Greening for God: Evangelicals Learn to Love Earth Day

While some of their leaders denounce environmentalism as pagan worship, others are adopting a distinctly Christian approach to "creation care."

Matthew and Nancy Sleeth, co-founders of Blessed Earth, take an evangelical approach to environmentalism.

For some churches, the environmental movement is not only a bad idea -- it's a false religion. "Environmentalism is nothing more than a pagan worship system," Pastor Jack Hibbs told his congregation at a recent Wednesday night service at Calvary Chapel Chino Hills in Southern California. The Bible clearly instructs humans to "use" the environment, not worship it, he insisted, pacing around the pulpit behind a sign advertising the church's "Worldview Series."

But while Hibbs and other conservative church leaders continue to demonize a movement they call "The Green Dragon," a growing number of evangelical leaders have been promoting mainstream environmental causes, even linking such concerns to biblical commandments. In 2006, Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson went so far as to declare himself a "convert" on the issue of global warming.

But within the evangelical community, the unmistakable tipping point may be at Washington's National Cathedral this weekend, where some of the nation's most prominent evangelical seminaries will sign an agreement with a group called the Seminary Stewardship Alliance. The purpose of the covenant is to educate future church leaders about environmental initiatives -- or "creation care," in evangelical parlance. The Earth Day agreement will ask the seminaries to commit to 10 specific actions, including modeling "sustainable practices in areas such as our facilities, hospitality, housing, missions, communications, recruitment, travel, and use of resources."

If the nation's conservative evangelical seminaries are preparing pastors who will promote environmental causes, what will happen to anti-environmentalist churches like Calvary Chapel Chino Hills?

"The characterization of environmentalism as 'paganism' and as an alternative to the Christian belief system is in sharp decline," says Lisa Weaver Swartz, author of "This Is My Father's World": American Evangelical Ambivalence Toward Climate Change. "Instead of a knee-jerk reaction against anything connected to the environmental movement, what I see now is a reframing of environmental issues into existing evangelical frameworks. They prefer the language like 'creation care' and 'stewardship.'"

Mainline Protestant groups have embraced environmental causes for years. It's taken longer to convince evangelical leaders that the Bible encourages direct action to protect the environment. But now that conservative seminaries are starting to cast themselves as pro-environment, experts see a greener future for Christians of all stripes. One of the covenant's signatories, Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, is typical in describing itself as an "evangelical community" shaped by "deep loyalty to the Scriptures as our infallible guide to questions of faith and practice."

"It's a very exciting moment," says Laurel Kearns, associate professor of sociology, religion, and environmental studies at Drew University. In 2007, Kearns co-founded the Green Seminary Initiative, which brought many of the nation's mainline Protestant seminaries into an agreement to incorporate environmental awareness into theological education. Kearns believes the Seminary Stewardship Alliance and the Green Seminary Initiative together represent a united front among America's church leaders. "To have two organizations that are reaching across the spectrum of theological education will make such a difference," Kearns says.

The Seminary Stewardship Alliance was launched by Blessed Earth, a Christian nonprofit founded in 2008. Rather than making their case through numbers and charts, the Blessed Earth founders chose a uniquely evangelical approach, focusing on biblical narratives and stories of personal renewal from their own lives.

"From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is replete with demonstrations of God loving his creation, revealing himself through nature, and calling us to be good stewards of the earth," says Matthew Sleeth, who established Blessed Earth with his wife, Nancy. "If we love the Creator, we should care for his creation."

Sleeth is a former emergency room doctor who became a Christian -- and an environmentalist -- after reading Gideon's Bible in his hospital's waiting room. He was shocked to discover how much the Bible seemed to emphasize humankind's responsibility to care for the earth. After Sleeth's conversion experience, he and his family moved to a small townhouse, reduced their energy usage by more than two-thirds, and slashed their garbage output by 90 percent. In addition to running Blessed Earth, the Sleeths also write books encouraging other Christians to serve God by downsizing their lives and protecting nature.

"Evangelical Christians are often portrayed as being against everything," Sleeth says. "It's great to tell the story of what we are for."

It may take years before Christianity's anti-environmentalist streak entirely disappears. Among older evangelicals, there is still a lingering suspicion toward scientists in general and mainstream environmentalists in particular. In the meantime, evangelicals are creating their own distinctive way of caring for the planet -- a brand that may purposefully avoid the term "environmentalism," says John Nagle, a Notre Dame law professor who studies environmental views within Christian circles.

"The general trend that I've seen is that younger evangelicals are much quicker to express environmental concerns than the previous generations," Nagle says. "For one anecdote, I taught a class on endangered insects to my daughter Laura's third grade class at a small Christian school a few years ago, and all of the kids were quick to say that God even cares about bugs."