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Creation Care tried to bring evangelicals into the climate movement. Here's why it failed.

The whole world in his hands.
The whole world in his hands.

Late in the George W. Bush years, as environmentalists geared up for a big push on national climate change legislation under a new (Democratic, they hoped) president, one of their key strategies was to target "strange bedfellows" constituencies. Hoping to avoid or at least blunt some typical forms of opposition, they courted big business, the military, and evangelical Christians.

The effort to win over evangelicals was rooted in "Creation Care," a budding movement involving a faction of evangelical leaders who sought to integrate concern over climate change into the church's agenda.

It failed. Pretty badly. The leaders of the movement were either drummed out of their leadership positions or silenced by a furious backlash from other parts of the conservative coalition. Climate denial is now more firmly rooted among evangelicals than ever.

To me, the failure of this effort always seemed overdetermined; it was doomed from every direction. Yet a great many people took it seriously, not only in the environmental movement but among the media, which lavished Creation Care with doting coverage, casting it as a key episode in the crumbling of conservative resistance to climate action. (The media still writes about that crumbling regularly; here are one, two recent examples. The crumbling itself has yet to arrive.)

Now the episode has received its first close examination, in a new paper from two scholars at the New America Foundation, Lydia Bean and Steven Teles.

Transpartisanship versus bipartisanship

The paper is part of a larger New America project detailing the promise and limitations of "transpartisan coalitions." (I wrote up an earlier paper from the project last year, an introduction to US political polarization that remains one of my favorite things written on the subject.)

A transpartisan coalition is importantly distinct from the bipartisan model that remains beloved by Beltway VSPs. A bipartisan coalition works from the center out. It is formed when centrists from each party transcend the grubby partisanship of their colleagues and reach across the aisle to create Commonsense Reforms through Comity and Compromise. (Or at least that's the myth; in practice, bipartisanship usually amounts to corporate welfare, the one thing the two parties can still agree on.)

By contrast, a transpartisan coalition works from the edges in. Policy entrepreneurs deep in their respective coalitions connect with their counterparts on the other side and create momentum outside of establishment circles, eventually pulling the center along. New America has held up prison reform and pushback against the surveillance state as areas where transpartisan coalitions have had some success.

Creation Care was an attempt at a transpartisan coalition that failed miserably. Understanding why can help illuminate the conditions necessary for such coalitions to form.

The evangelical hype

Environmental funders wanted to reach evangelicals, so they looked around for a proxy, an organization that would come with a ready-made relationship. They homed in on the Evangelical Environmental Network:

Funders recognized EEN as the "anchor organization" in a small field of Creation Care organizations led by evangelicals to foster environmental concern across ideological and partisan divides. Accordingly, environmental donors like the Hewlett Foundation and the multi-foundation-funded Energy Foundation made a series of grants in the mid-2000s to increase the role of climate change in the EEN’s work.

In turn, EEN focused its attention on the National Association of Evangelicals, where it found an early champion in Vice President for Governmental Affairs Richard Cizik. (Here's a Grist interview with Cizik from 2005.)

richard cizik and nancy pelosi

Cizik with Nancy Pelosi in 2009, back when transpartisan love was still in the air. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

In February 2006, EEN launched the Evangelical Climate Initiative, with a cri de coeur titled "Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action," signed by 86 evangelical leaders. It argued that climate change is real, it will hit the poor the hardest, and Christians are thus morally obligated to take action.

This development was met with great hope and hype alike. The media found a man-bites-dog story; enviros found a counter to the accusation that climate change is a liberal issue. It inspired Bill McKibben to ask, "Will evangelicals help save the earth?"

Turns out no. Enviros had made two fatal mistakes, both born out of ignorance of the dynamics at work in groups outside their own.

Don't mess with the money

The first was to underestimate the backlash from other parts of the conservative coalition.

It's one thing for conservatives to flirt with sentencing reform or drug policy reform; there are disagreements within the coalition on those subjects, and no core coalition partners or ideological commitments are at risk.

Climate change is another thing entirely. It directly threatens fossil fuel industries, a linchpin of the conservative coalition. It challenges the free market dogma that unites the entire right. And it threatens the power of traditional evangelical leaders to focus the church's agenda on social issues like abortion.

There has long been an understanding between evangelicals and the right's money wing: the latter supports the former on social issues, the former supports the latter on anti-regulatory, small-government issues. They both benefit.

The Creation Care effort somewhat naively wandered in and threatened to blow up that relationship. And it found no friends in the rest of the church because it threatened to pull focus away from abortion.

There ensued a vigorous episode of what Bean and Teles call "coalition maintenance," as Creation Care came under intense pressure from other evangelical leaders, right-wing think tanks and funders, fiscal conservatives, and the soon-to-be Tea Party, which back then was still just called the conservative base.

Creation Care never stood a chance. (After he flirted with heresy on same-sex marriage as well, Cizik resigned under pressure in 2008.)


