The partisan polarization of the last two decades has been widely bemoaned as having destroyed American democracy’s ability to respond to pressing public problems. Polarization also poses less well-recognized problems for liberalism. A large number of liberal victories, including the passage of all of the major environmental laws of the 1970s and the revision of the Clean Air Act in 1990, have depended on support from Republicans. Liberal donors, who are less openly partisan than their counterparts on the right, rely on such bipartisan support to legitimate their engagement with public policy change. Liberal interest groups have hard-wired the pursuit of Republican coalition members into their taken-for-granted political strategies.
It was not that long ago when liberals could look for this critical Republican support from moderates in Congress, the Republican establishment, good-government think tanks, and the occasional trade group. All of these sources of allies on the other side of the aisle have shriveled up. There are almost no genuine Republican moderates left in Congress, and those who remain face considerable discipline from party activists. Moderate establishment groups have decreasing sway on the Hill, having been supplanted by groups with more solid ideological bona fides. Trade groups are now more firmly in the Republican coalition and less willing to play patty-cake with Democrats.
The decline of these traditional sources of Republican support does not mean that, in the future, liberals can look forward to passing legislation exclusively with Democratic support. Cross-party coalitions will continue to exist, but they will not look like those of the past. Rather than coming from an increasingly desiccated center, partners for liberal change are more likely to come in the form of conservatives who have the authority to bless dalliances with liberals as ideologically orthodox.
These allies will often have very different reasons for supporting measures advocated by liberals, speak about the issues in a very different language, and bring their own policy priorities to the table. Forging such transpartisan coalitions is, therefore, difficult, strategically delicate work. But just in the last few years, liberals have shown that such efforts can produce serious returns in areas like criminal justice reform and Pentagon spending.
Building support on the right side of the spectrum, as advocates of action on global warming tried to do among evangelicals just before and after the 2008 election, is not a strategy guaranteed to succeed. Their effort, at least in the short term, was a failure—and, if anything, it actually set the cause of evangelical support for climate action back. Understanding why that effort failed can tell us a great deal about the opportunities—and limits—of transpartisan politics in our partisan age.
Evangelicals and the Fight Against Climate Change
In the mid-2000s, the American environmental community began preparing for a major national campaign to regulate carbon emissions, with the expectation that George W. Bush would be replaced by a new President willing to champion a vigorous response to climate change. In the summer of 2006, an alliance of ten Fortune 500 corporations and environmental groups began meeting secretly to hammer out the principles of a mutually agreeable climate-change bill—a collaboration unveiled in early 2007 as the U.S. Climate Change Action Partnership.
Environmentalists calculated that they could not allow climate-change legislation to be framed as a narrowly “liberal” or “environmentalist” issue. Between 2004 and 2008, environmental funders sought to build a solid beachhead of Republican support for federal climate-change legislation to compensate for the inevitable defections of Democrats from coal-producing states. Michael Northrop of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund described the reasoning behind the “Five Year Plan” that environmentalists and funders worked from in that period: “[We] absolutely thought there was a chance, and there are a lot of Republicans who understand climate change. . . . Unfortunately, in the last several years it’s become so polarized, but 2004-2008 there was a very different sensibility out there. There was a real sense that people were being thoughtful about this, they were paying attention to the science, and there wasn’t this crazy denial . . . [that] there is now.” To reframe climate change as a bipartisan issue, environmentalists focused on messengers from business allies, particularly leaders from the energy industry, and evangelical Christians who might publicly embrace climate change as a moral issue and an authentically “conservative” concern.
For environmental funders, outreach to business and conservative faith groups was part of a broader portfolio of what Northrop called “constituency engagement development,” based on the widespread understanding that “[i]t can’t just be environmental groups pushing for this stuff.” Other parts of this constituency-building strategy for climate change included “work with scientists, . . . work with media, work with various parts of the business community, work with young people, work with other elite-based groups, some of them just D.C.-based groups, work with mayors, work with governors, states, and cities.” In this context, the “work with _____” formula involved getting public statements from representatives of diverse constituencies—and little else.
