"We intend to reach our to our colleagues in the scientific and evangelical communities and to urge them to join us in these efforts, and we plan to inform political leaders, policy-makers, and the public about our concerns and our activities," the letter to Bush said. "We ask that you be willing to meet with us."
The initiative was quickly endorsed by several key politicians, including two moderate Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Dick Lugar, and the Democratic Sen. Barack Obama whose increasingly likely run for the presidency in 2008 has made him, along with Sen. Hillary Clinton, the most-watched political figure in Washington today.
"I am pleased today to support the efforts announced by this powerful coalition of members of the evangelical and scientific communities," Obama said in a prepared statement. "It is only through such unity that we can effectively address these critical global environmental challenges."
Evangelicals in the U.S., many of whom believe in the literal truth of the Bible's account of creation, have generally been hostile to modern science, particularly since the 1920s when fundamentalists first opposed the teaching of evolution in the public schools.
In that respect, Wednesday's statement, the result of private consultations last month at a retreat for scientific and evangelical leaders in the state of Georgia, marks a major new development in the evolution of the increasingly turbulent politics of the evangelical movement.
Long dominated by leaders of the Christian Right, such as televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson whose politics generally matched those of the far right of the Republican Party, important elements of the movement have increasingly taken a more independent stance, particularly with respect to social issues, such as poverty and AIDS, global warming and human rights.
Evangelical concern about the environment first gained the national spotlight four years ago when Jim Ball, head of the Evangelical Environmental Network, launched the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign for hybrid vehicles. The slogan quickly appeared all over the country in the form of bumper stickers that were also interpreted as directed against gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles (SUVs).
Last February, 85 U.S. evangelical leaders, including the heads of a number of prominent evangelical universities and so-called "megachurches," launched the "Evangelical Climate Initiative" (ECI) that called on Congress to urgently enact legislation to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that virtually all experts believe contribute to global warming.
The ECI provoked a major controversy within the NAE, which represents some 30 million members of church congregations around the country, between its institutional leadership and more political leaders of the Christian Right, such as Falwell and the powerful head of Focus on the Family, James Dobson, who mounted a strong campaign against the initiative.
In the end, the NAE's board decided against endorsing the ECI as an institution, although a number of its past presidents and senior officers signed it in their individual capacities.
In the past year, the NAE board formally endorsed launching a dialogue with the scientific community on global warming, as well as other environmental and health problems, including habitat destruction, pollution, species extinction, and the spread of infectious diseases.
"There are people in our community who don't yet accept the science of human-induced climate change and other environmental problems," NAE vice president for governmental affairs Rev. Richard Cizik told IPS.
"What we're saying is, 'Let's be in dialogue with the scientists who have the best information about these problems that we can come up with.' This represents real forward movement," he added, noting that, unlike last year, when he could not sign the ECI due to his position at the NAE, he had signed this year's Call to Action.
"When my close friend Richard Cizik and I were having lunch more than a year ago," explained Eric Chivian, a Nobel Laureate who directs Harvard's Center that is co-sponsoring the initiative, "we talked about the dangerous degree of distrust between many scientists and evangelicals -- dangerous because, despite well known differences on some issues, these two groups clearly shared a deep reverence for life on Earth..."
"It was critically important, we believed, that if we were to make any progress in addressing such issues as global warming and habitat destruction, these two enormously powerful communities had to work together, and yet they were hardly speaking to one another," he said, adding that the latest initiative was designed to address the problem.
Of particular importance, according to both groups, is the potential political muscle that can be exerted by white evangelical Christians who, despite their growing interest in global social and environmental issues, still voted by a nearly four-to-one margin for Bush in 2004.
"Our friends in the scientific community have the facts we need to present to our congregations," said Joel Hunter, senior pastor of a Florida church, who also signed the Call. "We have the numbers of activists that will work through churches, government, and the business community to make a significant impact."
Over the past year, even some of the most right-wing elements of the evangelical community have moved toward accommodating the growing progressivism of the grassroots. Last summer, Robertson said he had become persuaded of the necessity for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
At the same time, more progressive evangelical leaders, notably Rick Warren, author of best-selling "The Purpose Driven Life" and pastor of a southern California mega-church, have reached out to prominent liberal Democrats.
Last fall, he sparked a major controversy within the movement when he invited Obama to speak on the AIDS crisis in Africa despite the senator's well-known support for abortion rights for women and his criticism -- often echoed by the scientific and public health communities -- of the Bush administration's emphasis on promoting abstinence and fidelity in allocating U.S. aid money for AIDS programs in poor countries.
The invitation, as well as the favourable reception given to Obama, was described by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, a close observer of religious trends in the U.S., as a "signal (that) a significant group of theologically conservative Christians no longer wants to be treated as a cog in the Republican political machine."
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Albion Monitor January
17, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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