The photo in Vanity Fair‘s “Green Issue” is the best place to start. It shows just how far Richard Cizik will go to shatter stereotypes about evangelicals, defy the organization he represents, and spread his newfound environmental gospel. Cizik (make that Reverend Cizik, pronounced “size-ik”) is the Washington lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the largest such group in the country, representing 45,000 churches and 30 million church-goers. But here he is, pictured in a magazine that had just put two actresses on the cover who were as naked as Eve. A magazine whose editor routinely rips on George W. Bush, the Evangelical in Chief. A magazine with enough harlotry and pride in its pages to fill a special circle in hell.
When the May issue came out, Jim Ball, Cizik’s partner in this new eco-ministry, called. He asked, “Have you see the photo?”
“Not yet,” Cizik replied. “How’s it look?”
Pause. “It’s weird.” Another pause. “It’s bizarre.”
Cizik is barefoot, dressed in a black frock over a black shirt, the top button buttoned. He could be an old-timey preacher, or a prophet traversing some apocalyptic wasteland. He’s moving toward an owl perched on a dead branch. It’s weird all right, but provocative, which is what Cizik is after. He doesn’t want to be a voice crying out in the wilderness. And the fact that he’s included in the magazine with Al Gore and architect William McDonough (not to mention Hollywood perennials such as Julia Roberts and George Clooney) suggests that isn’t the case. On the contrary, he and his fellow environmental evangelicals are now a force to be reckoned with.
In February, Cizik and Ball kicked off a groundbreaking campaign to convince evangelicals that the fight against global warming is their Christian duty. At a press conference in Washington, DC, the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI) spelled out its biblical underpinnings and called for reducing fossil-fuel use and passing tougher environmental laws to help prevent catastrophic droughts and flooding. Although those suggestions were hardly radical, the event made national headlines: Cizik and Ball had persuaded 86 evangelical leaders to sign on–pastors of megachurches, evangelical college presidents, the head of the Salvation Army, even Rick Warren, author of the best-seller The Purpose-Driven Life. The ECI also ran full-page ads in The New York Times, Roll Call, and Christianity Today, along with radio and TV ads on Christian and Fox stations in 15 states with key congressional campaigns this year.
Cizik and Ball triggered a family feud. Until now, climate change hasn’t stirred the same righteous fury or created the kind of consensus among evangelicals that, say, abortion has. The loudest agitators, after all, tend to be liberal Democrats, hardly their natural bedfellows. Also, global warming tends to pit science against faith, making it a tough sell. “Many evangelicals think that because they don’t believe in evolution, they have to reject the science of global warming, too” says Cizik. Some insist the science is inconclusive or the ECI is misinterpreting Scripture. Others accept that the climate is heating up but doubt the extent of the damage or the feasibility of solutions. The planet self-corrects, they say. Still others believe global warming to be a sign of the apocalypse and the second coming of Christ.
Precisely because the issue is divisive, the right wing of the religious right prefers a hands-off approach. “The concern is that it’ll break up the group politically,” says John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
That concern explains the one glaring omission among the signers of the February call to arms: Cizik himself. Higher powers at the NAE, he said, insisted he remove his name after it received a letter from 22 evangelical leaders–including heavyweights James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Richard Land of the Southern Baptists Convention–urging the group to avoid a global-warming policy and to avoid speaking out (translation: Cizik, its oft-quoted spokesman, should zip it). “It looked like Tony Soprano had whacked one of his own,” says Cizik. “People asked me, ‘Rich, do you still have a job?’ ”
“Many evangelicals think that because they don’t believe in evolution, they have to reject the science of global warming, too.”
He does. And he’s still sticking his neck out, because he understands that real leadership sometimes means angering your friends. So he and Ball are busily targeting young evangelicals, key senators, and Republicans in general. “We’re going to squeeze the Republicans until they see the light,” says Cizik, an unabashed Reaganite. “This has been perceived as a left-wing issue, not a mainstream issue or a spiritual issue, but we’re changing that.”
Not surprisingly, the ECI rebels have been dismissed by their fellow conservatives as enviro-hippies, Birkenstocked believers, and rogue evangelicals. Everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Senator James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, has taken a shot at Cizik. “What would we solve if we weren’t breaking down barriers?” he asks. “That’s not being a leader.”
Cizik, Ball, and their 86 supporters are spearheading a “great awakening of religious life,” says Paul Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. “In terms of importance, it’s comparable to the Enlightenment, the Reformation. This is about humankind realizing the consequences of its impact on the planet.”