As this campaign took shape, funders looked to the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) to spearhead evangelical outreach around climate change. The EEN was created in the early 1990s to be the key evangelical grantee within the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE), a coordinating forum for faith-based environmentalism. In 1993, the founding members of the NRPE were the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches, and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. Because there was no natural evangelical counterpart, the NRPE’s founders reached out to environmentally concerned evangelicals and invited them to create the EEN. Funders recognized the EEN as the “anchor organization” in the small field of “Creation Care” organizations—faith-based environmental groups motivated by theological and humanitarian reasons that were quite different from mainstream environmentalism. Accordingly, environmental donors like the Hewlett Foundation and the Energy Foundation made a series of grants in the mid-2000s to increase the role of climate change in the EEN’s work.
The EEN had begun preparing for this shift in 2000, when the organization appointed executive director Jim Ball, whose Ph.D. dissertation in theological ethics from Drew University cited climate change as a top priority for Christians, given the biblical mandate to care for creation and the global poor. EEN leadership knew that it would be harder to connect core evangelical values to climate change than to more immediate issues of conservation. According to Ball, most evangelicals were attracted to Creation Care through their personal experiences with nature as God’s creation, making climate change a difficult issue because of the tenuous link between individual behavior and environmental devastation.
From 2000 to 2004, the EEN slowly laid the groundwork for national evangelical institutions to grasp climate change as a moral issue. Their leaders started to use the phrase “climate care” to indicate the urgency of climate change in the stewardship of creation. The EEN’s strategy was to integrate climate care into the core of the evangelical subculture, by building a bench of national evangelical elites who framed climate change as a moral issue and called for decisive policy action. The expectation was that these ideas would then “trickle down” to rank-and-file evangelicals. This theory fit the broader formula of constituency-building used by environmental funders, who were funding the EEN to reach out to evangelicals and leverage the moral authority of faith, just as they might fund the Union of Concerned Scientists to reach scientists and leverage the authority of science.
To lay a foundation for the idea of climate care, the EEN targeted the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), a historic fellowship that represented nearly 40 smaller evangelical denominations as well as many Christian schools and organizations and that had a long history of convening evangelicals as a united voice since its founding in 1942. The EEN also took aim at Christianity Today, the flagship national magazine for moderate evangelicals; national parachurch agencies like World Vision, the largest Christian relief and development organization in the world; and the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), the policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical denomination in the country. The ERLC had historically been a challenging target, because of its core role in the Republican Party and its tight focus on issues related to abortion, gender, and sexuality. Yet EEN leaders hoped to win the ERLC’s support for climate care, because even just neutralizing the Southern Baptist Convention in the debate on global warming could disrupt the solid Republican opposition to measures like cap-and-trade.
In 2006, with funding from the Hewlett and Energy Foundations, the EEN launched the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI), the culmination of its effort to encourage major evangelical institutions to develop a public witness on climate change. It convened a small group of evangelical allies to draft a founding statement for the ECI, titled “Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action.” Core leaders of the ECI began collecting signatures for this statement by sending out letters and holding meetings with senior evangelical leaders. Signatories included the board members of the NAE, presidents of universities in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, and executives of groups affiliated with the Association of Evangelical Relief and Development Organizations. Among evangelical pastors, prominent signatories included Leith Anderson, president of the NAE and pastor of the multi-campus Wooddale Church in Minnesota; Joel Hunter, pastor of a multi-site megachurch Northland in Florida; and Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in California and the author of the best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life. The ECI made a national media splash, magnified through advertising in print, radio, and television. The NAE’s Richard Cizik was even featured in the May 2006 “Green Issue” of Vanity Fair for his religious leadership on climate change.
At the time, many media observers thought that the ECI had made a great step toward enshrining “climate care” as a central moral issue for evangelicals. In supporting measures to reduce carbon emissions, however, this group of evangelicals was not engaging with just any issue, but one with major stakes for major Republican coalition partners and for well-established definitions of evangelical interest in politics.
The Backlash Against Creation Care
As soon as the Evangelical Climate Initiative was launched, a network of Christian right leaders forcefully attacked it. They singled out well-known evangelical climate champions and pressured signatories to withdraw their support. This wave of opposition was organized around the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, a new coalition of conservative faith leaders who opposed action to fight climate change and environmental regulation that interfered with free markets.
The founder of the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, Calvin Beisner, is a Christian theology professor who has monitored and critiqued the Christian left since the 1980s. In the early 1980s, Beisner became alarmed that left-leaning evangelical leaders like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider were “embracing a civil social order, a polity, a theory of economics and politics that the more I studied, the more convinced I became that that was not what best helped people rise out of poverty.” When Sider helped found the Evangelical Environmental Network in the early 1990s, Beisner became concerned that this movement might lead to greater government intervention in the economy. In 1997, Beisner published Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate, a critique of the Creation Care movement.
