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Will The National Association of Evangelicals Sink Into Irrelevance by Dodging Climate Change?

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A black hole dangled from the ceiling, sucking away my words.

I was smashing fables before a packed room of scientists and wonks in a break-out session at the 14th annual National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment, held on January 28-30 near the Reagan National Airport. Terri Eickel, a human energy surge and executive director of the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network, moderated an inter-faith panel assembled under the banner, "Action on Climate Change as a Moral Imperative: Conversing with the Religious Community." There was a Quaker, a Jew, a Muslim - and me, the moss-laden ogre from America's intellectual bayou. I was the white male evangelical.

Jaws dropped as the caricatures fell: We're not the zombies everyone loves to hate. Most never favored Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson; more identified themselves as Democrats than Republicans in 2009; 70 percent shun the label, "Religious Right;" and at least 40 percent view themselves as political moderates, whom Amy Sullivan ably described: "Broadly speaking, these are the suburban, two-working-parents, kids-in-public-school, recycle-the-newspapers evangelicals. They may be pro-life, but it's in a Catholic, 'seamless garment of life' kind of way." A plethora of organizations have lifted human-induced climate change as a top priority: the Evangelical Environmental Network, The World Evangelical Alliance, the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, Sojourners, and the Lausanne Consultation on Creation Care.

Peel off that James Dobson mask from my face. It doesn't fit.

But there was that black hole, that gnawing gap. The venerable National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella coalition founded in 1942 to raise the faithful from fundamentalism's anti-cultural gulch, retreats like a squeamish family physician, worried lest his long-time smoking patients stalk off if he links cigarettes to cancer. The gentle doctor drops hints and generalities: Live a healthy lifestyle; take your vitamins; get exercise. The NAE's version: Keep nature clean; don't pollute; ease up on "environmental change" - but never allow such controversial adjectives as "anthropogenic" or "human-induced" trespass before the term, "climate change." And tiptoe around the phrase itself.

The organization's board beamed that message when it overlooked last fall's petition of almost 2100 signatures urging it "to affirm publicly the reality of human-induced climate change and endorse the responsibility of individuals, churches, and the federal government to act to reduce carbon emissions and protect our natural heritage for our children and grandchildren." Richard Cizik, who spearheaded the drive, wrote in an e-mail exchange: "The NAE has ignored our petition, but we plan to continue a variety of means to hold the organization accountable." My stabs at obtaining an explanation via phone and e-mail met no response. I'm left wondering: Is the NAE locked in 2006, when deniers from the Religious Right pressured it into backing off climate change in the name of "unity" (the NAE had ranked creation care as one of its seven vital policy arenas in 2004 and several board members - as well as current President Leith Anderson - signed the bold Evangelical Climate Initiative)? If so, it's unwittingly sealing itself into its own cultural cul-de-sac, potentially isolated from Christianity's other branches - including evangelicals in developing nations and Europe - and robbing the wind from its advocacy on other issues.

Its February e-mail update, for example, rang eerie. It said the NAE filed a brief supporting The Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, companies claiming the Affordable Health Care Act's contraception mandate violates an owner's religious freedom; it also issued a statement of concern on the Syrian refugee crisis, called for less expensive weddings while hailing National Marriage Week, and shined spotlights on Wheaton College, declining abortion rates, a new film, and a commendable military chaplain. There's much to laud, to be sure, although the contraception stance was shaky: previous courts ruled that secular, for-profit firms legally exist independently of their owners; Protestants, including evangelicals, have never opposed birth control; and the Hobby Lobby's objection centers on the morning-after pill, which CEO and founder David Green characterized as an "abortion-causing drug." That's a mistake. The medication primarily halts ovulation and prevents fertilization.

But, more to the point, that dangling black hole sneered. There wasn't a single comment on the grim discoveries: Several reports speak of accelerated warning rates while NOAA and NASA ranked 2013 as one of the world's hottest years. Deniers responded by wading deeper into their bizarre explanations: Steve Forbes, for example, noted the recent polar vortexes and dismissed all evidence as "socialism in drag" while Fox commentator Eric Bolling accused scientists of concocting theories to fund their arctic vacations. Forbes should widen his horizons. The thermometer read three degrees at my Connecticut home on January 24th. That's bitter, but it was also 37 in Anchorage and 38 in Fairbanks. And, Mr. Bolling, researchers are like everyone else. They'd fleece tax payers for flights to Bermuda and the Bahamas if they were corrupt.

Only a cloistered alliance, imprisoned in its subculture's mental landscape, would fail to see the incongruity: Pleading against the contraception mandate amid rising sea levels triggers images of Honolulu church sextons protesting government carillon regulations on Sunday, December 7th, 1941. Excuse us, but Pearl Harbor explodes. Make your case while you help us douse the flames.

The NAE may conceive itself moderate because it encourages creation's stewardship, but it cannot rest on its laurels. The time for generalities has passed. President Leith Anderson, whom all hail as a man of integrity and whom I respect, put himself on record when he signed the climate initiative. I plead with him: Follow your own advice in your leadership books. Guide your board and do what is right. Otherwise, a once vigorous organization, filled with intellectual vitality, risks losing its relevance even among evangelicals themselves.

I felt compelled to acknowledge the room's black hole as things stood. I apologized for the NAE. I look forward to the day when I can commend it.

 
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