Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Evangelicals' Faith Leads Them to Issues of Environment, Social Justice

Published in YES! Magazine (Fall 2008: Purple America issue): http://www.yesmagazine.org/article.asp?ID=2845

A passion for environmental action and social justice is spreading in what some may consider unexpected places. Had you walked into Northland, A Church Distributed—an evangelical megachurch in Florida—one Saturday morning last August, you would have found parishioners in Kevlar suits sifting through the congregation’s trash. Their mission: to fulfill what they consider the biblical imperative to be good stewards of the Earth. Led by senior pastor Joel C. Hunter, an advocate of the pro-environment, evangelical Creation Care movement, the churchgoers sorted about 30 bins of trash in order to assess the congregation’s environmental impact.

After the church showed the film “The Great Warming,” featuring National Association of Evangelicals spokesman Richard Cizik, they wanted to take action. When they were finished assessing the congregation’s waste, they created a 140-page audit of the church’s solid waste, energy management, landscaping, and water use, which formed the basis of Northland’s strategy for lowering its carbon footprint. Creation Care at Northland didn’t end there. After services another weekend, the church held a Creation Care event with 30 environmentally-friendly vendors and organizations. Then, in February, evangelical leaders hosted an interfaith summit at Northland, training religious leaders to promote sustainability within their own congregations.

Rev. Hunter is one of a growing number of evangelicals creating an alternative to an evangelical political platform long dominated by hot-button issues such as gay marriage and abortion. While maintaining a socially conservative platform, Hunter and others are expanding their agendas to address concerns such as global warming, poverty, education, and peacemaking. His recent book, A New Kind of Conservative, sounds a call for social justice and compassion for the disadvantaged. According to Hunter, younger generations are avoiding the negative tone and single-issue focus of the Christian Right. “As a movement progresses and matures,” he says, “it begins to define itself by what it’s for instead of what it’s against. It starts to think of pro-life in terms of life outside the womb as well as inside the womb.” He likens this shift to the changes a person goes through while growing up. “When you’re in middle school, you define yourself as who you hate and what you hate. But when you grow up, you start to say, ‘Now, what do I like? What do I want to build? What do I want my life to mean?’”

Black and Hispanic evangelicals have played a major role in shifting the agenda. A 2004 poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, Inc. for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly and U.S. News & World Report showed that while white evangelicals considered socially conservative moral values their first priority (37%), 41% of black and 34% of Hispanic respondents placed a different moral issue—the economy—first.

Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, leader of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), believes Hispanic evangelicals serve as a natural bridge between the “righteousness platform” of white evangelicals and the “justice platform” of the black church. While the approximately 15 million Hispanic evangelicals in America often oppose abortion and gay marriage, many also hold progressive, populist views on issues such as poverty, health care, education, and racial equality.

Immigration is one contentious issue Rodriguez hopes to see depolarized. The NHCLC envisions a “middle path” between upholding the rule of law and exercising compassion toward the approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S. In response to HR 4437, the 2005 bill designed to rein in illegal immigration, NHCLC drafted a proposal calling for comprehensive immigration reform that would include penalties and the payment of back taxes while “bringing immigrants out of the shadows” and providing a path to citizenship.

Rodriguez’s concern for social justice stems from his upbringing in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he witnessed economic upheaval and the decline of industry. As the region transformed, he saw rising levels of violence and racial inequality that persisted as the city grew increasingly diverse. In neighboring Allentown, where the high-school graduation rate was only 60.7% in 2005, evangelical pastors are making efforts to become a “firewall” against gang violence and high dropout rates. In collaboration with Allentown mayor Ed Pawlowski, the NHCLC-affiliated Third Day Worship Center launched an initiative to address these problems, creating an after-school mentoring program for at-risk youth. The effort, coinciding with the creation of Allentown’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, was part of Generation Fuerza (Generation Strength), an NHCLC campaign to reduce teen pregnancy, dropout rates, and gang involvement. Generation Fuerza advocates will begin meeting with Congress in October to promote this agenda.

The social justice approach extends beyond the domestic sphere. Evangelicals for Darfur, a member of the Save Darfur Coalition, includes advocates across the political spectrum, from Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention to Jim Wallis, editor of the progressive Sojourners magazine. In 2006, the group ran full-page ads in 10 major newspapers entitled “Without You, Mr. President, Darfur Doesn’t Have a Prayer,” urging support for international peacekeeping forces and multilateral economic sanctions. In addition to pushing for action, the group solicits donations for relief efforts and promotes education about the genocide.

Other evangelical groups are advocating peace between Israelis and Palestinians. They urge a two-state solution to the conflict, offering an alternative to the approach of more visible leaders such as John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel (CUFI) and senior pastor of the Cornerstone megachurch in San Antonio, Texas. Hagee is an influential proponent of Christian Zionism, which takes literally the biblical Book of Revelation and views an apocalyptic war in the Middle East as a necessary precursor to the Second Coming of Christ. As Christian Zionists, Hagee and his organization believe that Israel has a divinely sanctioned right to the West Bank and Gaza, and are actively involved in lobbying Washington to oppose “land for peace” and the creation of a Palestinian state.

Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding was founded in part to counter what the organization calls “a rising tide of Western interpretation of the nation of Israel as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.” Its Executive Director, Leonard Rodgers, believes the key to understanding lies in forming personal ties between American evangelicals and Middle Eastern Christians and Muslims, which the group accomplishes through its Living Stones delegations to the region. The organization is especially committed to forging ties with Middle Eastern Christians, a community Rodgers says few Americans are aware of. “When you introduce them and they build a relationship, they begin to understand the Middle East through the eyes of a Middle Easterner,” he says.

Last November, about 100 leaders signed an open letter by Evangelicals for Social Action, a group devoted to social and economic justice. “In the context of our ongoing support for the security of Israel, we believe that unless the situation between Israel and Palestine improves quickly, the consequences will be devastating,” the letter reads, commending Israeli and Palestinian leadership for supporting a two-state solution. The letter reaffirmed the call for peace contained in a July 2007 open letter to President Bush signed by 39 prominent evangelical leaders.

A key factor in the changing face of evangelicalism is the appearance of a young generation that is more expansive in its social outlook. While they are likely to share the socially conservative approach of their parents, younger evangelicals are being shaped by the dynamic world of globalization, technology, and online social networking.

Ben Lowe, 24, studied environmental biology at Wheaton College and is active in several Creation Care groups on Facebook. Last year, he brought together student leaders from 15 campuses for the January 2007 Wheaton Creation Care Summit and participated in Power Shift 2007, joining tens of thousands of other young adults in Washington, D.C. to confront global warming. He now works for A Rocha, a Christian organization devoted to conservation. Although his peers sometimes express suspicion toward environmentalism, they often change their minds once introduced to the issue in a biblical context. “Once we show from the Bible that being good stewards of the environment is our privilege and responsibility,” says Lowe, “then my peers are usually very enthusiastic and supportive.”

Rowan University graduate Dan Lebo, 22, now attends Palmer Theological Seminary. He received a scholarship to work with Evangelicals for Social Action and helped distribute its call for Middle East peace. “The American political landscape can be a very frustrating place for younger evangelicals,” says Lebo, because the issues they care about fall across the spectrum. “It would be very hard to pigeonhole young evangelicals into any political sphere. However, at the same time we are becoming very politically engaged. We realize how important politics can be to the welfare of our society and our world and are understanding that being apathetic about politics doesn’t help anything or anyone.”

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