In 1999, Beisner was introduced to policy advocacy by Robert Sirico, founder of the Acton Institute, a conservative think tank dedicated to the intersection of faith and free-market principles. In 2000, the Acton Institute pulled together 1,500 signatories for a statement called the Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship, signed by prominent Christian right leaders like Charles Colson, James Dobson, Richard John Neuhaus, and D. James Kennedy. The Cornwall Declaration stated that human beings should exercise dominion over the earth and that free markets were the best engine of ecological stewardship. In fall 2005, Beisner launched another loose network of conservative intellectuals opposing environmentalism, with help from the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow, a right-wing policy group founded in 1985 to oppose environmentalism. This new project was the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, but was soon rebranded as the Cornwall Alliance and positioned as the institutional hub for coordination among economic conservatives, climate-change skeptics, and evangelicals.
In January 2006, the alliance put out a “Letter to the NAE on the Issue of Global Warming,” calling on the National Association of Evangelicals to refrain from taking a public position on climate change. The letter was accompanied by a round of calls to denominational leaders who were members of the NAE, asking them to put a stop to the NAE’s leadership on climate change. In response to this letter, Richard Cizik withdrew his name from the ECI’s Call to Action.
But the attacks on Cizik did not stop. In May 2006, the same month that Cizik was featured in Vanity Fair, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson attacked him on his radio show, warning, “Evangelicals taking on the issue of [the] environment will divide evangelicalism…and destroy the U.S. economy.” Charles Colson also lamented that the secular media loved to highlight divisions among Christians over climate change, as a way to dismiss the authority of Christian worldviews on issues like abortion. In 2007, Dobson, Tony Perkins, and other Christian right leaders wrote a public letter to the NAE board of directors, urging trustees to censure Cizik and call for his resignation. Though the NAE trustees did not comply, these attacks had a chilling effect on the Evangelical Climate Initiative’s ability to recruit new signatures to its Call to Action. (Cizik eventually resigned in December 2008, after he angered other evangelicals by stating in an interview that he was open to supporting civil unions.)
Between 2006 and 2009, the attacks from Christian right elites continued. In March 2008, a public statement called the “Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change” was published, led by a young Southern Baptist writer named Jonathan Merritt, to show that many prominent Southern Baptists supported efforts to combat climate change. The statement was signed by the then-president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Johnny Hunt, as well as three former executives of the group. Right before the initiative was to be launched, Merritt reported receiving a phone call from a research fellow at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who delivered a message attributed to Richard Land, then the head of the convention’s policy shop. Merritt recalls being told that if he went ahead with his plans, Land would “release the full power of the arsenal of his email contact list, sending out an email to every Southern Baptist” challenging his authority to speak for Southern Baptists on climate action.
Despite the attacks on climate care, the environmental movement continued to hope that evangelicals might help advance its “strange bedfellows” strategy. In April 2008, for instance, Pat Robertson appeared in an ad for climate action, albeit without endorsing any particular policy response. Then in June 2009, the House passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, establishing a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. The bill received eight Republican votes—though all but one of came from the left-most members of the Republican caucus. Still, it was the first time that either chamber had passed a bill to address climate change. In October 2009, Senators Lindsey Graham and John Kerry published a joint editorial in The New York Times calling on Republicans and Democrats to work together to pass a climate-change bill in the Senate.
But any illusion of bipartisan momentum was shattered in the summer of 2010. Graham publicly reversed his stance on climate change, declaring that he was no longer persuaded by the science. In July 2010, climate-change legislation was declared dead in the Senate. In November 2010, Republicans retook the House of Representatives, following the rise of the Tea Party. In March 2012, Pat Robertson reversed his previous high-profile support for action on global warming and denied the reality of climate change.
Only in retrospect did the environmental movement recognize why Republican and conservative support for climate change had evaporated so quickly. Between 2007 and 2010, there had been a well-funded, aggressive campaign to impose party discipline on Republicans to adopt a strategy of absolute noncooperation with the Obama Administration. This campaign was carried out by a network of conservative think tanks, conservative media sources, and the emergent Tea Party. The primary target of this anti-Obama crusade was stopping health-care reform, but it also included a concerted effort to oppose climate action as another example of the Administration’s alleged big-government tyranny.
