Q&A: Bill Moyers on Green Evangelists

Is God Green? Bill Moyers wants to know. The veteran journalist says he was motivated to explore the deepening divide among evangelical Christians over how to respond to environmental concerns—especially global warming—in part because of his own evangelical upbringing. "Environmentalists were regarded as dangerously secular, people to be avoided," he says. But that may be changing. In his new documentary, to air Oct. 11 on PBS stations nationwide, Moyers examines a new movement among conservative Christians who view the fight against global warming as a religious obligation. Bill Moyers recently spoke with NEWSWEEK's Karen Breslau about "Is God Green?" The show is the second installment of his three-part, election year series, "On America" (the first was about the Jack Abramoff scandal). Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What made you want to take on evangelicals and global warming?

Bill Moyers: Last year, when a large group of influential evangelicals issued their "Call for Climate Action," challenging the position of the Bush administration on global warming, I thought it's not just a theological story; this is a story of a political awakening, too.

I come out of the evangelical culture in the South. In all the time I spent attending Central Baptist Church in Marshall, Texas, I can't remember any sermon preached on the environment. So when I heard about Tri Robinson, a pastor of a conservative church in Boise, Idaho, who was urging his congregation to see global warming from a theological perspective, I wanted to know more about him.

It's curious that you start the story in Idaho—hardly tree-hugger central.

That's right. But I thought to go to a place where to hug the trees means to be tied to [them] and persecuted, made the story all the more interesting. There was no outside pressure on Tri Robinson, the pastor, to issue a call to his congregation to protect the earth. No one was clamoring to hear this in his community. He got up and preached that first sermon on the importance of environmental stewardship and his congregation had never heard anything like it. It came from his own conviction and study. What made it more appealing was they didn't make a policy statement; they started doing those practical things to conserve and reduce their impact on the environment. His leadership created followers. It's an interesting phenomenon you like to see not only in the church but also in politics.

Why had it been such a struggle for evangelical Christians to embrace environmentalism? After all, being stewards of the earth is written right there in the book of Genesis.

There are a number of reasons. All the references to "Hollywood whackos" and "tree huggers" were deliberate, part of a 25-year effort by the conservative right to paint the environmental movement as something ungodly and foreign. So many people these days get their information from silos that merely confirm their pre-existing views, that environmentalism never had a real chance in the conservative political world because it had been so demonized.

Second, it has something to do with the fact that there is a long tradition of the theology of dominion, meaning that we men and women, God's ultimate creation, a little lower than the angels, were the primary concern and that the natural world wasn't. For a long time we could all avoid reality—Christian, Jews, Muslims. But now with the accumulating impact of population, consumption and pollution it's no longer possible to avoid what is obvious. It's reality intruding on that ideology that has brought so many evangelicals to think about global warming.

How is this evangelical movement different than the Al Gore-led movement?

The Al Gore movement has never penetrated to religious conservatives. The progressive Christians are with Al Gore and they always have been. But no evangelical who considers himself a true conservative would want to be allied with Al Gore. He talks in moral terms, but not religious terms. There is a difference: [the evangelist asks] "What does the Bible say?" [as opposed to] "What do men reason?"

Is there any evidence that the Bush administration, which has resisted pressure to adopt policies that would curb global warming, is hearing the green evangelicals?

You can be sure the White House paid attention when Pat Robertson said on "The 700 Club" he was now convinced that global warming is happening and that it is caused by human activity. I hear from people inside the evangelical community that Bush may do something to send a signal to conservatives that it is OK to accept that global warming cannot be ignored, that there has to be government action to curb it. There are six hearings going on Capitol Hill about how the government should respond on climate change. It's still a GOP-controlled Congress. They wouldn't allow this if they didn't realize they were falling behind on this issue, not because of Al Gore, but because of the heat they are getting from their own base.

You think we'll see the emergence of conservative evangelical green in time for the 2008 election?

I really do. I think reality becomes the ultimate saboteur of ideology and theology. Ideology embraces a worldview that cannot be challenged, that does not allow evidence to the contrary. Theology asserts propositions that do not have to be true to be believed. Only reality can undermine the hard face of ideology and the hard heart of theology. And even the most hardened ideologists are going to be affected by the reality of global warming. Otherwise Pat Robertson would never have been born again in public on this issue. He finally started sweating. Literally.