A Conversation on Moral Issues

A new space is opening for a conversation among evangelicals on moral issues. Earlier this spring, a group of Religious Right leaders including James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Gary Bauer, and about 20 others sent a letter to the National Association of Evangelicals board of directors. They challenged its vice president for governmental affairs, Rich Cizik, saying he was "dividing and demoralizing the NAE" by orchestrating a "relentless campaign" opposing global warming. The letter ended by suggesting that "he be encouraged to resign his position with the NAE."

In their letter, the conservative leaders claimed, "The existence of global warming and its implications for mankind [sic] is a subject of heated controversy throughout the world." The truth, which almost everyone except them acknowledges, is there is little reasonable doubt left about the threat posed to the earth by climate change. There is an international consensus among scientists, religious leaders, business leaders, and economists that we must act, and act now, to preserve a world for our children. As Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman recently wrote: "The debate has ended over whether global warming is a problem caused by human activity. … There is now a broad consensus in this country, and indeed in the world, that global warming is happening, that it is a serious problem, and that humans are causing it."

Far from dividing evangelicals, Rich Cizik is part of a broad and growing evangelical consensus on global warming. He is a respected evangelical leader who is bringing Christians together to address the growing danger of climate change, and he is a hero to a new generation of evangelical students and pastors. That new generation has made "creation care" a mainstream evangelical issue. A statement last year by the Evangelical Climate Initiative noted that "we are convinced that evangelicals must engage this issue without any further lingering over the basic reality of the problem or humanity's responsibility to address it."

THE LETTER FROM Dobson and friends actually did acknowledge that there is a real debate among evangelicals about the seriousness of climate change and the reasons for it. So instead of calling for Cizik's resignation for saying global warming should be a moral issue for evangelical Christians, why don't Dobson and his friends accept a real debate on whether climate change is, indeed, one of the great moral issues of our time?

And I would focus on the following very clear statement from Dobson's letter: "More importantly, we have observed that Cizik and others are using the global warming controversy to shift the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time, notably the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage, and the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children." I happen to believe that those three are, indeed, among the great moral issues of our time. But I believe they are not the only great moral issues, and that is what the conversation should be about.

Is the fact that 30,000 children will die globally today and every day from needless hunger and disease a great moral issue for evangelical Christians? How about the reality of 3 billion of God's children living on less than $2 per day? And isn't the still-widespread and needless poverty in our own country, the richest nation in the world, a moral scandal? What about pandemics such as HIV/AIDS that wipe out whole generations, or the trafficking of massive numbers of women and children? Should genocide in Darfur be a moral issue for Christians? And what about disastrous wars such as Iraq? And then there is, of course, the issue that got Dobson and his allies so agitated. If the scientific consensus is right—climate change is real, is caused substantially by human activity, and could result in hundreds of thousands of deaths—then isn't that also a great moral issue? Could global warming actually be alarming evidence of human tinkering with God's creation?

At the conclusion of its board meeting, the NAE endorsed a landmark document, "An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture." And it reaffirmed its support for the landmark "For the Health of the Nation" document unanimously adopted in 2003, commending its "principles of Christian political engagement to our entire community for action." The principles include: "1) We work to protect religious freedom and liberty of conscience; 2) We work to nurture family life and protect children; 3) We work to protect the sanctity of human life and to safeguard its nature; 4) We seek justice and compassion for the poor and vulnerable; 5) We work to protect human rights; 6) We seek peace and work to restrain violence; 7) We labor to protect God's creation."

In the official NAE press release, the only mention of Cizik, whom the Dobson letter had singled out and called upon the NAE to fire, came with these words: "Speaking at the annual board banquet, Rev. Richard Cizik, NAE vice president for governmental affairs, quoted evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry in his wake-up call to evangelicals 60 years ago: 'The cries of suffering humanity today are many. No evangelicalism which ignores the totality of man's condition dares respond in the name of Christianity.'"

I knew Carl F. H. Henry during my seminary years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and through many conversations together during our early years of Sojourners. His biblical theology, social conscience, and political balance provided a younger generation with crucial moral guidance. We miss his voice today. But the NAE board, and its president Leith Anderson, knows that a new generation of evangelicals wants that same sound theology and good balance, and believes that Christian moral concerns (and God's concerns) go beyond only a few issues.

So let's have that debate, but let's change the tone of this from "a debate" to "a conversation," and make it into the kind of deep and necessary conversation among the people of God that it needs to be. This is, in fact, the big conversation going on among evangelicals (along with Catholics and many other Christians, too) across the nation and around the world. What are the great moral issues of our time for evangelical Christians?

We have already received invitations from six major Christian universities eager to host this conversation between James Dobson and me. But this is bigger than just two people: It's the conversation we need to have on every Christian campus, in every church, and in public forums around the nation, especially as we approach another election season. Let's share our views on the moral agenda for Christians.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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