One part of this campaign was to quash all conservative dalliances with Creation Care. Throughout 2009 and 2010, the Cornwall Alliance escalated its efforts to rally Christian right leaders and interest groups to attack climate action. In June 2010, the Cornwall Alliance released a video and package of congregational resources called “Resisting the Green Dragon,” representing radical environmentalism as a theological threat to the youth. This media campaign was jointly produced with the Heritage Foundation. Beginning in 2009, Calvin Beisner started speaking regularly at ERLC events, consolidating global warming denial in the Southern Baptist Convention.
This conservative counter-campaign reached out directly to the Republican grassroots through Fox News, other partisan media outlets, and television and radio ads. This created a real threat of primary challenges from the right for Republicans like Graham, who had previously been a champion for climate action. Opposition to climate action also became part of the rising Tea Party movement. Because this campaign animated far-right Republican primary voters, Republican elected officials could no longer support climate-change legislation without being branded as traitors. During the Obama Administration, policy attitudes on climate change actually swung backwards: Public opinion polls show that conservative voters were more opposed to climate action at the end of 2011 than they were in 2001.
The Creation Care movement has not given up its efforts to recruit evangelicals into policy solutions to climate change. But the consensus among movement leaders is that their work is significantly harder now than it was in the mid-2000s. Once conservatives and Christian right elites united against climate action after 2005, opposition to climate action became solidified as the official “conservative” position, and it became more difficult to attract “strange bedfellow” support from leaders identified with conservative politics and the Christian right.
The Limits of Convening Power
The Evangelical Climate Initiative crumbled quickly in the face of this opposition because it lacked mobilized power—a base of supporters with intense policy demands willing to engage in conflict with organized opposition. Instead, the Creation Care movement had built only convening power—the ability to bring disparate people together through identity and networks. The collapse of the ECI shows the limits of convening power in the face of organized opposition.
Specifically, the ECI failed to build a base of evangelical leaders who were willing to defend climate action from Christian right attacks. Even though the ECI was signed by many prominent megachurch pastors, none of these pastors was willing to publicly criticize James Dobson for his attacks on Cizik. Indeed, Christian right leaders quickly learned that, despite the support that Creation Care leaders had built up within the evangelical subculture, there was no cost to evangelical leaders who wanted to crush the movement and wage ad hominem attacks on its leaders.
Vigorous defense of the ECI was not forthcoming from its signatories, because most joined the campaign with low personal commitment to climate action. When environmental scholar Katharine Wilkinson interviewed ECI signatories, she found that few were willing to expend significant time or take leadership risks beyond contributing their signature. For example, North Park’s John Phelan stated, “I signed the document. I get their materials. I read the stuff that they send. . . . I keep tabs on what they’re doing and support and encourage people to look at it, but I’ve not been heavily involved.”
A major source of vulnerability for prominent ECI signatories was that they found limited support for climate action within their own base. For example, Joel Hunter, senior pastor at Northland Church, was one of the most prominent signatories of the ECI, given that he leads over 20,000 people across Florida. But even at Northland Church, the basic science of climate change was still considered highly controversial during this period.
This lack of grassroots support made it difficult for sympathetic evangelical elites to engage in public conflict with Christian right leaders who opposed climate action. In retrospect, Reverend Mitch Hescox, the EEN’s current president, identifies this as the primary reason that grasstops leaders were unwilling to stand up to Christian right attacks:
What we failed to do was really have the grassroots support of the local congregations, the local people . . . to really understand climate . . . and support these [ECI signatory] leaders out there. When the big money started flowing in the opposite direction from the Koch brothers . . . and the Heartland [Institute] and the Heritage Foundation, the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, it really put some of those leaders into retreat. It showed that we [EEN] had not done a good enough job . . . of really trying to understand and mobilize the people and their peers.
It is difficult for evangelical leaders to take policy positions that are out of step with their rank-and-file following, particularly if rival evangelical leaders attack their stand as evidence of theological heresy. Evangelicalism is a decentralized religious tradition that lacks a clear hierarchy like the Catholic Church. For evangelicals, religious authority is legitimized by one’s ability to build and keep a mass following, as well as one’s reputation for theological orthodoxy and authenticity as a “true” born-again Christian.
