Reduce, Reuse, Religion?

A new generation of evangelicals debates swapping an antigay agenda for a pro-planet one.

BY

April 06 2009 12:00 AM ET

Rev. Peter Illyn x390 (fair use) | advocate.com

The new face of evangelicalism, the Reverend Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Southern California, is hardly progressive on the issue of gay rights, though his broader agenda has helped to legitimize environmental activism among religious conservatives. But many young evangelicals look elsewhere for inspiration, beyond the ministers who spend inordinate amounts of time as talking heads for cable news shows -- particularly when there are more pressing matters for humanity, says the Reverend Peter Illyn. While the Prop. 8 campaign was reaching its frenzied climax in November, Illyn, founder of the religious environmental group Restoring Eden, led a tour of two dozen undergraduates from evangelical Christian universities through the Appalachian Mountains near Whitesville, W.Va. -- visiting areas that had been devastated by a form of coal strip-mining that levels forests, buries streams, and contaminates water supplies.

When word of Prop. 8's passage finally reached his group, Illyn and his students were dismayed -- even if some in the group had reservations about marriage equality. "While people were spending millions of dollars in support of Prop. 8, we were visiting communities where 90% of the people surveyed had had their gallbladders removed, where an elementary school is located 400 yards from a toxic earthen dam, where the water is undrinkable," he says. "Now, where is the outrage from evangelical leaders for these people? Why aren't we spending millions to protect innocent children from pollution?"

Today's evangelicals are not a unified front of "tree-huggin' Christians," as Illyn bellows on his voice-mail greeting. Like many of their leaders, they are skeptical about global warming and its causes. And like most Americans, they don't consider the environment to be among the nation's most pressing concerns. In the coming years, this may change. "Numerically, it's not at critical mass yet, but all signs indicate it will be," Illyn says. "There's always an internal struggle for defining the priorities in the hearts and minds of Christians. This is a great example."

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