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Evangelicals Ally With Democrats on Environment

Times Staff Writer

Democratic strategists are joining forces with conservative evangelicals to promote a faith-based campaign on global warming, in an improbable alliance that could boost Democratic hopes of taking control of Congress.

At a news conference today, the president of the Christian Coalition and a board member of the National Assn. of Evangelicals -- both groups closely tied to the religious right -- will announce Call to Action, an effort to make global warming a front-and-center issue over the next three weeks for Christians in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, North Carolina, Colorado and several other states with pitched election campaigns.

Through ads on Christian radio, sermons from the pulpit, Bible studies, house parties and a documentary film, “The Great Warming,” Christians will be urged to view protecting the environment as a religious and moral issue every bit as urgent as opposing abortion and same-sex marriage.

“We’re not abandoning our previous positions: We’re still pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, pro-morality. But one or two issues can’t adequately express the Gospel,” said the Rev. Joel Hunter, new president of the Christian Coalition of America.

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Hunter is one of scores of evangelical leaders who have become convinced -- often reluctantly, after months of study -- that the planet is facing a crisis and that God expects Christians to act, in part by electing committed environmentalists to office. “I’m trying to make Christians ... look at candidates in a broader way, and look at individuals, not just parties,” he said.

The religious leaders say they are not trying to tip control of Congress to the Democrats; under federal law, churches cannot endorse candidates. Pastors can campaign on issues, however, and they acknowledge that the election-season focus on global warming is designed to send a message to the GOP: Don’t take us for granted.

“The fact that Republicans believe they have a lock on our voters is damaging to both the party and the church,” said Peter Vander Meulen, social justice coordinator for the Christian Reformed Church.

His denomination has a strong commitment to fighting poverty but is theologically and politically conservative: The church opposes birth control and considers homosexuality “disordered.” Vander Meulen estimates that 80% of the denomination’s 280,000 members are Republicans.

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This election, however, he expects “a measurable shift” toward Democrats, as pastors highlight global warming and concerns about the Iraq war.

Democratic consultant Eric Sapp calls the greening of the religious right a “godsend for Democrats.” His firm, Common Good Strategies, has drafted a guide for pastors who want to talk about global warming, complete with quotes from Scripture and a suggested prayer: “We lament what creation is become due to our sin.”

Sapp is especially eager to get global warming on the agenda for congregations in western North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, where Democratic candidates for Congress share some values with their Republican opponents, opposing abortion and talking openly about their personal faith. He senses that in such races, global warming could become a deciding factor for Christian voters.

“When evangelicals feel they have permission to vote on a wider range of issues, they’re not going to be thinking that Republicans are God’s party,” he said.

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Local conservatives don’t disagree. “The Republicans have been awkwardly silent on this issue,” said Dan Boone, president of Trevecca Nazarene University, an evangelical college in Nashville.

He recently hosted a lunch on global warming for 50 pastors, supplying them with a DVD to show their congregations. Boone has advanced the issue on campus too; he says the mostly conservative student body has responded with enthusiasm and a broadening of political priorities.

“My sense,” Boone said, “is that Christian voters are beginning to move away from being co-opted by either party.”

White evangelicals make up nearly a quarter of the electorate; 78% backed President Bush in 2004. But many have been frustrated with Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress for failing to promote issues they consider important, such as tougher laws on pornography and a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

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In recent years, as their leaders emphasized abortion, gay rights and school prayer, “evangelical” has come to seem synonymous with “conservative.” In fact, the shift to the right is a new development. As recently as a decade ago, white evangelicals were fairly evenly divided between the two parties. (Bush is an evangelical, but so are former Presidents Carter and Clinton, both Democrats.)

Some top evangelicals now worry that they’ve become too predictably right-wing. Global warming offers a way to get out of that box. The issue is widely seen as an advantage for Democrats because Republicans, led by Bush, have resisted steps such as ratifying the Kyoto Protocol to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming.

“Frankly, I’m conservative.... [But] we’re letting our principles lead us where they will,” said the Rev. Richard Cizik, a leading evangelical voice on the right.

Democrats stand ready to take advantage. At a recent forum on global warming at Messiah College, a conservative evangelical institution in Grantham, Pa., the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Bob Casey Jr., endorsed the Kyoto Protocol -- and got a warm reception. (The incumbent, Republican Rick Santorum, did not appear; instead, he sent a brief campaign video about other environmental issues.)

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In western North Carolina, Democratic candidate Heath Shuler plans to attend a church-sponsored screening of “The Great Warming” as he fights to unseat Republican Rep. Charles H. Taylor.

“The Great Warming” is heavy on science, but it also lays out the biblical case for acting on global warming, starting with God’s command to Adam to be a good steward of the Earth. Faith leaders increasingly make a moral argument as well, saying that floods, hurricanes and other effects of global warming will disproportionately affect the poor -- whom Christ commanded his followers to help.

In the long run, evangelicals leading the Call to Action say they hope, and expect, more Republicans to take up global warming as a priority cause.

“Evangelicals are in the best position to change the GOP’s mind on this -- a better position than any group in America, other than big business,” said Cizik, the vice president of governmental affairs for the National Assn. of Evangelicals, which represents 30 million Christians.

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But evangelicals are not united on the issue. Dissent is so pointed that Cizik did not sign his name to the Call to Action on global warming for fear of embroiling his group in controversy.

A small minority of Christians believes that environmental degradation and natural disaster may be a sign of the Second Coming. Many others hold that science has not proved global warming is a crisis -- or that God simply puts a higher priority on abortion and same-sex marriage.

Joseph Sheldon, a biology professor at Messiah College, disagrees. “As people who claim to know the creator,” he said, “we need to care for his creation.”

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stephanie.simon@latimes.com


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