If the Creation Care movement had built mobilized power for climate action that included a grassroots evangelical base, it might have held together in the face of Christian right opposition. Without mobilized power, it had no chance at all.
Coalition Maintenance on the Right
Neither funders nor evangelical grantees anticipated the scale of the opposition they would face from the Christian right. While the EEN created a successful strategy to overcome many of the cultural barriers to environmentalism within its religious subculture, its leaders failed to anticipate the political barriers to Creation Care rooted in evangelicalism’s place as an “anchor group” of the Republican Party.
Climate care was unacceptable to leaders associated with the Christian right for two reasons. First, it challenged the faith in unregulated markets that holds the Republican coalition together, and created problems for allies in the energy industry and economic conservative camps. Second, it threatened the credentials of Christian right leaders to represent evangelicals and impose a clear hierarchy of issues, with abortion, a particular understanding of religious liberty, and sexual morality at the top of that list.
In the early 2000s, the EEN had hoped that it could persuade Southern Baptist leaders like Richard Land and Barrett Duke to at least remain neutral in the climate-change debate. But instead, these coalition dynamics pushed the Southern Baptist policy arm, the ERLC, and its allies in other major social conservative organizations to expend significant political capital to oppose climate care.
Duke, the policy director of the ERLC, explained that in the early 2000s, he was open to the EEN’s message about climate change. Duke joined the ERLC staff in 1997 and was assigned to direct its public policy work in 2003, just when global warming was first gaining attention in the evangelical community. He recalls that global warming was “one of the first things that people were asking me to take a look at. I said okay.” To explore the issue of climate change, Duke attended the June 2004 Sandy Cove conference, co-sponsored by the EEN, the NAE, and Christianity Today. Duke recalled listening to a presentation by Sir John Houghton, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s scientific assessment working group. “And one reason I was told that I needed to believe this guy is because he was an evangelical. And I was thinking, ‘Wait, because he’s an evangelical I’m just supposed to believe him?’” While Duke was figuring out what to believe about climate change, he “stumbled across Cal Beisner” at a Heritage Foundation event. “Cal was talking there, and I listened to him, and I asked him questions.”
Beisner cast doubt on the scientific foundations of global warming, but confusion about the science of climate change was not the greatest barrier for Duke. What raised his concern about climate action was the large-scale government solution being proposed. In retrospect, the lack of an acceptable solution weighed heavily in his thinking: “They’re talking trillions of dollars of investment, a complete restructuring of the economy in order to simply slow down the rate of warming. . . . Millions of people will lose their jobs. The entire energy industry will be basically recalibrated. Plus, energy will be more expensive, and the undeveloped world will be plunged into poverty for another generation.”
By 2006, Duke had settled on a belief that climate change was not human-caused and that the solutions being proposed would impose unacceptable human costs. He became convinced that the ERLC should oppose climate action. “What really brought it to a head was that . . . article with Richard Cizik on the front walking on water,” he recalled. Duke flagged two problems with Cizik’s public recognition. First, it interfered with the ERLC’s ability to represent evangelicals as a united voice, a concern echoed by James Dobson and Charles Colson. According to Duke, “that created . . . a concern for a lot of people on the Hill that Rich was being promoted as the leading evangelical figure in Washington, D.C., that most evangelicals certainly had to come to a consensus on.” Second, Cizik’s leadership created a problem for economic conservatives who the ERLC valued as allies. According to Duke, “It was actually the fiscal conservatives who were more concerned with the impact of Rich’s position on global warming than it even was for the faith community.” Duke recalls that in 2004 and 2005, “There were some other policy groups that are in D.C., the Heritage Foundation, the Weyrich Luncheon, . . . and folks like that definitely expressing to me their concern about where Rich was and where the NAE was going on this. . . . I know Rich’s name came up at least a couple of times at those [Weyrich] policy luncheons as someone who was doing the conservative cause great harm.” Duke said that conversations between economic conservatives and evangelicals were often brokered by Beisner, “trying to coalesce a group to push back on the alarmism.”
In short, the Evangelical Climate Initiative was asking Southern Baptist leaders to take a strong stand on an issue that divided their base, angered their conservative allies, and endangered their status as the arbiter of evangelical political priorities. This mismatch with their organizational self-interest made it difficult for Southern Baptists to accept the case for climate action. It was not impossible for the ERLC to take action on Creation Care, on strictly theological or moral grounds. As late as 2004, Barrett Duke was given the latitude within his organization to explore the evangelical conversation on climate change. But by 2005, it was clear that climate legislation threatened the conservative coalition in existential ways that more local conservation fights did not.
