09/18/2013 03:47 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2013

It's Time for the National Association of Evangelicals to Step Up

Think of it as the gentleman in the tweed cap or the lady in horse riding apparel. The National Association of Evangelicals has emblematized dignity and poise since its 1942 inception. Perhaps its first president, the late Harold Ockenga, branded it with his personality when he -- along with Edward J. Carnell, Carl Henry, Daniel Fuller, and others -- cracked fundamentalism's isolationist shell and emerged as the intellectually muscular "new evangelicals," eager for debate, dialogue, and cultural engagement. Disparate denominations and organizations from Charismatic, Holiness, and Reformed traditions gather in the NAE manor.

Such is the NAE's noble past, but it now faces a decisive 21st-century test. The gentleman must roll up his sleeves while the lady summons the children. Can they remember Ockenga's savvy boldness? Will they be brave? Will they risk controversy and do the right thing? Will its board see through the reek of qualms and fears at its October meeting and validate a petition drive "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"?

No doubt some will worry over potential dissensions and withdrawals and accusations of left-wing pandering; others may call for tabling and further study; still others may file the time-honored balk: "We're not ready yet." More possible deflections: What about evangelism and spirituality? And prayer? And Bible study? And theology? And youth (shouldn't we fix a laser-focus on teens?)? And abortion and birth control and government spending and poverty and greed? And more fears of disunity -- never risk that vital unity ...

Consider: Isn't truth-evading unity kindred with an identity-robbing computer hacker? Our credibility vaporizes. No one listens. The organization re-seals itself in fundamentalism's anti-intellectual cave, with its censure of mainline waffling dismissed as hypocrisy: "What's the difference between you and those supposedly truth-evading theological liberals?" Consider Deborah Fikes' insight when she interwove youth outreach with the climate change battle. Adolescents face an adulthood of deserts, droughts, rising sea levels, and storms. Ignoring their future in the name of evangelism hardly sounds like "good news." And consider once more: When, precisely, will we be ready? All other major branches of Christianity -- Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and mainline Protestantism -- have repudiated denial. We're at risk of aligning ourselves with outliers and fringe thinkers.

To be fair, the NAE has tried to push ahead. Its 2004 framework for social engagement delineated seven vital arenas: religious freedom, family life and children, the sanctity of life, caring for the poverty-stricken and the helpless, human rights, peacemaking, and creation care. One outcome: Dorothy Boorse's 56-page pamphlet, "Loving The Least of These: Addressing A Changing Environment," which veers close to faulting human beings and stresses that "environmental change" strikes the poor. The NAE web site also links with the Christian Reformed Church, a member denomination that has finally named the name.

But there was push-back in 2008. Religious Right advocates, many from outside the NAE, bore down on Richard Cizik, then vice president of government affairs, because of his involvement in climate change and other issues. He eventually resigned under pressure that year over his enigmatic remarks on gay marriage -- for which he subsequently apologized while reaffirming a traditional view of sexuality -- and President Leith Anderson assured the world that the NAE held no formal position on anthropogenic climate change. But heat still sizzled from the margins: The insular Reformed Presbyterian Synod of North America withdrew in 2009 over "growing concern" about friendliness with "liberal Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Muslims" and inter-mingling with "Arminian and Pentecostal" Christians.

One wonders: Did the synod ever understand the organization's purpose?

Are NAE leaders gun shy? Maybe they're reading up on conflict resolution so they can evade the anthropogenic ghoul in October. If so, they should also tally up the costs of conflict avoidance ("resolution" is a misnomer here): Is side-stepping fair to Katherine Hayhoe, a Billy Graham fan and professor atmospheric science, often scolded for left-wing catering because she has spoken the truth (if Hayhoe is a radical, then Betty Crocker was a jungle-fighter)? And what about Mitch Hescox, president and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network? And the slew of international evangelical organizations who have boldly labeled the human role for the sin it is? Doesn't our acquiescence lend credibility to outliers and fringe thinkers?

I can hear a cascade of conflict avoidance: Don't rush... Be understanding... Remember our constituency... compromise-compromise-compromise... concede, yield, defer...

Yet another question: When does legitimate bargaining devolve into enabling appeasement? Compromise is designed for reasonable parties seeking win-win convergence: moderate liberals, for example, find common ground with moderate conservatives who agree on the facts; neither makes deals with the American Communist Party or the KKK. Negotiating away the hard reality about climate change isn't forging real unity. It is shaking hands with a lie -- and that's immoral.

Reach into your proud heritage, gentleman and lady. Remember your courage and integrity. Lead us into a future anchored in the truth. The petitioners are asking you to stand on your original foundation. You can find their request here, with sympathizers invited to sign.