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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

An Evangelical View of the Climate and Pope Francis

Air Date: Week of

In January 2013, Rev. Cizik spoke at the Moral Action on Climate Rally in Washington, D.C. in front of the Capitol’s inaugural stands. (Photo: courtesy of Rev. Richard Cizik)

As he reflects on the relevance of Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical to evangelicals, Rev. Richard Cizik tells host Steve Curwood why he’s hopeful that his community is undergoing what the Holy Father calls an “ecological conversion”.


CURWOOD: Soon Pope Francis will begin his first trip to the United States, where he will address a joint session of Congress – and get an enthusiastic welcome from people of all faiths and walks of life. His defense of the poor, and his demand for action on climate change in his encyclical “Laudato Si” have made him a rock star to millions. Well, we thought we’d try and get an Evangelical Christian perspective, so we called up the Reverend Richard Cizik. For more than a decade Richard Cizik has been an outspoken advocate of “creation care,” the belief that stewardship of the Earth is a God-given responsibility. He is the former vice president of government affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents more than 45,000 churches. He’s now President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, which seeks to end partisan and sectarian divisions. Reverend Cizik, welcome back to Living on Earth.

CIZIK: Thank you, Steve, it's my pleasure.

CURWOOD: First, what’s your reaction to Pop Francis' environmental cyclical “Laudato Si”?

CIZIK: Oh, extraordinarily excited. I think he's hit upon not only the most compelling issues of the 21st century -- climate change and its impact of that upon our Earth – but in a secondary way the whole impact of faith itself upon politics upon society, waning in the minds of some, certainly not to him. He is popular, he is influential, he is coming to America. “Laudato Si” literally translates to "Praise be to you, my Lord" and in the words of this beautiful canticle by St. Francis of Assisi, he writes in the encyclical, St. Francis reminds us that our common home is like a sister from whom we share a life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us, and “praise be to you, our Lord and our sister and Mother Earth who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs”. This is poetic language, it's beautiful. It comes from Romans and elsewhere, and, frankly, it's good to point that out, Steve, because the Earth does groan in travail, as the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8:22.

Pope Francis will meet with President Obama during his September 2015 visit to the nation’s capitol. (Photo: Gaspard Miltiade, Wikimedia CC government work)

CURWOOD: What do people both within your faith in outside of it need to do about the climate, in your view?

CIZIK: They need to begin to think differently, and that's what the Pope says too. Most of all, he's called for an ecological conversion for the faithful. That's what Evangelicals need to do. It's to begin to see what's happening to the Earth. It's described in this encyclical, it's persuasive. Man is doing this to our environment, our common home as the Pope calls it.

CURWOOD: Now you've had significant experience representing evangelicals in front of political figures. How do you see this environmental encyclical from the Pope as affecting the conversation on the Hill in Washington about climate change?

Reacting with disapproval to the environmental encyclical, Jeb Bush, a devout Catholic convert, said, “[religion] ought to be about making us better as people, less about things [that] end up getting into the political realm.” (Photo: Michael Vadon, Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

CIZIK: It's going to be, first of all, political theater of the highest sort. A pope addressing a joint session of Congress? The question is probably not whether his voice will have a political impact. It most certainly will, because he is the Pope, the Holy Father, he carries weight not just with Catholics, but even with a lot of mainstream Americans and Evangelicals. The polls show that. And so he's going most surely to touch upon issues like capitalism itself, immigration, climate change and what he very much cares about -- mainly, help for the poor, its inter-relationship to environmental protection and economic inequality. And these are all issues in our election year, believe it or not, and a lot of Republicans, well, they are the ones who have been pooh-poohing these. I would hope and pray, frankly, that he makes the most of the moment and challenges politicians who are essentially bought, Steve, this is really true. It's just legalized bribery by the oil and gas and other industries that profit. We have politicians who will be sitting in front of this moral leader who are bought and paid for by the oil and gas industries, and they should be ashamed of themselves, but they probably won't be.

CURWOOD: The field of presidential candidates is filled with folks who are members of the Christian faith. Some are evangelicals, some are Catholic. How do you think climate change might come into play as an issue as this race picks up, and how might their faith influence this conversation?

Rick Santorum, another Catholic presidential candidate, said Pope Francis should, “leave science to the scientists.” (Photo: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0)

CIZIK: Well, you do have Catholics as you said, such as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Martin O'Malley and Chris Christie, they're all Catholics. Well, there could be a domino effect if the pope speaks out on climate change and how they respond to it. So it's going to be hard to avoid the politics of all of this. You have Evangelicals in this too, and so you'll have actually sitting in the chamber there for the big speech, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, these are senators. And so the question is: will they sit on their hands or will they applaud? And of course the resonance of what he says will have a huge, huge impact upon the public, and most importantly, I hope, upon the public's view of this issue. Because only about 16 percent, Steve, think that climate change will impact them personally - it's just happening somewhere else, not here. And of course we know just the opposite is true. This Pope is not going to tell people exactly what to think... he will tell them, I think, what to think about, and that's just as important.

CURWOOD: How do you respond to Jeb Bush's less than enthusiastic reaction to the Pope's encyclical?

CIZIK: Yeah, Jeb Bush's response was both derision and dismissal. He, as you know, is a Catholic convert. And so, for him to say that "Well, I don't get economic policy from my Bishops or my Cardinal or my Pope,” well, that it is minimize and to play into just the opposite of what Republicans have always said should be true, which is that faith and religion should have a voice in the public squares. And frankly, faith voices have always been the ones most importantly challenging the public to take up an issue that's not previously perceived as moral to be just that. Look at race relations, women's suffrage, and most particularly, nowadays, the environment is what faith is saying is important and is a moral agenda.

