Finding My Religion

By David Ian Miller, The San Francisco Chronicle

Scientists and evangelicals — it seems a safe bet they’d be on opposite sides of almost any issue. But last week Harvard scientists and evangelical Christian leaders publicly joined forces to battle global warming.

“We believe that the protection of life on Earth is a profound moral imperative,” the new allies said in a statement sent to President Bush and members of Congress. They vowed to “work together to call our nation, and other nations, to the kind of dramatic change urgently required in our day.”

Among the evangelicals working for environmental action is Dr. J. Matthew Sleeth, 50, a former emergency room physician who grew up in a Christian family but abandoned religion for many years before joining the evangelical movement in his 40s. Five years ago, Sleeth resigned as chief of the medical staff and director of the ER of a Maine hospital to lecture, write and preach about the environment.

Together with his wife and two teenage children, Sleeth also radically redesigned his lifestyle in keeping with his environmental concerns. They moved into a smaller house, cut their fossil-fuel and electricity use by more than two-thirds and gave away many of their possessions in an effort to simplify their lives and consume less of the planet’s resources.

Sleeth’s spoke to me by phone from Washington, D.C.

Q. Do you ever miss working as a doctor?

A. Oh desperately! Every day!

Q. Why not continue to practice medicine?

A. I felt that our environment was the biggest medical emergency I’ve ever seen. And if that meant I had to quit the thing I loved most, so be it. That’s just the way it was. I don’t think there is a doctor that’s ever loved going into practice in medicine any more than me.

But I haven’t really stopped being a doctor. I have

spoken at a couple hundred churches and colleges in the last eight months about changes they should make in order to have a positive effect for the planet. And to me, it’s a type of health care. This is public health.

Q. Have you always thought of yourself as an environmentalist, or was this a recent conversion?

A. I suppose I’ve been environmentally aware most of my life. I grew up on a dairy farm in Maryland, and the first car I ever drove belonged to Gaylord Nelson, the inventor of Earth Day. So I don’t think these were issues that were foreign or abstract to me. But saying that you care versus actually changing your ecological footprint are two different things. There are a lot of folks who say they care deeply about the environment, and yet their impact is as heavy as anyone on the planet. The future doesn’t care what we say — it only cares what we do.

Q. Do you have a sense of how many evangelicals in this country strongly support environmental causes?

A. I would say it’s a growing minority. Last week, I was speaking about environmental issues at an evangelical church in Colorado, a Bible-believing evangelical church. Many of those people were hearing a message they had heard for the first time, and yet they listened respectfully. A few walked forward and said, “I have believed what you said for years, but I’ve been afraid to say it.”

Q. For several years you and other Christian environmentalists have advocated a doctrine called creation care. Can you give me a quick definition?

A. Creation care is simply the idea that this Earth was created by God — it’s magnificent, it’s a mystery and it’s wonderful. We are here to care for it, not just to use it, so that we can pass it along to our great-great-grandchildren undiminished or better.

Q. Is this a new idea, or has it been around for a while?

A. Interestingly, it’s been around in theology in the Judeo-Christian world since Genesis, but it kind of fell out of favor about 100 years ago. I think that coincided with the move off the farm into industrial-based lifestyles. People were no longer directly connected to the mystery of the seed sprouting and the rain falling and the harvest and that sort of thing. But even people who live in cities can’t ignore the crisis now.

Last year, a group of Christian leaders from across the country signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative, calling for reductions in carbon emissions. Q. What do evangelicals bring to the environmental movement that is so critical?

A. Like it or not, we are a faith-driven country. Alexis de Tocqueville pointed that out when he came here more than more than 150 years ago, and it’s still true. And unless religious people get on the same page with scientists and politicians, it’s all going to be lost. I’m not just talking about Christians. I’m talking about Jews, Muslims, everybody.

Q. When you encounter resistance from evangelicals who disagree with you about global warming, what are their main reasons?

A. Some believe the environmental crisis was made up by environmentalists just to get attention. Others believe in End Times theology, that it doesn’t matter what we do because the world is coming to an end. And I try to work through these differences respectfully and biblically.

Q. What do you say to someone who believes that the world is ending soon?

A. I point out that the Bible specifically addresses these issues, that we are to work as hard as we can to the very last moment, whenever it comes. If the planet were to be hit by a comet in 10 days, it does not relieve me of my moral obligation to follow the law and the commandments. When it is presented to people that way, at least they are no longer argumentative. They at least have to wrestle with that.

