The Nov. 3 national release of a new documentary film on global warming has Democratic strategists rubbing their palms together. Whereas former vice president Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth, preached mostly to the environmentalist choir earlier this year, The Great Warming directs its message of impending climate disaster at evangelicals-particularly those planning to vote in the upcoming midterm election.
Employing a similar marketing strategy to that of recent religion-themed films, promoters of The Great Warming are offering special screenings for churches-no matter the spiritual qualifications of narrators Keanu Reeves and Alanis Morissette. Producers hope that such supportive voices as Rich Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals and Joel Hunter, the newly appointed president of the Christian Coalition, will convince pastors to take up the message. The movie's website includes a printable church bulletin insert and resources for Bible studies and sermons on the topic of environmental stewardship.
In conjunction with the film, prominent religious leaders, celebrities, and scientists have issued a "Call to Action," promoting political candidates who favor cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 60 percent to 80 percent by 2050. The group is running ads on Christian radio in states with hotly contested House and Senate races, hoping to elevate the creation-care issue in the minds of evangelical voters.
Democratic strategist Eric Sapp believes the effort could tip the election in his party's favor: "We've been hearing from a number of evangelicals who are saying, 'This is something I feel I need to factor into my vote,'" he told WORLD. "Especially in areas where Democrats are running who are pro-life and have a traditional understanding of marriage, that's where you'll see this have the greatest impact."
Pennsylvania hosts the only seriously contested Senate race featuring a pro-life Democrat in Bob Casey Jr. But a significant number of pro-life Democrats are fighting for seats in the House, including several-such as John Cranley in Ohio and Brad Ellsworth in Indiana-who are challenging incumbent Republicans. Casey, Cranley, and Ellsworth all support federal policies aimed at significantly reducing CO2 emissions.
Most Republicans, on the other hand, support the wait-and-see approach of President George W. Bush, who has kept the United States out of the Kyoto Protocol, a voluntary emissions-reduction pact between all seven of the other G8 nations. Bush is unconvinced that the negative consequences of potential future warming would outweigh the economic consequences of the extreme emissions caps believed necessary to stop it. Further scientific uncertainty remains as to how much climate change is human-induced rather than merely part of the earth's natural climate cycle. Three decades ago, scientists warned of global cooling and an impending ice age.
Like all Americans, evangelicals are divided on the issue of global warming, with about half supporting significant federal emissions caps, according to a recent study from Ellison Research. A high-powered cadre of evangelical leaders, including The Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren, attempted to increase that number earlier this year by signing the Evangelical Climate Initiative, a statement espousing scientific consensus on the harmful impacts of greenhouse gases and calling on government to reduce them. Hunter was among the more outspoken signatories, appearing in television commercials and telling WORLD at the time that "we need to do this regardless of what the science of it is. We need to take care of the earth and do what we can to stop the pollution and accumulation of greenhouse gasses, because it's just the right thing to do."
Hunter concedes that evangelical concerns such as abortion and gay marriage remain critically important. He claims that his election-season push for creation care is not meant to pull votes away from pro-life candidates but instead to broaden the evangelical agenda. He expressed that aim in a statement earlier this month upon taking over the Christian Coalition, an organization built on the strength of fighting for clear biblical mandates. Roberta Combs, who as the former president of the coalition hired Hunter, told The Washington Post that Hunter's involvement with the Call to Action is an individual decision and does not represent the organization's position.
Democrats hope the impact of Hunter's efforts stretches beyond races with two pro-life candidates. Sapp, a former aide to Sen. Ted Kennedy and former youth pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Durham, N.C., says evangelicals ought to consider candidates committed to reducing abortion as viable alternatives to those favoring an outright ban: "If you're pro-life, you want to see abortions reduced. Ultimately, we want to see them disappear, but you know that in a fallen world that's just never going to happen." Sapp believes significant numbers of pro-life Republicans could vote for abortion-reducing Democrats in this election because of the global warming issue.
Jonathan Collegio, an evangelical who is a spokesman for the Republican National Congressional Committee, considers such party defection farfetched. "The issues that most move evangelical voters are those that the Scripture speaks to specifically. Trying to move Christian votes on abstract secular topics is not going to be a successful endeavor. . . . The number of Christian voters who will abandon issues like gay marriage and abortion in favor of so-called 'green' issues will be marginal at best."
Collegio compares contemporary efforts to broaden the evangelical agenda to the progressive era of the 1890s, when Methodists and Presbyterians took up the suffrage movement, then moved beyond that to taxation, labor issues, and general social policy. Their activism moved the church away from issues of God and salvation toward resolving the human condition through human institutions. The result was a steady decline in membership among churches that preached what became known as the "social gospel."
Modern-day descendants of that movement include the National Council of Churches and those who style themselves as "progressive" evangelicals, Collegio said: "When the church starts focusing on creating heaven on earth instead of getting to heaven from earth, on social policy instead of salvation, it ends up over time losing credibility and numbers in the pews."
But evangelical advocates for environmentalism attempt to distinguish their agenda from that of secular environmentalists. In a letter of support for The Great Warming featured on the film's website, Cizik, the NAE's vice president of governmental affairs, writes, "Our effort has an evangelistic result. By working and caring for the earth, we testify to God's love and ultimate sacrifice of his son for our redemption."
Cizik and other leaders point to biblical texts that support stewardship and argue that evangelicals should not reduce the gospel from its full scriptural expression. Hunter cites Genesis 2:15 where Adam is commanded by God to care for the garden. Most evangelicals concur that Scripture requires such measures as conservation and cleanliness. Disagreement arises when general calls for stewardship are used to support particular policies on the basis of disputed science.
Democratic strategist Flavia Colgan doubts that significant numbers of evangelicals will alter their thinking before Nov. 7. But Colgan, a practicing Catholic who holds a degree in religion from Harvard, believes Democratic efforts to reach conservative evangelicals will pay dividends down the road. "I wish we were at a point where the environment and global warming would drive someone's vote on a single issue. To me, being a Christian means being an environmentalist. We are stewards of God's creation. We don't have the right to destroy it."
Colgan believes that a political union between Democratic environmentalists and evangelical creation-care advocates should have developed long ago: "What this partnership tells me is that special interests are finally fed up with looking at which party someone's in before they forge an alliance with them. We need to work with and support whoever will help us move this country forward. If that means working with someone who is on the opposite side from us on gay marriage, so be it."
-with reporting from Lynn Vincent