Are Missouri's evangelicals going green? | St. Louis Public Radio

Are Missouri's evangelicals going green?

Apr 16, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Across the country, evangelical Christians are going green. To be sure, many are still leery about jumping onto a bandwagon already filled with — in their view — ultraliberal, even "unwashed," activists. Yet, in recent months, several national evangelical leaders have urged their fellow believers to protect the environment.

What is an evangelical Christian?

Evangelical Christians are those who believe that the Bible is holy, infallible, literally true and their authority for life and faith and that Jesus is their personal savior whose message they are commissioned to spread. While evangelical Christians are "born again," not all born-again Christians are evangelical. Many born-again Christians do not take the Bible literally and do not believe that they are obligated to spread the Gospel. They say they have a personal relationship with Jesus and believe that they are going to heaven because his death saved them.

"We believe that our world was given to us by our Creator, and we must care for it," said the Rev. Francis S. Page, national president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest evangelical denomination, in a letter this winter. Page said his Southern Baptist members have long stood for stewardship of God's gifts but have not spoken outside of their assemblies about environment protection.

Politics and religion

Evangelicals are the least concerned of any Christian groups about "environmental protection," according to a 2007 poll by the Barna Group, a respected polling organization in Ventura, Calif., that researches both evangelical and born-again Christians. Also, according to the Barna Group, among evangelical Christians, registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats almost 3 to 1. (More born-again Christians are registered Democrats than registered Republicans.) Southern Baptists, who are evangelicals, are Missouri's largest Protestant group. So, as political campaigns across Missouri ramp up, Republicans may get most of the questions — and may have the most to lose if they nod off on environmental issues.

Now with leadership being more vocal about the environment as a moral issue, evangelical attitudes may change.

Last summer, 71 percent of evangelical Christians told pollsters that they had recycled discards in the previous month. That meant that they were only slightly less involved in recycling than other Christian groups, such as mainline Protestants, born-again Christians and Catholics. Evangelicals have long excelled at recycling clothing for the poor here and overseas.

Evangelicals are not turning the volume up on the issue because it's a civics lesson. They say their actions are a Bible-based, moral imperative. In this, they join many other religious groups, including Catholics, Buddhists, Jews, mainline Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Sikhs and others who have talked about theological environmental obligations for decades.

This spring and summer, as candidates for public office make their rounds, they can expect evangelical Christians to pepper them with environmental questions, some Missouri evangelical Christian leaders said in interviews. Among their concerns are: air pollution, clean streams, household and hazardous waste disposal and tax credits for green construction or retrofitting. In interviews, the most popular issue among environmentalist evangelical Christians is alternative energy politics in Missouri.

God is good – and green

Is God green? That's what a Clayton evangelical pastor asked three dozen college students in a bible session called "Open Swim" on a recent Sunday night.

"That's a no brainer, of course: God is green, he created the universe and all that's in it," said the Rev. B.J. Otey, Sunday evening service pastor at Central Presbyterian Church. (His evangelical congregation believes in the inerrancy of the Bible, which differentiates it from the Presbyterian Church USA denomination.)

"This issue is really on people's minds, and we need to bring it forward, see it from a faith view. It is much more than politics, it is about caring for God's gifts. It's about making good choices every day," Otey said.

After Otey's theological chat, church member Erin Noble took the floor and suggested practical ways to make eco-friendly choices. The students at the event — from the University of Missouri, Washington University, St. Louis University and Webster University — were eager to go greener.

Noble also offered more opportunities for them to use academic savvy to examine public policy on clear water, wetlands protection, air quality and alternative energy. Noble's day job is the Missouri Coalition for the Environment's outreach director, which fits neatly with her evangelical beliefs.

At the end of the Open Swim session, she collected the students' signatures to put a renewable energy measure on the November ballot. In recent weeks, Noble has recruited hundreds of volunteers to gather the signatures of Missouri registered voters for the Missouri Clean Energy Initiative. If passed, Missouri public electric utilities would have to green up by getting at least 15 percent of their product from clean renewal energy — sun, wind, geothermal or sustainable energy crops — in a dozen years.

"People understand that a law would make a difference," Noble say. "College students get this issue, they care about this." 

The Creed’s first line

Still, there is just enough edginess about the green movement that one St. Louis evangelical theologian likes to tease his students with the line: "Is it OK for Lutherans to observe Earth Day?"

On Earth Day, April 22, millions will celebrate and educate themselves about caring for the planet and its people. Some evangelical Christians shake their heads in disapproval at even the name Earth Day, which they say sounds like a fling with a pagan Mother Earth.

"Of course, it is fine to celebrate Earth Day," said theologian Charles Arand, a professor at Concordia Seminary in Clayton. "Martin Luther had a robust attitude about the earth."

Arand is one of three professors at Concordia Seminary who teach biblical roots of environmental theology. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is an evangelical denomination proclaiming the inerrancy of the Bible, unlike the less conservative Lutheran group called the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

"Those who see the earth as a prison or a place to endure until they are released to heaven may ask 'why bother?' to care for the earth," Arand said. But if Christians listen as they pray the first line of the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed: "I Believe in One God ... Creator of heaven and earth," they will treat God's creation with respect.

"We need to give more attention to the first line," Arand said. "Then acting as God's stewards will be more basic to Christians."

He'd like his seminarians to get beyond any skittishness about Earth Day and to visit "Going Green" informational booths at the Earth Day festival in Forest Park, three blocks from their campus. Mixing with people who disagree with evangelicals on other heartfelt issues is not bad, he said.

"Just as there are many ways to oppose abortion, including violent ways that we disapprove of, there are many ways to preserve the earth," he said.

Patricia Rice has written about the environment and religion for many years, both regionally and internationally.

Coming tomorrow: New churches try to incorporate green principles.