BeliefWatch: Evangelical Split Over Environment

What has Rich Cizik done to make Jim Dobson so mad? Cizik has, for 26 years, been the Washington-based lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals, a job one would hardly call high profile. Over the past year, though, he has become something of a celebrity: the evangelical leader who speaks for the cause of environmentalism.

Last week Dobson, the paterfamilias of Focus on the Family and the religious right's standard-bearer and junkyard dog, signed a letter with two dozen others, excoriating Cizik for his environmental activism. Cizik is out of his depth on the issue, the letter argued, and assumes a consensus where there is none. "If [Cizik] cannot be trusted to articulate the views of American evangelicals on environmental issues," said the letter, "then we respectfully suggest that he be encouraged to resign his post." To an outsider, the irate tone of the letter seemed odd. What had Cizik really done? Why would Dobson, arguably the most powerful evangelical in politics, care about the statements of a tree hugger? Beltway evangelicals have a few ideas. First, Cizik has started to publicly embrace solutions to the environmental crisis more commonly associated with the left than the right. In other words, he's thought to be a Democratic sympathizer, and in an election season, displays of evangelical unity are critical. Second, and related, Cizik gives the impression in the press that evangelicals are divided in their priorities, an impression picked up with relish by the national media and disputed by some insiders. "Most evangelicals are concerned with the war on terror and with raising teenagers in an environment saturated with sex and drugs," explains Michael Cromartie, vice president of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center. "It's not so much that evangelicals are anti-green, it's that green is not a priority for them."

But Dobson's Lear-like fury may have backfired. Some prominent religious leaders refused to sign the letter, saying they found it un-Christian. "I didn't feel," says Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, "that it was the most productive, most redemptive way to address the problem." Leith Anderson, NAE president, says his mail last week was "overwhelmingly supportive of Rich." Cizik himself is smart enough to seize the moment and position himself as a martyr. "It's time we return to being people known for our love and care of the earth and our fellow human beings," he wrote in remarks he planned to give at the NAE board meeting last week. Score one for the tree hugger.