ARLINGTON, VA. -- What is it with evangelical Christians that so many of them need a cause beyond the commission they've been given?
Having witnessed the damage to the church's fundamental message of redemption from a too-close association with the "kingdom of this world" - first in the liberal National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches, and more recently with various conservative religious-political movements - some evangelicals have decided to give it another go. This time, the issue isn't abortion, gay rights or cleaning up offensive TV programs. They want to clean up the planet.
In October, it appeared the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), which claims 30 million members, was headed toward an alliance with the more liberal wing of Christendom over the environment. Rather than call it "environmentalism," which to some reeks of sensible shoes and reusing hotel towels, these evangelicals embraced a euphemism more to their liking. "Creation Care," they decided to call it, and solving "global warming" would be their objective.
It now appears that at least some cooler heads have prevailed over global warming. While some superstars of evangelicalism - including Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life - have signed on to the global warming doctrine, many others have not. This division in evangelical ranks prompted the NAE to pull back from an expected endorsement of the issue following October's statement that mankind has "a sacred responsibility to steward the Earth and not a license to abuse the creation of which we are a part."
A statement issued Feb. 1 by NAE President Ted Haggard recognized "the ongoing debate" on global warming and "the lack of consensus among the evangelical community on this issue."
Calvin DeWitt, professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and a leading evangelical supporter of various environmental causes, called the NAE statement "a retreat and a defeat." He predicted "negative consequences for the ability of evangelicals to influence the White House, unfortunately and sadly." Should influencing the White House be the primary or even a major objective for evangelicals, or should their goal be to please God?
A better objective would be to follow another statement made not by a committee but by a single individual who claims ownership of His church and requires obedience to all who would follow Him: "Go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). Jesus also called on His disciples "to obey everything I have commanded you."
A quick look does not reveal those teachings as having anything to do with global warming or the environment. Rather, He calls individuals to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison and pray for those who persecute them. Evangelicals should pursue these higher virtues instead of settling for the lower life of politics.
I'm all for trying to keep the air and water as clean as possible, and I do not toss litter on the ground, but I worry that, having been mugged several times before at the end of the political alley, evangelicals may be setting themselves up for more damage to their credibility.
The environmental models pertaining to planet temperatures have not been studied long enough to reach such a profound conclusion that unless Americans drive different cars, the planet will burn up because of carbon dioxide gas. It is more likely to burn up because of nuclear weapons in the hands of nuts like the president of Iran.
If evangelicals make the environment another "cause," they are likely to be as frustrated and disappointed as when they exercised misplaced faith in politics to cure other social evils. Should they desire a real effect on the planet, let them return to the eternal message that has been given them to share with a world that needs it now more than ever.
That is a message that "cleans up" the inside of the hearts of men and women and places them in a position to more powerfully influence this world and prepare themselves and others for the world to come.
Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.