Believers preach gospel of green
IN Hollywood, the white knight in the fight against global warming is Al Gore, whose film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” was received with great media hoopla when it arrived in theaters earlier this year. But in much of the rest of America, the man spearheading the battle against catastrophic climate change is someone you’d never see at the Ivy, hobnobbing with the Bush-hating, abortion-allowing, carbon footprint calculating nabobs of Hollywood elitism.
In fact, when it comes to broadening the reach of the environmental movement to red state America, the real savior turns out to be the Rev. Richard Cizik of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, America’s most influential Christian lobbying group, representing 45,000 churches and roughly 30 million believers across the country. According to two new documentaries, it is evangelicals like Cizik who may do more to make global warming a front-and-center issue than hundreds of white-wine fundraisers in Bel-Air and Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
For all its admirable sentiment, and sound science, “An Inconvenient Truth” ended up basically preaching to the converted. It grossed $23.6 million, an impressive number for an issue-oriented documentary. But the vast majority of its audience was in urban areas -- even at its peak, it didn’t play in more than 587 theaters.
To hear the people behind these new documentaries, there is a much larger group of Americans eager to join the fight against global warming. “Is God Green?” airs at 9 p.m. Wednesday on KCET as part of “Moyers on America,” a three-part series of documentaries by Bill Moyers, a born-again Christian and environmentalist himself.
The other documentary, “The Great Warming,” which arrives in theaters Nov. 3, focuses on environmental activism among evangelicals as well as ecologists, physicists, emergency room doctors and organic farmers. It interviews former CIA Director James Woolsey, who offers the blunt assessment, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Adapted from a series of Canadian TV specials, the film is being exhibited nationwide by Regal Cinema, the mega-movie theater chain owned by conservative family values activist Philip Anschutz.
Even more telling, according to Karen Coshof, the film’s producer, is how Regal became interested in the film. “They called us after they’d been inundated by calls and letters about the movie, which people had seen after we sent DVDs out to about 200 churches around the U.S. If we’ve learned anything, its that social change in America begins at the grass-roots level, in churches and synagogues where people listen to their pastors and rabbis and are moved to action.”
The documentaries debunk popular knee-jerk assumptions, namely that environmentalists are all Hollywood lefties and that evangelicals are simply antiabortion zealots. It is certainly refreshing to see evangelicals, who are often mocked in Hollywood films, treated as free-thinking human beings, not uptight fanatics.
Cizik is part of the nearly 80% of white evangelicals who voted for George W. Bush. But despite being against abortion and gay marriage, the NAE’s vice president for governmental affairs vehemently opposes the administration’s efforts to gut environmental protection laws, notably the ones that govern emissions that contribute to global warming. And when he criticizes Republican efforts to dismantle environmental laws, he speaks in a language you don’t hear from Leonardo DiCaprio and with a fervor that must send a shiver down Karl Rove’s spine.
“The manner in which we’ve pumped into the atmosphere 7 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases annually is, to me, a testimony to human sin. Does God desire this? I don’t think so,” he tells Moyers in “Is God Green?” “The Republican Party is largely serving the interests of the oil, gas and utility industries who pay large donations to Republican politicians. Can we expect that party to speak out on behalf of [the environment] without our political advocacy? Of course not!”
Cizik’s conversion to environmental activism came in 2002, when he was dragged to a conference at Oxford and met John Houghton, a climatologist -- and evangelical Christian. Now a two-Prius family man, Cizik travels around the country, preaching about “creation care” -- the evangelical term for environmental protection -- to church groups. I caught up with him at an airport after a speech in the Midwest, curious to hear why evangelicals would tune out former Vice President Al Gore but were willing to listen to one of their own.
“We tried to get evangelicals to go see ‘Inconvenient Truth,’ but they just wouldn’t go, even when we offered free tickets,” he explains. “I respect Mr. Gore for telling the truth, but he’s not the best messenger in our community. For our people, this has to be presented as a moral issue. And a lot of people simply wouldn’t accept Al Gore, God bless him, as a spokesman on moral issues.”
For liberals, it seems hard to imagine the GOP, home of Jack Abramoff and Rep. Mark Foley, has the high ground on morality. But for evangelicals, what matters most is hearing the word from their pastor, not a politician. As Cizik puts it: “When evangelicals hear their pastor speak out of the Bible, they respond. Never mind what Rush Limbaugh says. If their minister says this is an important issue, they’ll listen and they’ll act.”
Moyers believes that evangelicals, who’ve been in the forefront of many social issues, from the 19th century fight against slavery to 20th century battles for women’s suffrage and civil rights, were held back on the environment by the influence of religious leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. “They decided that the Grand Old Party would become God’s Own Party, so they used the accumulated influence of their followers to give them unprecedented political influence,” Moyers says. “They also went about using political propaganda to demonize the environmental movement and doubly demonize Hollywood celebrities fighting for the environment.”
Conservatives still routinely sneer at celebrities, either for being too strident or hypocritical for flying around in gas-guzzling private jets. But Cizik says times are changing. He points to the presence of Keanu Reeves and Alanis Morissette, who narrate “The Great Warming.”
“If you’re a celebrity going around criticizing President Bush, you’re probably going to alienate people,” he says. “But if you’re reaching out to tell a vital story, it’s another matter.” Cizik is a big fan of George Clooney, a key ally of the evangelicals on the fight to stop mass murder in the Darfur region of Sudan. “When I introduced him to my son at a Darfur rally, my son’s opinion of his dad suddenly went through the roof.”
Cizik will need all the allies he can get. He has powerful evangelical foes in the fight against global warming, notably Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson and the Rev. Louis P. Shelton, as well as Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who calls man-made global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on the American people.”
Several evangelical leaders have gone to Cizik’s boss, NAE leader Ted Haggard, calling for his head. Cizik also got into hot water when he invited both Pennsylvania senatorial candidates to a recent screening of “The Great Warming” and only the Democratic contender, Robert P. Casey, showed up. GOP supporters accused Cizik of going over to the other side, which he vehemently denies.
“Some people would like to knock me off my horse,” he says, noting that his foes have sent operatives to take notes at his speeches and interviews, faxing the results around Capitol Hill in an attempt to damage his credibility. “I’m not going to be bullied by them or by Rush Limbaugh, who thinks the environment is just an issue for tree huggers. Well, we evangelicals are people huggers, and when our rivers are too polluted to swim in, when our children are getting asthma and mercury poisoning, isn’t it time we did something about it?”
Even if Cizik takes a fall, the tide is turning. One of the signers of the Evangelical Climate Initiative earlier this year was Rick Warren, a leading evangelical and senior pastor at Orange County’s Saddleback Church. An ad endorsing “The Great Warming” due to run this month in the Washington Post was signed by other evangelicals, including the Rev. Joel Hunter, the new head of the Christian Coalition of America. Even Pat Robertson recently told his “700 Club” audience that the heat this summer made him a convert -- global warming is for real. Cizik sent him a message saying, “Welcome to the fold.”
This new sense of urgency may have broad political implications, with Cizik making the bold prediction that “there won’t be a Republican running for the White House in ’08 who isn’t with us on this issue.” Cizik says that Bush was giving a speech in support of his prescription drug plan earlier this year before a pre-screened audience of Republican supporters. “And yet, when he took questions, one of the first of those pre-screened people got up and said, ‘What’s your position on climate change, Mr. President?’ ”
Cizik can’t disguise his delight. “You can run,” he says. “But you can’t hide.”
“The Big Picture” appears on Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions or criticism, e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org.