Q. My understanding is that at least some evangelicals oppose birth control. Overpopulation has been cited as a primary cause of environmental problems. How do you approach issues like this that don’t jive with evangelical beliefs?

A. I think overpopulation is a major concern. I think that it’s a denominator that drives other environmental problems, including global warming. We have 300 million people now in the United States. We will go to 600 million people in 70 years and one billion in just 100 years in this country at our current growth rate. And if we in the church and other people of faith don’t grapple with this problem, it will be done for us by government.

Q. Do you support birth control?

A. Absolutely!

Q. From what I have read, there seems to be a strong interest among some evangelical environmentalists in preserving the Earth for the benefit of unborn children. Why not preserve the Earth for the Earth’s sake, for the sake of those who are already born?

A. I don’t think those two views are mutually exclusive. I think the greatest act that we can do faith-wise is to do something for someone else without hope of being paid back or thanked for it. That certainly includes the unborn generations. They will never be able to thank me. They can’t pay me back, and yet that is the definition of faith — doing something because it’s right, period.

Q. But do you see a disconnect among some Christians who are focused on the abortion issue but ignore environmental concerns?

A. I think there are many people in many faiths who have an illogical stance. Every human being I’ve ever met is a hypocrite in some way. And the person who thinks they have no hypocrisy is probably the biggest hypocrite and the most dangerous! The work of our lives is bringing what we say into the line of what we do.

Q. How do you see the role of evangelicals in the global warming issue playing out in Washington? What impact will they have?

In the past, there’s been a perception that if you are evangelical, then that meant that you voted against environmental protections. I think that’s changing. More and more evangelicals are seeing environmental concerns as a biblical issue.

A. My hope is that in the next presidential election we’ll have one person promising a hybrid in every garage and an organic chicken in every pot, and the other person will be promising two of each of those things.

Q. There are those in Washington who have vested interests in preventing the passage of environmental policies that would harm big business. These interests have undoubtedly counted on the evangelical community’s solid support for the Bush administration. What has the administration’s response been to creation care?

A. This administration has not listened to the people who put them into office, and I think that the change that we have seen recently on the political scene, particularly in the last election, is an answer to that.

Q. Do you consider yourself a liberal or a conservative, politically speaking?

A. I try to remain bipartisan in my approach because sometimes I’m talking to churches that are probably 90 percent Republican, and sometimes the opposite. And I think that the real power will happen when both sides are united on this particular issue.

Q. Do you believe the concern over global warming and other environmental issues could actually bring together conservatives and liberals?

A. The Bible says that the Lord makes the rain fall on the wicked and the just, meaning that we are all in this world together. And unfortunately, the acid rain falls on the wicked and the just, too, and global warming affects everyone.

When I talk about to people about the increase in breast cancer or asthma rates, these issues just slice right across all political divides. And so, at least for what I’m communicating to people, people often leave their politics aside and worry about the bigger issues.

Q. Do you think scientists and evangelicals are surprised they are getting along so well?

A. Yes. That’s what a lot of them keep saying. They are surprised at the common ground they have found. But it doesn’t surprise me. They may have disagreed on how the world came to be or how long it’s been here, but as to what to do with it right now, none of us disagree.

Q. But how can you really overlook that particular disagreement? It seems like such a fundamental part of being a scientist or an evangelical minister.

A. If a religious person falls off the back of a ship and there are scientists and environmentalists on deck, he doesn’t care who throws him the lifeboat, you know? It’s literally a matter of life and death. It’s the same situation for the planet right now, so political and theological differences do not matter.

I have to tell you that in my experience of seeing 30,000 patients in the emergency department, never once did anyone say when they had chest pain, “Gosh, what are your religious views or your politics?” At that point in time, they just said, “Doc, fix me!”

Q. Do you have any insights into that age-old split between evolution and a biblical understanding of creation?

A. That’s a whole article in itself, really, but let me just say that I don’t see a contradiction between the Bible and my environmental beliefs. What I like to say glibly is that the Bible is not about the age of rocks, but the Rock of Ages.

I don’t think it matters whether somebody believes the Earth is 5,000 years old or that the universe is 13 billion years old. If they recycle, if they reduce their carbon output by 50 percent, I don’t care what they believe. And what we believe is not going to matter to someone 100 years from now, but what we do now to save the planet will matter, immensely.