The chief architects of the Evangelical Climate Initiative are an unlikely duo: the consummate insider and the impassioned outsider. Cizik has been vice president of governmental affairs for the NAE for 26 years. His Washington office reflects his inside-the-Beltway status. There’s a photo with former President Bill Clinton and a letter from President Bush. Cizik, 54, is tall and lean, with piercing blue eyes and a folksy charm. He’s as apt to tell a joke about lobbyists as he is to quote Scripture. He says that every morning begins with the same prayer: “God, help me to meet the right people, say the right thing, and do the right thing.” Access is rarely a problem. He has the ear of reporters, White House staffers, and congressional staffers , not to mention pastors. Until four years ago, however, environmentalists weren’t on his radar.
In 2002, Jim Ball, the man behind the “what would jesus drive?” anti-suv campaign, set out to recruit someone in the mainstream. He found Cizik.
Just one block away, at Riverside Baptist Church, Jim Ball, 44, works on the fringes. He’s shorter than Cizik, with wavy graying hair and a calm, earnest aspect. He still preaches on occasion, but as the only full-time employee of the Evangelical Environmental Network, Ball is considered an outsider–a “liberal evangelical,” as more-conservative conservatives have branded him. No presidential pictures here. A wall-sized world map, stacks of environmental reports, and a what would jesus drive? bumper sticker. Ball generated widespread media attention with that campaign.
In 2002, Ball and other environmental evangelicals set out to recruit someone in the mainstream. Cizik was perfect. They invited him to a climate-change conference in Oxford, England. “I went thinking, I’ll listen to what they have to say, but it won’t change my views,” Cizik recalls. However, the evidence he heard from evangelical scientists (on higher global temperatures, the melting of polar ice caps, escalating pollution), combined with his sense of obligation to all of creation, especially the poorest, most vulnerable people, won him over. “I had a conversion,” he says.
Back home, Cizik traded in his RV and two cars for a pair of Toyota Priuses, and continued researching climate change. He and Ball pursued other evangelical leaders just as Ball had targeted Cizik. They told their conversion stories. They invoked the Scripture. “We want them to see that reducing pollution is loving your neighbor,” says Ball. “When people think of the environment, they usually think of only trees, water, and animals.” To deflect the liberal associations of the term “environmentalism,” Cizik and Ball used a more recent one: “creation care.”
In the summer of 2004, Ball and Cizik helped organize their own climate-change conference at a Christian retreat on the Chesapeake Bay. About 30 leaders signed a covenant, committing themselves to learn more and to recruit others. “We’re able to convince people on climate change because they can trust the information,” says Ball. “It’s coming from evangelicals.” Still, Cizik says, “We couldn’t do much arm-twisting. All we could do was say, ‘Join us and be on the right side of history.’ ”
Stuart Shepard isn’t buying it. He’s an online editor at Focus on the Family and a spokesman there. Dr. Dobson, the group’s founder, signed the letter urging the NAE not to embrace global warming. “There are certain issues that define what it means to be an evangelical,” says Shepard. “Global warming doesn’t fit into that. And we don’t think it should divide us.” Besides, says Shepard, a former TV meteorologist, “there’s not a consensus in the scientific community about the severity of the problem and what to do about it.”
Cizik has heard all the objections. He rejects them. “We’re on a collision course of monumental proportion,” he says. “Twenty million to 30 million people could be victims. As evangelicals we can’t just ignore it and hope it goes away.” According to polls commissioned by the ECI, 70% of 1,000 evangelical respondents believe climate change is a threat to future generations. Half believe something should be done now, even if that causes economic fallout. “There’s a leadership transition under way,” says Cizik. “We are the future, and the old guard is reaching up to grasp its authority back, like in a horror movie where a hand comes out of the grave.”
As much as he enjoys stirring the pot, Cizik has lost sleep over the ECI. “I’ve wondered, What in the world have I done?” he says. “If you didn’t wonder, I think you’d be an idealogue. It’s not that I’m just doing what I think is right, but what God has called me to do.”
Yes, even that strange photo in Vanity Fair.
Gorman, from the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, whips out a copy when he meets Cizik at the Hotel George one afternoon. They’re discussing another project, a book that Cizik wants to write about the environment. As Gorman flips to the infamous image, Cizik cracks, “I can never be portrayed as a narrow-minded evangelist who can’t laugh at himself. What did you think of it?”
Gorman studies the picture, his eyebrows arched in mock shock. “That,” he says, “is a free man undertaking a fresh ministry.” And one who’s prepared to take the heat.
Chuck Salter (email@example.com) is a Fast Company senior writer.