Sinking Noah's Ark

Noah might have done the same thing. Reclaiming the biblical call to protect creation from the jaws of polarized politics, an organization of biblically based Christians has launched a new effort to protect and strengthen the Endangered Species Act, currently under assault in Congress.

The Evangelical Environmental Network, which represents more than a thousand churches, is launching a campaign to create "Noah congregations" that would make protection of the environment and support for the Endangered Species Act key concerns. Cal DeWitt, a Christian environmentalist who helped found the network, told The New York Times that the endangered species law is the "Noah's ark of our day" and that "Congress and special interests are trying to sink it."

The network was founded in 1993 by leading evangelicals including DeWitt and Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action. It includes InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities, and is part of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, which seeks to bridge the gap between religious and secular environmentalists.

The Endangered Species Act, which protects almost a thousand species of plants and animals, was a prime target of GOP leaders last year who alleged that the act puts the lives of animals before the interests of the economy. Several bills that would overhaul the act are pending in Congress, though in an election year their chances of being passed are slim, since Americans favor by 2-to-1 protecting the environment over slashing regulations.

More insidious, however, is the GOP's stealth campaign to weaken the act and other environmental measures through provisions attached to funding bills. And though the Clinton administration isn't directly attacking environmental protections, it isn't doing a whole lot to secure them either. The administration has remained noticeably quiet around the GOP's efforts to roll back environmental legislation.

By nearly every indicator, this is not the time to be backing off the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws. As DeWitt suggested, in all of human history perhaps only the great flood of Noah's time jeopardized plants and animals more than they are threatened now. According to the United Nations' 1995 Global Biodiversity Assessment, at least 4,000 plants and 5,400 animals are threatened with extinction worldwide.

BECAUSE OF human impact, extinction is now occurring at 50 to 100 times the expected natural rate. For instance, the world is seeing a sharp decline in frogs-among the oldest terrestrial vertebrates and a species especially susceptible to pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Seventy percent of the world's bird species are in decline. In North America the number of tropical migrating birds has dropped 75 percent since Europeans arrived. Species from salmon to songbirds are being seriously threatened by habitat destruction.

Critics of the Endangered Species Act have ridiculed it as a meddlesome government regulation designed to halt human progress for the sake of some little-known subspecies with a pretty pointless existence in the first place. Anecdotes would have us believe that the act is blocking development and creating wasteful government bureaucracy.

Yet the reality is that the endangered species law extends protection to only a fraction of species at risk today and, in most cases, doesn't bar development but only slows it down. The act also gives humans a barometer on the health of their own eco-systems. If plants and animals are having trouble living in the environment, chances are we will too.

This makes the work of the network and other organizations such as the Christian Environmental Association essential at this time. Christian environmentalism should not be judged as just a political movement-its motivation is much deeper than that.

Critics from the Right and Left accuse Christian environmentalists, on the one hand, of being in cahoots with New Age syncretists, or on the other, of being followers of "dominion" theologies. The network answers them by laying out the clear biblical mandate for believers to protect the environment, which flows naturally out of worship of the Creator rather than worship of the creation.

As stewards of creation living in covenant with the Creator, protecting the environment is our spiritual responsibility. This is part of our discipleship in Christ that gives us hope in that day to come when the children of God are revealed, and creation itself joins in our celebration of glorious freedom.

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