CURWOOD: How ironic is it that Rick Santorum said that the church should "leave science to the scientists"? The Pope himself was trained as a chemist.

CIZIK: Absolutely, even post-secondary education as a chemist... taught it! And so he brings a scientific expertise to this, and you can't just say what the Republicans have been saying, well, leave it to the scientists, I'm not a scientist. Well, that just doesn't work. That's just a red herring, as they call it. The Republicans are going to be put in an unusual position by a moral leader of a magnitude of none other on this planet who is calling them, as he is calling all of us, to rethink how we live in this place called our common home, Earth. And who else could do this any better? So, for those of us who have been praying about this, working on this, this is an inflection moment.

CURWOOD: Now, you're firmly within the pro-life camp, Reverend Cizik. How do you see the climate issue as pro-life?

Rev. Cizik points out that faith leaders have a tradition of championing social justice causes like the civil rights movement. (Photo: Marion Trikosko, Library of Congress public domain)

CIZIK: Oh, it certainly is. God's love in creation is so evident, and that's part of the encyclical, it’s one of the chapters. And so the Holy Father, Pope Francis, after his namesake Francis, insists that every human being is an image of God and nothing or no one is superfluous. And he writes in the document that the entire material universe speaks of God's love, his boundless affection for us -- soil, mountains, water -- everything as it were a caress of God. He goes onto say the history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning. It's just wonderful language which communicates not only God's love for us as humans, but God's love for creation. All of life is sacred and that is so uplifting. Some people think it's a gloomy document. I don't think so. I think it's beautiful, and it's poetic. It's even scientific. I remember one person who put it this way, he said, “this document is a combination of St. Augustine and the National Academy of Sciences”, and it's sort of a representation of the Pope himself, wouldn't you say?

CURWOOD: Indeed. Let's talk about the Evangelicals’ possible response here. You're among very few public evangelicals who've spoken out on climate change. To what extent do you feel that you were pressured to reign in your statements on global warming back at the time that you were at the national organization, the National Association of Evangelicals?

CIZIK: Well, you may recall, I think we talked at the time, Steve, we had put together what was called the ECI, the Evangelical Climate Initiative, and I couldn't sign it, even though I had organized with my friend the Rev. Jim Ball, of the Evangelical Environmental Network at the time, to put it together -- I couldn't put my own name on it. And then, for the next five or six years I took a lot of flak, as it were, for speaking out as I did. Ultimately it forced me to leave the association where I worked for 28 years. So there have been huge impacts for me personally, but I think for the Evangelical movement as a whole it has been a black mark on the movement that its leaders, most of it is leaders, some of whom originally signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative, were forced to take their names off too. So, the Evangelical leaders haven't taken this leadership as they should have, and I think their children, grandchildren and others will look back and ask, “what did you do, dad, or granddad. What did you do about this issue?”, and some will have to, with embarrassment, admit absolutely nothing. In fact, they denied the science.

CURWOOD: The last time we spoke, Reverend Cizik two years ago, you estimated that three-quarters of Evangelicals would be in support of addressing climate change.

Last year, standing by the Boston Harbor, Rev. Cizik spoke out against the Keystone XL pipeline. (Photo: courtesy of Rev. Richard Cizik)

CIZIK: I think it's only when you get into some of the specifics that you get some disagreements, so yeah, it's a big split. The numbers are increasing demographically, slowly, but the Evangelicals are coming on board. A lot of them are too afraid yet to speak out, we know that. There're pastors and churches where they're afraid someone might take exception if they come out and say “I support action on climate change, it's imperative, it is a moral thing to do”. They're still afraid. Let's be optimistic here, younger Evangelicals, I call them the new Evangelicals, they get the science, they get the moral imperative, they are winning the day and they don't have a problem here, they get it.

CURWOOD: Before you go Reverend Cizik, Evangelicals typically have a conversion experience. They decide at some point that they are really going to embrace their faith, and, of course, conversion means change. How likely is it that large numbers of Evangelicals will change their position on the concern about climate?

Rev. Cizik is co-founder and President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. He formerly served as the Vice President of Government Affairs with the National Association of Evangelicals. (Photo: courtesy of Rev. Richard Cizik)

CIZIK: That's a tough question, Steve. Frankly, I think it will take a miracle of sorts, in the sense that the divisions, the polarization, is so deep. You have even within the Catholic Church you see a northeast White Catholicism that votes Republican. You have a southwest Latin or Hispanic and young church that votes very Democratic. You have that divide within the Catholic church, and you have that same kind of divide within Evangelicalism, and so it's going to take a miracle of sorts for people's hearts to be changed, because climate change has joined the religious right's cause for division over issues: same sex marriage, abortion and the like. They’ve put climate change in that equation, and that is so sad. That's why the Pope's visit is so very important, because he is so admired. He is pro-life. You see, he cares about the family and the gender issues that Evangelicals care about, so if they love him for those things they should love him for this thing too, that is on climate change, and it's going to be interesting to see how much he moves the needle, so to speak. I think he can. I think we’re at an inflection moment in time that is God-ordained, and I praise the Lord for it.

CURWOOD: Reverend Richard Cizik is President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. Thanks so much for taking the time today.

CIZIK: Thank you.



Pope Francis’s Environmental Encyclical, “Laudato Si’”

Here’s How All The Catholic Presidential Candidates Are Responding To The Pope’s Climate Encyclical

About Richard Cizik and the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good

The Evangelical Climate Initiative

Our previous discussion with Rev. Cizik on “creation care”

Rev. Cizik on Obama’s invoking of religious commandments to act on climate, our story

“My Journey Toward the ‘New Evangelicalism’” by Rev. Cizik

“Protecting Public Lands and Restoring Equal Ground” by Rev. Cizik

“What President Obama Should Discuss with Pope Francis” by Rev. Cizik


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