Huckabee Campaign Divided on Environment and Evangelicalism

The Huffington Post, December 31, 2007.

The only policy issue Mike Huckabee singles out on a page devoted to “Faith and Politics” isn’t abortion or marriage. “My faith doesn’t influence my decisions, it drives them,” writes the GOP presidential hopeful. “For example, when it comes to the environment, I believe in being a good steward of the earth.”

But the prominence given to the environment on this webpage is unmatched in Iowa. He does not even mention the issue in his stump speech, and he is seldom asked about it by the largely conservative audiences that turn out to appraise whether he deserves their support in the state’s January 3rd caucus. This is undoubtedly a prudent judgment of the concerns of the voters he is courting. He is unlikely to win points for having bucked conservative orthodoxy with his endorsement of a cap-and-trade system to control carbon emissions. But he also likely avoids talking about the environment because there is deep division within the evangelical community that has fueled his rise to the front of the GOP pack

“I’ve heard reporters talking about global warming as an evangelical issue, and that’s just poppycock,” said Iowa Christian Alliance President Steve Scheffler, reached by phone earlier this month. Scheffler doesn’t object to adding the environment to the evangelical agenda because it strays beyond the bread and butter issues of abortion and marriage, he clarified after a fundraiser featuring Huckabee in Cedar Rapids. “People of faith are interested in issues beyond so-called Christian issues or moral issues” including preserving the state’s “Right to Work” law and sealing the borders. “But in terms of global warming or whatever, I don’t think those theories have been proven beyond of a shadow of a doubt.”

When asked to comment on Huckabee’s green Christian rhetoric, he initially said the website language “is fine and dandy [but] I’m not sure he’s talked specifically in terms of global warming.” Informed of Huckabee’s endorsement of cap-and-trade, he appeared perplexed and declined to comment further.

Global climate change aside, there is no question there is substantial change in the evangelical political climate, and Huckabee is caught in the crosswinds. According to a survey conducted this fall by Ellison Research, that 84% of evangelicals nationwide favor global warming legislation. Fifty-four percent of those surveyed said they are more likely to support a presidential candidate who backs such legislation, while only 10% said they would question their support. The largest evangelical organization, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), found “Creation Care” (as Christian environmentalists have rechristened their cause) to be one of the top 5 concerns of American evangelicals. This was based on a survey of 100 members of their board of directors that included the heads of several evangelical denominations comprising about 45,000 local churches. The NAE has leant its institutional heft to the cause of global warming. NAE Vice President for Governmental Affairs Richard Cizik was an architect of the Evangelical Climate Initiative, which now has over 100 signatories.

But the most high-profile evangelical political leaders are singing from a different hymnal. Shortly before his death this spring, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell described growing environmentalism among evangelicals as “Satan’s attempt to redirect the church’s primary focus.” Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, and 23 other conservative activists have called for Cizik’s ousting, accusing him of “using the global warming controversy to shift the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time.”

It is not surprising that the Iowa Christian Alliance’s Steve Scheffler is in line with old-guard leaders like Dobson and Perkins. He led the state organization to split with the national Christian Coalition in part because it was perceived as becoming too liberal after and backing a state tax increase in Alabama and joining with to defend “net neutrality.” But Huckabee owes his success to peddling a kinder-and-gentler brand of Christian conservatism than the one championed by the ICA.

Huckabee is by now familiar with navigating these fractious waters. He simply raised his eyebrows in bemusement when told about Scheffler’s repudiation of Christian environmentalism following a campaign stop in Ames. “I just think it’s a matter of stewardship… If you read Genesis 1, it makes very clear that we’re to help take care of [nature], we’re not to abuse, but to use.” But the split within the movement has forced him into a sometimes-confusing dance on the subject of global warming. His endorsement of a cap-and-trade system during a CBS Evening News appearance earlier this month was lost in an uproar over his response to a question about whether “the global warming threat [is] overblown.” “I mean, the honest answer for me, scientifically, is I don’t know,” he said. “But here’s one thing I do know, that we ought to not let this become this big political football and point of argument. We all ought to agree that we live on this planet as guests. I think Republicans have made a big mistake by not being more on the forefront of conservationism.”

Huckabee’s Iowa campaign co-chairman used humor to downplay the depth of division on the issue when asked if the environment was a Christian issue. “You mean, God’s Creation, the environment!?” he joked, feigning bewilderment of how anyone could think otherwise. “Of course it is.” But Huckabee’s other Iowa co-chairman, state Rep. Danny Carroll, was less primed to sign on to this agenda. “I guess it’s a Christian issue, but I guess I never really thought about it.” His perspective on his constituents’ attitude towards global warming reflect the conflict Huckabee is navigating. “I don’t know about Christians, but Iowans in general are a little bit skeptical about all of the discussion around global warming and that sort of thing, but we are by nature conservationists… I don’t know that they’re convinced that man is causing global warming, but the solutions that are proposed with that in mind are appealing to Iowans and to Christians.”

The ICA’s Scheffler had lashed out at the National Association and Evangelicals and influential pastor Rick Warren, a signatory to the Evangelical Climate Initiative. “They don’t represent the grassroots people…. The people in the pews [don’t] think what some national leader thinks.” Talking to the Christian voters who turned out to Huckabee’s Iowa rallies suggest he’s partly right. None listed the environment as a major issue to them, and many signaled their hostility to Al Gore and the global warming initiatives with which he is associated. But only one voter I spoke suggested he might hold Huckabee’s environmental views against him. When asked if the idea of the environment as a Christian issue resonated with him, Ethan Bolte of Cedar Rapids said, “Yeah — negatively. I think it’s a hoax, the whole global warming thing.” Far more typical was Amy Zimmerman of Van Meter, who prioritized conventional evangelical issues but was open to making the environment a priority. “It does resonate with us because…we are stewards of our earth, [which] we believe has been created by God,” she said. “However, human life comes before any particular real crazy left environment stuff.”


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