If you understand American evangelical Christianity, representing at least a quarter of the US population, as the politically and theologically complex, fractious, and ultimately mainstream phenomenon that it is, then you'll appreciate the nuance and sensitivity with which Katharine Wilkinson navigates her subject in "Between God and Green."
Wilkinson tells a vitally important, even subversive, story at the heart of this carefully researched book. Over the past 30 years or more, even as the culture wars raged, an honest-to-God "evangelical Center" came to life in the political no-man's land between the old-guard religious right and the secular liberal establishment. And as Wilkinson shows, one of the most significant expressions of that increasingly assertive center — as it seeks to broaden the "evangelical agenda" beyond abortion and sexuality to include global poverty, health, and social-justice issues — is a far-reaching environmental movement, based on the theology of "creation care," and the effort by a new generation of moderate leaders to put climate change on the evangelical map.
That effort came to a head in February 2006 with the launch of the Evangelical Climate Initiative, rolled out with fanfare in full-page ads in The New York Times and Christianity Today and a presentation at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The initiative's founding document, "Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action," was signed by 86 prominent evangelical leaders (eventually more than 300), including influential megachurch pastors like Rick Warren and Joel Hunter and the heads of major evangelical colleges, seminaries, and relief organizations. The statement makes the scientific, moral, and theological case for immediate action: "Human-induced climate change is real," it will "hit the poor the hardest," and "Christian moral convictions demand our response . . . starting now."
Wilkinson, a former Natural Resources Defense Council staffer, makes her major contribution by placing the story of the initiative in political and historical context, showing not only what led up to it but also, up to a point, how it has played out.
Like any good born-again story, this one has a pivotal "road to Damascus" moment. The road, in this case, was a footpath at Oxford University, where in the summer of 2002, Richard Cizik, then chief lobbyist of the National Association of Evangelicals, strolled with eminent British climate scientist Sir John Houghton, who led the first reports of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — and who happens to be a devout evangelical Christian. Cizik's "conversion" on climate, which he describes in spiritual terms, was a turning point for the evangelical climate movement, according to insiders, and was a big factor in getting the initiative off the ground.
From the vantage of 2012, and the near-complete disappearance of moderate evangelicals from the media spotlight, that 2006 initiative may look like a flash in the pan. But that would dismiss it too easily. Creation care has made real inroads, especially on evangelical college campuses. And as Wilkinson shows, the movement has faced real hurdles, from ideological and anti-science attacks by the industry-funded right to internal rifts among creation-care advocates (some of whom, afraid of rocking the conservative boat, prefer a slower, quieter approach on climate) to the failure of its leaders to mobilize the grassroots.
Clearly, if the initiative's "Call to Action" was going to be more than a provocative document and a passing media event, and wield any real political clout, it needed the active support of pastors and churchgoers. Between 2007 and 2009, Wilkinson conducted extensive group discussions about the initiative in a range of congregations — although, oddly, only in the deeply conservative Southeast — and found rampant confusion, doubt, and misinformation about climate science along with resistance to government-led solutions.
Which begs the question: Where exactly is the evangelical center on climate? Is it primarily a phenomenon of a leadership elite? Is it regional? (Would Wilkinson have found different attitudes among churchgoers in the Midwest and West?) Is it generational? Strangely, Wilkinson doesn't say much about geography or about young evangelicals, who are known to be more politically independent and more engaged on climate.
If there is a generational shift, then it may be comforting to think that it's only a matter of time until evangelicals come around in a decisive way. But time — as mounting scientific evidence suggests — is running out.
Wen Stephenson is a former editor of the Globe's Ideas section and, most recently, was the senior producer of NPR's "On Point." He can be reached at email@example.com or followed @wenstephenson.