Grass, tops and roots. (Shutterstock)

Don't mistake grasstops for grassroots

The EEN focused mainly on getting endorsements — signatures on statements and manifestos — from high-profile evangelical leaders. Write Bean and Teles:

This approach was distinctively "grasstops," in that it focused primarily on evangelical elites who were distant from everyday ministry with rank-and-file evangelicals in local congregations. These leaders were primarily found in denominational offices, Christian higher education, nationally-recognized megachurches, and national parachurch ministries, or special purpose religious organizations independent from both churches and denominations.

The expectation was that climate concern, once established in this "institutional beachhead," would trickle down to followers in local churches. But this badly misunderstood the decentralized nature of the US evangelical church. The paper quotes evangelical pastor Peter Illyn:

That’s the curse of the Evangelicals: we don’t have one hierarchy. [T]here’s probably 100,000 gatekeepers, and 100,000 gates. Every local pastor in some way is a gatekeeper, and on independent Baptist churches, where each congregation really stands alone. Nobody has kind of the ecclesiastical authority to say, "I speak for everyone." If any of you do that, you hear, "The hell you do. You don’t speak for me."

So climate concern did not trickle down. It had almost no presence on the ground in evangelical churches, no real constituency. Consequently, Creation Care leaders were utterly unprepared and undermanned in the face of conservative backlash.

The average pastor faced real risk if climate change got pushed too hard in sermon. Even in cases when it was addressed, it was usually in the context of a personal relationship with God's creation and personal actions like recycling. Climate policy and politics were charged and dangerous, especially with increasingly militant conservatives lining the pews.

And why take that risk? Illyn again:

They just have to create a debate, make the debate public, and the majority of pastors go, "I’m already busy. This is not a core battle for me. I don’t wanna sort through whose atmospheric study is right. The one guy says that we’re gonna melt down next year. The other says this is the biggest hoax ever played. I’m gonna dig a well in Africa. That’s a good thing I can do. I gotta get a sermon ready."

So when the conservative movement fell upon Creation Care with tooth and claw, there was no one to defend it. It's one thing to sign a petition, but it's another entirely to stand up to pressure from respected leaders and one's own congregation. Almost no one was invested in the issue enough to brave that.

Convening is not mobilizing

Environmental leaders relied on "convening power," write Bean and Teles, which political scientist Michael Lindsay characterizes as "the ability to bring disparate people together through identity and networks." Personal relationships among environmental and Creation Care leaders established an initial partnership, but the latter "joined the campaign with low personal commitment to climate action." There was no "mobilizing power" behind it, no "base of supporters with intense policy demands, willing to engage in conflict with organized opposition."

tea party protest

This is what a mobilized constituency looks like. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

Rev. Mitch Hescox, EEN’s current president, says this:

When the big money started flowing in the opposite direction from the Koch brothers...and the Heartland [Institute] and The Heritage Foundation, The Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, it really put some of those leaders into retreat. It showed that we had not done a good enough job...of really trying to understand and mobilize the people and their peers.

In the assessment of Jim Ball, executive director of EEN at the time...

... environmental funders’ focus on policy outcomes made it difficult for EEN to invest in the slow work of building a local church base. [Ball] estimated that connecting a grassroots evangelical base to a specific policy fight would require at least "three to five years’ worth of work." This time frame was arguably even longer for an issue like climate change, which was not a logical first policy fight for new evangelical leaders to take on. But this went far beyond the typical funding cycle of even the most patient foundations.

The environmental movement's engagement with evangelicals was, in the words of Michael Northrup (who was with the Rockefeller Foundation at the time), "much more of a tactical play than it was an institutional play." There was no real cultural understanding, no view into the internal dynamics of the evangelical world. It was shallow and almost entirely instrumental.

And so it was destined to fail. Without a mobilized constituency, it is impossible to leverage change in a coalition's deeply rooted roles and commitments. And a mobilized constituency cannot simply be conjured up by any campaign, no matter how clever its messaging. Mobilizing is the work of years, decades. It begins at the grassroots and moves upward.

Moving forward evangelically

Where does this leave us? The implications for the immediate future are fairly obvious. "When one party has a position that is deeply rooted coalitionally," write Bean and Teles, "purely partisan strategies are the only ones that are plausible in the short term." Obama, for one, has accepted this reality, which is why he has put forward a flurry of executive actions on climate that don't require congressional approval.

As for the long term, Creation Care is still around and has grown somewhat more savvy, turning its attention to "values-based organizing in local evangelical spaces." Bean and Teles conclude:

It is in evangelical universities and in individual congregations—the places where the next generation of evangelicals are learning what it is that their faith commits them to do in the public sphere—that the next battle for Creation Care will be fought. That is a battle that will not translate into changed votes in Congress for a decade or more, but it is a battle worth fighting.

As for me, I'm still skeptical. But as anyone who's read the Bible knows, sometimes people have to wait a long time for miracles.