Could a broader-based movement for evangelical climate action have overcome these coalition dynamics? Perhaps, but climate action would have needed to foster a much stronger constituency among Southern Baptists, so that attacking the ECI cost them something with their base. As things stood in 2004, the cost of accepting the reality of climate change was unacceptably high from the ERLC’s organizational perspective, something that no amount of better messaging could have changed.
Lessons for Future Transpartisan Efforts
Environmental funders are used to the idea that they need to build cross-party coalitions to move legislation, of the kind that they once put together routinely with moderate Republicans like John Chafee of Rhode Island or William Cohen of Maine. Advocates of climate action were counting on Senator John McCain to perform a similar role in shepherding at least a small group of Republicans—an expectation that proved to be ill-founded.
Foundations’ support for Creation Care represented a different, and to some degree more creative, effort to build cross-party support in a more transpartisan mode, rather than the classic approach of reaching out solely to what is left of the moderate, establishment parts of the Republican Party. While our conclusions about how this engagement turned out are necessarily critical, the fact that it was attempted shows some recognition that the center-out strategy might be a thing of the past, and that advocates needed to explore other approaches.
The Importance of Issue Type
Transpartisan engagement is not feasible for most issues, especially those where a policy position is anchored by a core member of a party coalition. In two of the most prominent issues where transpartisan coalitions have been successfully built—criminal justice reform and the Pentagon budget—no major Republican coalition member anchored the party’s position. This meant that, when the electoral appeal or profile of the issue shifted, activists and politicians had some room to maneuver without bringing party discipline down on their heads.
Opposition to global warming, by contrast, was supported by the coal and oil industries and their allies in cross-industry business organizations. On issues like this, efforts to reach out to strange bedfellows will inevitably generate a well-funded, aggressive countermobilization. What we have called “coalitional etiquette” will be a very strong force, leading to a predictable effort by the relevant coalition member to ask its partners to “do their part” by quashing opposition in their ranks. That is precisely what happened, successfully, in the case of Creation Care.
By the time the battle for the House cap-and-trade bill began to really heat up, it was inevitable that the major evangelical organizations would support their Republican allies in spiking action on global warming. But that does not mean that this outcome was predetermined. Transpartisan political work operates on a very different time horizon than a short-term political campaign. When transpartisan entrepreneurs challenge the deep structure of a political coalition, they need to have more than names on a page—they need to have an army of true believers willing to run to the sound of the guns. That was a level of engagement well beyond the campaign model that the supporters of Creation Care thought in terms of, or were culturally equipped to foster.
There are, in fact, examples of civic entrepreneurs and funders working for years or even decades to pull constituencies out of an opposition coalition, or even change the views of an entire coalition. Some of these opportunities were available to environmental funders back in the 1990s. Funders could have invested more seriously in building the organizational capacity of Creation Care organizations and committed to funding them for the long term. Such investments would have allowed evangelicals sympathetic to the environment to work on building mobilized power. Long-term support would have opened up the possibility of actually organizing the evangelical ministers and building them into a community. Greater understanding of the science behind climate change and deeper relationships with other evangelical ministers committed to doing something about it might have ensured that these ministers would not run when the backlash came. That kind of mobilized power is the product of repeated, in-person interactions over years, precisely the sort of action that Creation Care activists were in no position to produce.
ECI signatories might have stood publicly against Christian right attacks on climate care if they could have demonstrated significant grassroots support from the congregations and evangelical institutions that they led. In criminal justice, for instance, evangelical advocates for reform know that they have support from the thousands of evangelicals who have done work in prisons, who would stand behind them if they were attacked. Waging a public battle with other evangelicals, by contrast, would have been a significant leadership risk for ECI signatories, since they lacked that sort of grassroots support. Just putting their name on a statement was not enough to motivate them to take significant risks for the cause.
Indeed, Christian right leaders might have decided to sit this battle out if ECI organizers had demonstrated a stronger grassroots base among evangelicals. Attacking climate action, however, was essentially cost-free to conservative evangelical leaders. Christian right elites thought that leaders like Richard Cizik had feet of clay, and that climate care did not have mobilized backing within local congregations, Christian universities, or donors. And they were right.
