Don’t take my word on this, view the video and see for yourself. Beisner’s certitude about his position was far more entrenched than was Cizik’s, though both men clearly seem to be quite sure of their conclusions, and thus their actions, in this debate.

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I find myself somewhere between these two polarizing positions. Cizik makes a good case for the facts but the devil is in the details. That climate change is taking place is obvious. Why it is taking place is not so obvious. What to do about it is problematic but careful planning is needed. Yes, there is climate fear and hysteria that rises to the level of idolatry. What else is new? This is no excuse for sitting this discussion out by mocking one side of the other. Christians, of all people, ought to cultivate a posture that is willing to listen and learn, especially when it will impact future generations of people on the planet.

One thing I am sure of—the next president of the United States will take this subject far more seriously than our present president. Both Obama and McCain are openly committed to this discussion and to finding actual ways to improve the environment. McCain, for example, fancies his position as much like that of his hero Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps America’s greatest environmental president. Obama is automatically committed as a Democrat. So this election will give us two serious candidates who both think we should do more.

I have spoken previously of global warming hysteria, built on bad science and pandering politicians. This leads to bad policies and radically unacceptable responses. But isn’t it time that Christians stop using terms like “environmental nut balls” and began to engage this dialog seriously? Calvin Beisner seem to argue that the creation mandate (Genesis 1:27) allows us to destroy species, to take from the earth without seeking to replenish it and to destroy open lands and natural beauty. I would welcome a healthy debate about his use of this Genesis text, so commonly used by Reformed Christians for almost every cause under the sun.

It seems clear to me that Genesis 1:28 is saying that humankind (male and female) has been given a divine benediction to flourish, to fill the earth with their own kind (i.e., to have children), and to exercise careful dominion over the rest of the created order. God_and_globe
We are not the lords of the earth, but the stewards. Our dominion comes from God and we must use it for his glory, not simply for our gain and profit. As earth’s stewards we are to care for the whole earth and this must include every living thing. Idolatrous environmentalism and human dominion over the whole earth that uses it and does not seek to restore it are not the only options on the table! Indeed, Genesis 1:28 requires us to pay careful attention to the earth, something forgotten long ago by evangelicals who think everything is for them to use before we get taken out when the Lord returns. This response is, quite frankly, heretical. It is neither life affirming nor truly Christian, but life denying. I fully expect more and more Christians will become interested in the environment in the years ahead. If Cizik is wrong in some of the details, and I think he is, then he is right about the bigger concern and has thus done us a favor by helping to awaken us to important concerns. Younger Christians know this instinctively and are more willing to listen to it since they do not associate God’s creation with a political party or a particular ideology that has grown out of a bad theology.

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I realize Bill Moyers is despised by many conservatives in my generation. My response is: “So what.” This is no reason to refuse to view such a presentation. I found this documentary well worth the time I spent viewing it. In fact, I think I will watch it again. 

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