Warming Draws Evangelicals Into Environmentalist Fold

Pastor Joel Hunter, center, oversees volunteers studying Northland Church trash to assess environmental impact.
Pastor Joel Hunter, center, oversees volunteers studying Northland Church trash to assess environmental impact. (By Phelan M. Ebenhack For The Washington Post)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 8, 2007

LONGWOOD, Fla. -- At 8 on a Saturday morning, just as the heat was permeating this sprawling Orlando suburb, Denise Kirsop donned a white plastic moon suit and began sorting through the trash produced by Northland Church.

She and several fellow parishioners picked apart the garbage to analyze exactly how much and what kind of waste their megachurch produces, looking for ways to reduce the congregation's contribution to global warming.

"I prayed about it, and God really revealed to me that I had a passion about creation," said Kirsop, who has since traded in her family's sport-utility vehicle for a hybrid Toyota Prius to help cut her greenhouse gas emissions. "Anything that draws me closer to God -- and this does -- increases my faith and helps my work for God."

Her conversion to environmentalism is the result of a years-long international campaign by British bishops and leaders of major U.S. environmental groups to bridge a long-standing divide between global-warming activists and American evangelicals.

The emerging rapprochement is regarded by some as a sign of how dramatically U.S. public sentiment has shifted on global warming in recent years. It also has begun, in modest ways, to transform how the two groups define themselves.

"I did sense this is one of these issues where the church could take leadership, like with civil rights," said Northland's senior pastor, Joel C. Hunter. "It's a matter of who speaks for evangelicals: Is it a broad range of voices on a broad range of issues, or a narrow range of voices?"

Hunter has emerged among evangelicals as a pivotal advocate for cutting greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are warming Earth's climate. A self-deprecating 59-year-old minister who can quote the "Baby Jesus" speech that Will Farrell delivered in the 2006 movie "Talladega Nights" as readily as he can the Bible, Hunter regularly preaches about climate change to 7,000 congregants in five Central Florida sites and to 3,000 more worshipers via the Internet. He even has met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to talk about environmental issues.

While he remains in a distinct minority, and a number of others on the Christian right disparage his efforts, Hunter and others like him have begun to reshape the politics around climate change.

Reaching Across the Ocean

Hunter came to the cause not on his own but rather through a six-year effort by British religious leaders to mobilize their U.S. counterparts on the issue.

"The United States is absolutely key to the question of climate change," said Sir John T. Houghton, a British atmospheric scientist and an evangelical. For nearly a decade, Houghton -- who said he has long sought to "put my science alongside my faith" -- worked to convince Hunter and other American evangelical leaders that their shared beliefs should compel them to focus on global warming.

In 2001, Houghton, a 75-year-old Welshman who has been honored twice by Queen Elizabeth II for his scientific work, walked the grounds of Windsor Castle with Calvin B. DeWitt, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin. The two, later joined by the Bishop James Jones of Liverpool, England, started organizing conferences on both sides of the Atlantic to convince U.S. evangelicals that human-generated warming poses a threat to God's creation.

Not long after that, several prominent American environmental leaders and scientists decided that they, too, needed to win over that same group.

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