Deep Understanding Among Partners
What explains the mistakes made by Creation Care activists and the donors that supported them? Our answers are necessarily speculative, but our suspicion is that the core of the problem was donor assumptions about how advocacy campaigns in general and the evangelical community in particular function. In the run-up to the effort to pass the cap-and-trade bill, donors had a specific sense of what it was they wanted Creation Care activists to provide to the larger campaign, which was a statement of support signed by a large number of major figures in the evangelical world. They got that. But as it turned out, in the heat of battle that was not worth much—in fact, if anything, it may have actually backfired by making future evangelical engagement more difficult.
The donors who pushed for this “deliverable” did not really understand the internal dynamics of the evangelical world, and thus did not see this backlash coming, or understand what its consequences would be. Their lack of deep knowledge of the evangelical community meant that they could not recognize strategies with a plausible likelihood of success, or activists who had a chance of actually delivering. They did not understand what a very difficult issue global warming was for evangelicals in comparison to other potential areas of environmental concern. As the donors themselves admit, they were too busy to understand the internal dynamics of the evangelical activists that they were working with, or appreciate their organizational fragility.
As Michael Northrop of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund put it, foundations were unable to anticipate the unique threats to Creation Care because they lacked deep knowledge about evangelicalism and failed to engage in meaningful strategic conversations with evangelical leaders on the ground. According to Northrop, “[T]he cultural differences in terms of who they were and we were, were so profound. For us to have engaged at that level of due diligence, it’s not something we do practically. . . . We have an ability to really go deep on institutional development for a fraction of the work that we do. . . . [B]ut this was. . . much more of a tactical play than it was an institutional play.” If they had taken the latter track, foundation strategists might have anticipated the possibility of backlash, “played some defense,” and “suggested some strategies for more effectively building what they needed to do.”
Serious transpartisan work, especially under the challenging conditions that faced Creation Care, requires advisers with very deep networks and relationships within the community that they are attempting to mobilize, if they don’t have that capacity in-house. Without such sources of information, the delicate work of sowing the seeds of dissent in rocky ground is unlikely to succeed. Unfortunately, even after more than a decade of criticism, most liberal organizations and funders still do not have a sophisticated enough understanding of faith communities and the networks within them to act shrewdly and strategically.
The example of Creation Care shows quite clearly the dangers of political movements that are organized more around “campaigns” and less around movement-building and organizational development. Viewed on the time horizon of a campaign, which by definition culminates in a particular act of government, thinking about Creation Care as providing “cover” for Republican politicians made a certain degree of sense. And that sort of political action—symbolized by “statements” with lots of signatories—can be effective on issues where activists do not have mobilized opponents, and are stymied primarily by inattention. But those same strategies do not work when mobilized opponents are prepared to challenge the status of signatories and thus undermine their capacity to provide political cover. In cases like that, all of the important work to establish what sort of positions can be held by adherents to political movements is done far before a campaign ever gets started and well after it is over.
Even now, Creation Care is not a lost cause. The original instinct that there is untapped potential for environmental activism in the world of evangelical Christianity remains true. While the most visible evangelical leaders, who have deep partisan commitments, are unlikely to join the cause, the movement is much larger and more diverse than its standard-bearers.
Since 2009, the Creation Care movement has learned from the failure of the Evangelical Climate Initiative. The EEN’s new president, Mitch Hescox, has begun negotiating more assertively with foundations and allies about how their expertise as evangelicals leads them to different strategic conclusions. Movement leaders have also deepened their commitment to more long-term, values-based organizing in local evangelical spaces. Efforts like Flourish, led by ECI veterans Rusty Pritchard and Jim Jewell, are seeking to decouple Creation Care from short-term policy debates. There is a widespread understanding that the movement needs both tracks: a track that makes strong policy statements, and a softer track that breaks through partisan polarization and builds a grassroots base among rank-and-file evangelicals.
It is in evangelical universities and in individual congregations—the places where the next generation of evangelicals are learning what it is that their faith commits them to do in the public sphere—that the next battle for Creation Care will be fought. That is a battle that will not translate into changed votes in Congress for a decade or more, but it is a battle worth fighting.
This article is a part of New America’s New Models of Policy Change project, supported by the Hewlett Foundation.