One way to gauge a movement’s viability is by its members’ willingness to chain themselves to heavy machinery. The kids from Restoring Eden did just that in March 2009, locking themselves to a coal-fired power plant located less than a mile from the United States Capitol, and threatening to stay there until Congress agreed to stop running—literally—on dirty coal.
The group of 25 college students I shadowed traveled from several Midwest schools to Washington, D.C., to join more than 12,000 other youth from 50 states and 13 countries for the largest climate conference in U.S. history. Called Powershift, the event was started in 2007 by the Energy Action Coalition to give high school and college students a voice in the national climate conversation. On a freezing March morning, I saw several Restoring Eden kids risk hypothermia—and jail—to block the gates of the power plant and sing Bible hymns in the slush for hours.
Another way to gauge a movement’s viability is the willingness of its members to unchain themselves from tradition. And in this respect, the courage these young people demonstrate is striking. It’s not the physical bravery of facing Bull Connor’s dogs, but the moral courage of children breaking with their parents.
According to Illyn, 90 percent of Restoring Eden’s members come from conservative evangelical and fundamentalist homes. Most attend or have graduated from Christian high schools and colleges. Many told me they were keeping their D.C. and West Virginia trips secret from their parents, and those who had been open about their activism universally reported some sort of backlash, from simple consternation to harsh rebuke to—in a few cases—excommunication from their childhood churches.
“If my parents knew that I was going to make myself arrestable for the environment, they’d disown me,” Michelle Dyer, a willowy 19-year-old with waist-length red hair, told me on day two of Powershift. Michelle had driven 10 hours from Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, with her friends Kaylen Fletcher and Dannika Foster.
Michelle, Kaylen, Dannika, and more than 100 other kids crowded into a conference room at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. They had come to hear Sage Vekasi-Phillips, the seminary student from North Carolina, channel Ed Abbey via Billy Graham. His lecture topic: “Stop a Bulldozer and Hug a Tree for Jesus: A (Radical) Christian Perspective to Christian Organizing.”
The kids scribbled in notebooks as Vekasi-Phillips preached about mountaintop removal and how Christians should heed the call to stop the practice. He said Jesus was the ultimate activist and “prophets, not profits” should guide the new environmental ethic. “King Coal is not God,” he opined. “King Jesus is Lord.”
When Vekasi-Phillips opened the floor for questions, a litany of impassioned testimonies flooded out. Ariel, a Mormon from Oregon, said she was tired of people being “neither for nor against the environment.” Courtney said Christians should read the Bible and Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, because nothing is going to happen until people learn the value of getting directly involved in change. And then Michelle Dyer stood up.
“I’m from the buckle of the Bible Belt,” she told the crowd. “Our biggest problem is the word environment. If we even breach the conversation, people look at us like we’re Satan worshippers. When I told my grandmother I was starting an environmental program, she scolded, ‘What are you doing with your life?’ My cousin said, ‘If I could hate you, I would.’
“But I have a love for creation,” Michelle continued. “I mean, my middle name is Eden. I want to learn how to build an argument for environmental stewardship that’s biblical.”
Like many kids from fundamentalist churches, Michelle faces numerous challenges. One is history: Conservative evangelicals (as opposed to liberal and mainline evangelicals) have been leery of social causes that water down their message of personal salvation. Many also believe in a dominion theology, in which the Bible tells them to “rule over all the creatures that move along the ground.” When interpreted the way Pat Robertson did for America in the 1980s, this Old Testament mandate provides religious justification for exploiting the environment for economic gain.
But neither of these hurdles compare to the negative cultural connotations of being an “environmentalist.” Call it the Al Gore Effect. “When I talk about the environment to other Christians, his name inevitably comes up,” says Jonathan Merritt, a respected writer on faith issues and the son of former Southern Baptist Convention President James Merritt. “There’s a perception—in many ways a well-grounded one—that this movement is saturated by political leftists. At the same time, [many Southern fundamentalists] fail to realize that one of the reasons it’s saturated is because they have wrongly failed to saturate it with their own voice.”
In general, conservative Christians continue to be skeptical of climate change, and many view it as an outright hoax. In 2006, the Traditional Values Coalition and the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance—two very vocal nondenominational lobbies—convinced the 40-million-member National Evangelical Association to resist signing a statement urging Congress to enact legislation limiting CO2 emissions. The TVC has also attacked the Evangelical Environmental Network. On the Coalition’s website, a paper titled “Evangelical Environmental Group Funded by Pro-Abortion, Pro-Homosexual Foundation” charges that EEN’s call to action was based on faulty science and that “increased carbon dioxide may be good for the planet.”
There’s an insidious effect when inflammatory claims like this reach the pews, says Illyn. “The far right gets stronger by making the science of global warming a debate,” he says. “They purposely introduce doubt into the conversation, and because it’s so controversial, the small- and mid-level pastors—the ones in direct contact with the largest number of people—won’t even present the idea [of global warming] to their congregations.”
And yet the evangelical community is no monolith. Despite the recession and the rise of Tea Party politics—both of which tend to dampen enthusiasm for green themes—there are signs that fundamentalism’s old insularity is changing. Since the late 1990s, almost every major faith-based organization in the United States has announced a commitment to greening the planet. The National Council of Churches, a liberal Protestant coalition with more than 45 million members, was no surprise. Nor were statements from mainline Catholics, Jews, and individual Protestant denominations. But a March 2008 declaration by several prominent Southern Baptist leaders certainly was. Reversing a 2007 resolution that called for caution on global warming, the so-called “Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change” urged the country’s largest and most powerful denomination to combat climate change directly. Then two more shockers: In May 2009, Christian Coalition president Roberta Combs announced a partnership with Larry Schweiger, president of the famously left-leaning National Wildlife Federation. And in March 2010, her group officially endorsed the Kerry/Graham energy bill.
Plenty of critics remain, of course, and Illyn believes a pew-by-pew battle remains. But one thing is clear: The next generation of conservative evangelical leaders will sound a lot different. The kids of Restoring Eden represent a fraction of the students participating in environmental programming at evangelical schools across the country. In 2009, Mike Plunkett, a spokesman for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, counted 50 of 111 member schools with some sort of green curriculum or club. What’s more, in a 2010 report to CCCU presidents at the International Forum on Christian Education, 41 percent of schools that responded to a campus sustainability and creation care survey said they were interested in having a dedicated sustainability office on campus. Over the next two decades, hundreds of newly minted ministers will step into pulpits with a little more Thoreau in their souls.