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Religion rejuvenates environmentalism

By COURTNEY WOO

Evangelical pastor Ken Wilson's environmental conversion began a few years ago with goose bumps, watery eyes and an appeal for help.

"I heard Gus Speth, the dean of forestry at Yale, say to a group of religious leaders, 'I used to think the top environmental problems facing the world were global warming, environmental degradation and eco-system collapse, and that we scientists could fix those problems with enough science,' " Wilson recalls. " 'But I was wrong. The real problem is not those three items, but greed, selfishness and apathy. And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don't know how to do that. We need your help.' "

Back home, Wilson thought more about passages in the Bible containing messages of stewardship for the Earth. He began preaching about a Christian duty to protect the environment, or "creation care," at the Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor, Mich., where he is senior pastor.

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"It was like I was popping a cork," Wilson says. "People came up to me in the lobby after the lectures actually with tears in their eyes, saying thank you for speaking to this issue."

Wilson was surprised to see that many of those people were new to the church.

"There was a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology who came to the church for the very first time for the creation care series, and he said to me, 'Here's a church that is finally talking about science in a positive way and actually cares for the environment.' "

While only 21 percent of Americans report being active in the environmental movement, a 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that nearly 90 percent of Americans described themselves as religious.

"Simply based on the numbers, the faith community could be critically important to the environmental dialogue," says Jerry Lawson, national manager of the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star Small Business and Congregations Network, a division of EPA that helps congregations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Energy Star estimates that if each of the more than 300,000 houses of worship in the United States cut energy consumption by 10 percent, congregations would save $200 million and would eliminate greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 400,000 cars.

Because of their large numbers, American evangelicals could be a critical component of the burgeoning eco-religious movement. About 59 million Americans identify as evangelical Protestants, according to the 2008 Pew study.

Evangelical attitudes toward environmentalism are complex. As early as 1970, the National Association of Evangelicals equated preservation of natural resources and ecological balance with preservation of God's creation.

But around that time, evangelicals began to clash ideologically with scientists and leaders of the early environmental movement over issues of population control and evolution, Wilson says. Environmentalists advocated abortion as a solution to population control, while evangelicals opposed abortion. Meanwhile, political conservatism began to dominate evangelical thought and environmentalists became associated with liberalism.

Executive Pastor Don Bromley of the Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor counts himself a former skeptic of the environmental movement.

"I used to believe stereotypes that environmentalists didn't care about human beings as much as they did the natural world," Bromley says. "They were anti-progress."

Today, those divisions still hold.

The evangelical-oriented Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation questions the science of catastrophic climate change. (Mainstream scientists have concluded that the evidence of warming is unequivocal.) The Alliance argues that mandated reductions of greenhouse gas emissions will cause more harm than good because raising energy prices and cutting consumption will retard the economic development of poor regions plagued by disease, premature death and short life expectancies.

Still, signs of conversion are emerging.

Tri Robinson, 61, is senior pastor of the Vineyard Boise church. Five years ago, he revisited the Bible when his two adult children questioned the absence of environmental messages in the church. Robinson says he, like Wilson, suddenly saw environmental messages everywhere.

"I realized that issues of the environment were killing the poor and were stimulating things like human trafficking," Robinson recalls. "I'd tapped a whole new world I'd never seen before."

Also like Wilson, Robinson preached this message to his congregation. Instead of getting "tarred and feathered," as he'd feared, he received a standing ovation - his first in 25 years.

"It was like he was filling a gap," says parishioner Jessie Nilo, who heard Robinson speak that day. "It strengthened my relationship with God, connecting me to his creation in a new way. It's very freeing to be able to embrace another part of who God is."

Robinson represents a growing number of Christian leaders who, in recent years, are engaging in dialogue at a national level through conferences and interfaith coalitions.

In 2006, 86 evangelical leaders, including Robinson and Wilson, signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative; two years later, 46 Southern Baptist leaders signed a declaration for action on climate change. The Southern Baptist Convention is the country's largest Protestant denomination, with more than 16 million members and 42,000 churches.

Religious leaders from other traditions are also witnessing transformations of attitude among their membership.

"When I first started talking about environmental issues 13 years ago, there were folks who got up and walked out," says the Rev. Sally Bingham, an Episcopal and founder of Interfaith Power and Light, a national interfaith organization promoting energy efficiency and conservation. "Today, these messages are bringing people into the church."

Membership in Interfaith Power and Light has exploded.

The organization has grown from 100 congregations in 2000 to more than 10,000 congregations in 29 states in 2008.

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