"Where would Jesus drill?"
That sounds almost like it could be the opening of a tree hugger's bad joke, but instead it's the lede in a recent Associated Press story written by John Flesher about a so-called "Green religion movement."
Efforts to make environmentalism its own sort of religion have been underway for some time now. But the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has sparked a new push to take what has been traditionally a political phenomenon, the American environmentalist movement, and make it part of the religious spectrum.
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The Spill as God's Message
The "greening of religion" can be found in the most peculiar places. In May, CNN founder Ted Turner offered the most blatant example when he told CNNMoney.com's Poppy Harlow that the oil spill was a message from God.
"I'm not a real religious person, but I'm somewhat religious," Turner said in an interview aired May 17. "I'm just wondering if God's telling us he doesn't want us to drill offshore, because it is sure setting back offshore drilling."
And Turner didn't just stop there - he said the Lord was working to tell us not to use coal as well with a recent rash of mine disasters.
"And right before that we had the coal mine disaster in West Virginia where we lost 29 miners," Turner continued. "And last week - or two days ago, the Chinese lost 29 miners, too, in another mine disaster in China. Seems like there is one there every week. Maybe the Lord's tired of having the mountains of West Virginia, the tops knocked off of them so they can get more coal. I think maybe we ought to just leave the coal in the ground and go with solar and wind power and geothermal where it's applicable."
Turner's comments were similar to those by other extremists who argued that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and soldiers' deaths in war are God's punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality or other sins. The difference, of course, is that the media vilify the "conservatives" who suggest disasters are God's message while they have embraced the environmentalist theology of liberals like Turner.
The Associated Press story, published July 7, saw the Gulf spill not as an unfortunate event, but instead as a "rallying cry" to bring people of faith on board with the "green" agenda.
"Where would Jesus drill?" John Flesher wrote. "Religious leaders who consider environmental protection a godly mission are making the Gulf of Mexico oil spill a rallying cry, hoping it inspires people of faith to support cleaner energy while changing their personal lives to consume less and contemplate more."
"Activists in the movement often described as ‘green religion' or ‘eco-theology' are using blogs and news conferences to get the word out," he continued. "Some are visiting the Gulf, inspecting oil-spattered wetlands and praying with idled fishermen and other victims. And believers in the stricken coastal regions are looking at the consequences of the oil's reach and asking what good can come out of it."
One of the leaders of movement, according to Flesher, has been Rev. Jim Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network. Ball argues that the faithful must make a "fundamental change" for the sake of the environment.
"Ball said it's understandable that some believers would embrace creation stewardship in theory while resisting specific measures that change their way of life," Flesher wrote. "But making fundamental change is what religious commitment is all about, he added."
"As Christians we have the freedom to do God's will," Ball told the AP. "We're not helpless, we're not hopeless."
And although it is hard to imagine certain media outlets embracing social issues the way they have this green religion movement, Ball was given the opportunity to appear on CNN on May 15 to make his pitch. "CNN Newsroom" host Don Lemon asked if there would be some sort of identity crisis if as believers, people backtracked on how they view the Gulf of Mexico's resources.
"You know what, reverend, it's kind of a Catch 22 there because - let's just be, you know, we - the folks there make their living really off the oil industry, a lot of people," Lemon said. "[A]s I said yesterday to General [Russel L.] Honore and to several of our guests - that the Gulf of Mexico is part of the social fabric there because that's how we relate to each other. We all vacation in the Gulf of Mexico and then we all, you know, eat the food and you come over, hey, come on in. Have some food or whatever. So, it can be a real identity crisis if it keeps going the way it is."
But according to Ball, the spill presented an "opportunity" to be better stewards of the planet.
"Well, if we - if we remember that we're children of God, that's the firmest foundation in terms of our identity that we can have. But I - it is a very trying situation when you have family members, some who are watermen and fishermen, others who are on the oil rigs, and you have a terrible situation like this happen. But, you know, we are called by God to be stewards of his creation. This actually presents us with an opportunity to do better in that regard."
Environmentalists have seized the opportunity to promote a political agenda usually conservative Christians might not normally support, including banning offshore drilling and promoting more expensive forms of alternative energy. Still, Ball's organization denied that Christian environmentalism is a political movement.
"There are policy issues with immense bearing on the health of creation, which I believe that we should take very seriously," Scott Sabin, the executive director of Plant with Purpose, wrote on EEN's blog July 12. "However, much of what is going on around the globe transcends politics, or defies easy political classification."
Eco-Evangelism the Next 'Awakening'
Want proof Christian environmentalism is a product of a left-wing media culture? Look no further than the Huffington Post, a favorite online haunt of liberals and many journalists.
A July 9 post by Brenda Peterson, author of "I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth," made that same case on the HuffPo's Religion section - that this is an opportunity to show religion and environmentalism go together.
"A new generation of eco-evangelicals could be a fourth Great Awakening in this country," Peterson wrote. "The first Awakening coincided with the American Revolution, the second with the abolitionist movement, and the third with the social gospel of humanitarian activism. Could green religion be the next movement? Instead of evangelicals fixating on a Rapturous end-of-the-world Revelation, could we see a save-the-world green evolution?"
Peterson called for more action from believers, but she took it a step further and asked her readers to consider volunteering to clean up the Gulf as a form of worship.
"Consider this an invitation, like the pulpit call evangelical preachers issue at the end of their sermons," she wrote. "Please join the rest of us sweltering, oil-stained souls in the modern miracle of cleaning up and conserving our Earth. Can we at last bow down together and also include the earth in our definition of the Divine? Can worship and prayer also embrace oil spill clean-ups and rescuing sea turtles from the burning hellfires of Gulf waters?"
But her plea wasn't entirely faith-based. She also called for changes in environmental policy with the usual liberal bent.
"What if churches and sermons recognized the oil staining our Gulf as a call to repent? To clean up and conserve? Change our lives," she wrote. "Stop drilling holes in our world. What if, instead of being transfixed on the afterlife, we actually fought against losing our paradises -- like these soulful Gulf waters? The Garden of Eden is still here on earth, though struggling to survive our abandonment."
The message there: Want to be a good follower of Christ? Embrace the eco-theology. But mixing Christianity and environmentalism can also go against Christian doctrine, as Dr. E. Calvin Beisner, national spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance, warned.
"It's important that churches ‘test all things, hold fast what is good,' as the Apostle Paul put it," Beisner said. "Some of what goes under the name of ‘creation care,' even in evangelical circles, is infected by the false world view and theology of secular and pagan religious environmentalism."
Instead of "earth-worship," Dr. James Tonkowich of the Institute on Religion & Democracy suggested a market approach to solve the problem of the oil spill, noting that the political environmental movement relies on government, not God.
"Somehow we've forgotten that it wasn't government that made this country prosperous and great, but the creativity, ingenuity, and industry of ordinary Americans," Tonkwich wrote in a post last month. "Calling on that same creativity, ingenuity, and industry to rescue the Gulf Coast (and their corporate balance sheet) is far and away the best advice BP ever received. Let's hope they have the sense to take it."