An Unlikely Alliance

A group of 28 scientists and evangelical Christians today announced their commitment to working together to address global and environmental climate change--an issue that they say is pressing enough to trump any theological differences between the groups. Eric Chivian, director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, is one of the scientists leading the collaboration. In an interview with NEWSWEEK's Samantha Henig, Chivian discussed the origins of this peculiar union, what the two groups have in common, how the evangelical Christian community can help scientists and the spiritual significance of his fruit garden. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Scientists and evangelicals have announced that they are coming together to address global warming and environmental change. What exactly does this collaboration entail?

Eric Chivian: We believe that it was very important for these two groups--scientists and evangelical Christians--to get together and speak with one voice, because the public sees us as disagreeing on a whole variety of issues. And yet it was clear after we began to meet that we really shared a very deep reverence for life and we shared an enormous concern about what was being done to it by human activity. And that was a surprise to us.

What do you have planned?

We are planning to meet with a bipartisan group of members of the Congress this afternoon. I know we're meeting with Sen. Barbara Boxer and with the staff of Sen. Dick Lugar, and others in both the House and Senate. We are planning a large meeting some time in the near future of our two communities, a large public meeting. This is just the beginning of this dialogue.

Who are the scientists working on this? Are any of them members of the National Association of Evangelicals?

Some in the evangelical group are also scientists. For example, Cal Dewitt is a professor of environmental science at the University of Wisconsin, but he's also a prominent evangelical. Randy Isaac is a scientist who runs something called the American Scientific Affiliation, which is a group of some 2,000 scientists, most of whom are evangelicals, but are also scientists. So this distinction between scientist and evangelical is not a firm one.

It seems like an unlikely pairing, evangelicals and scientists.

Yes, it does.

How did the union originate?

At a lunch meeting a little over a year ago, Richard Cizik [vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals] was saying to me, "You know, I'm very concerned about the divide between our two worlds and the level of distrust." We both agreed that this was a very dangerous divide, that at this time it was extremely important for two of the most influential groups in our country to be speaking to each other, and yet they were hardly doing that.

Do you think that God created the Earth?

That's an interesting question. I feel I'm a deeply religious person. I'm not identified with any particular faith. I actually have an orchard in central Massachusetts, and I spend a lot of time growing fruit, and I feel a very deep reverence for nature. And that reverence, I found, is very deeply shared by my evangelical colleagues in this effort.

That still doesn't answer what your belief is about the origin of the planet.

I don't think that's relevant.

Are there any ground rules in terms of these two groups working together, any topics that are "off limits"?

Everyone acknowledged right at the beginning that we didn't agree on everything but that it would be a waste of our time to be fighting about that or trying to resolve it. We agreed on the most important thing of all in our view, which wasn't whether, as Richard says, whether God created the Earth in a millisecond or whether it evolved over three and a half billion years. The most important issue is that life is now imperiled by human activity.

Why is it to the scientists' advantage to have the evangelical population involved?

They're very well organized, they have a great deal of credibility in the United States and great numbers, and a great deal of influence in many sectors of our society.

What are you hoping will come out of this?

I think the country is really poised to make some major changes in our policies with regard to energy, for example greenhouse-gas emissions. I think you can see in Congress a great deal of interest--bipartisan interest--in moving these initiatives forward. I think that's happening in the general public, as well. People are becoming much more aware that we have enormous problems that we are facing and that we can also do something about mitigating those problems. I think this initiative will just add weight and credibility to those public concerns. And also I think it will likely affect policymakers. Several policymakers and members of Congress have been very interested in this initiative and I think are struck by its uniqueness and its potential influence with millions of Americans.

Do you have any colleagues at Harvard who are criticizing this move, who think that a scientist working with an evangelical is somehow detrimental to the scientists' cause?

I don't think so, but you never know. Colleagues are pretty good at criticizing each other at times.