Evangelist Endorses Environmentalism

By Joe Flaherty

Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, spoke last Friday, Nov. 2 in the Robert A. Jones ’59 Conference Room about a unique conversion experience, one he is hoping to bring to his fellow evangelicals.

“I was converted in 2002 at the Oxford Conference on climate change,” said Cizik. “Six years later I gave an interview on NPR’s  Fresh Air and I gave too much ‘fresh air’ to my evangelicals and all of them rose up on the conservative religious right side and said ‘fire the guy.’”

Cizik, for 28 years of his career, worked for the National Association of Evangelicals and for 10 of those years was the vice-president for governmental affairs. Cizik resigned in 2008 after supporting civil unions, President of the United States Barack Obama and action on climate change in an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, which led to criticism from his fellow evangelicals.

“I said a few other things, like I had voted for Barack Obama.  I said I can support civil unions, like other evangelical youngsters,” said Cizik. “And I said I believe in climate change and the science and we’re going to have to change the way we live, and that was too much.”

In his lecture, “For God’s Sake, Let’s Focus on the Earth!” Cizik said evangelicals are facing a theological crisis.

“I am going to be a consultant for you to [evangelicalism] because that movement, you see, has said no to all that we, I hope, in this room believe about what is happening to the planet,” said Cizik. “What I want to talk about is the theological challenge of the 21st century: climate change and the environment and the future of the planet,” said Cizik. “We are going to have to see and think more clearly about this…I happen to think we are going to have to see what the scriptures say about this.”

Cizik said there are 1,000 verses in the “green Bible,” or verses that refer to a responsibility for humankind to care for and protect the environment. He believes evangelicals must “shift from thinking this way – that our purpose in life is to live in order to die in order to live in a disembodied spiritual existence with God forever in heaven – from that vision, which is theological heresy, to a vision that we were born, not to live and die with Him in a disembodied existence, but to be with Him, co-partners, in the renewal and redemption of all of creation.”

Cizik said the world needs a conversion experience to change our vision to where everyone, of all creeds, can see what is happening to the planet. Calling it the shift from ethnocentric to cosmocentric thinking, Cizik said the Bible gives Christians a mechanism to see the spiritual importance of taking steps to halt climate change.

“We have to employ a strategy unlike we have ever employed in the past,” said Cizik, “We need to be inspired to action.”

Cizik believes colleges have a role to play.

“The strategy is to care more deeply, and the ethics professors on every campus, including this one, have to ask themselves and their students, what makes people care?” Cizik said, “The younger generation isn’t more environmentally ‘green’ just because they are more educated.”

According to Cizik, motivating people does not require more information, but communicating why people ought to care, and to do so, diverse communities have to work together.

“The strategy has to be bringing people together, particularly the scientific community, the religious community, to do this.”

As a result of Hurricane Sandy, Cizik said climate change and the environment “will be back on the screen, but nothing will change if we don’t internalize it with the eyes of our hearts, this shift to a new way of living that is deeply ingrained in how we think and how we feel.”

Cizik, delivering his lecture mere days after Hurricane Sandy struck the east coast, said the event should send a message to evangelical Christians.

“All of those conservatives who believe science is evil and trust in a God and believe He will take care of them no matter what and resort to a fear-based politics had something happen this week that should shatter their ignorance.”

Nevertheless, Cizik said the responsibility is up to us.

“We have to present the information to them in ways they will accept and understand.”

Jordan Collins ’15 was impressed by Cizik’s message and strategy for making change happen.

“I thought that Cizik presented a very important perspective on the shift Evangelical Christians need to make, to a more ‘cosmocentric’ appreciation and care of the earth,” she said in an email. “It was a pretty radical position considering Christianity’s ingrained traditions, but his points on using personal stories and bold action to inspire people and chip away at ignorance were definitely reasonable. It’s reassuring to have such a provocative change agent to whom those of faith can relate, with a message Christians are more likely to take to heart.”