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Evangelicals Make Environmental Issues About 'Caring for God's Creation'

The Evangelical Environmental Network encourage Kirk to vote against a measure to kill Obama's clean power plan. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The Evangelical Environmental Network is just what it sounds like: a ministry of evangelicals, mostly Republicans, who believe climate change is dangerous and worth fighting.  

"I’m a Republican, and our organization is designed to reach out to evangelicals who are, by and large, conservative politically as well," Rev. Mitchell Hescox, president of EEN told CQ Roll Call last week.  

"What we want to do," he said, is help Republicans see "that caring for God’s creation is a value set that they should care about."  

Illinois Sen. Mark S. Kirk was one of three Republican senators who opposed two Congressional Review Act resolutions last month that would repeal the administration's stricter regulations for new and existing power plants.  

Kirk, one of the most vulnerable senators  in Roll Call's analysis of competitive Senate races, was the target of an EEN radio ad the week before the vote, calling for him to support the Clean Power Plan. But Hescox insisted that next year's elections have nothing to do with the radio spot that aired on the Chicago and Springfield markets.  

"We didn’t target Kirk because he’s in a competitive race; we did it because we have over 40,000 evangelicals in Illinois," said Hescox, speaking from Capitol Hill where he was making the rounds.  

"When I was in his office last Friday," Hescox said, "there was somewhere between 500 and 1,000 phone calls asking him to vote for it after hearing the ad."  

EEN's first mission is reaching Christian evangelicals, many of whom may be the constituents of the lawmakers they target on Capitol Hill. For both of their target audiences the central idea, Hescox said, is the "Biblical importance of creation care," and particularly climate change's nefarious effects on children and the unborn.  

But opposition to President Barack Obama's climate plans and the Paris talks runs deep, with congressional Republicans fearful of government intervention in industry.  "It will be up to Congress to check the president’s ambition of committing the U.S. to an international green scheme that will produce little or no return," Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed .  

"The Obama administration has already imposed burdensome regulations — for instance, the sprawling Clean Power Plan aimed at wiping out the coal industry — that will raise the cost of energy and put hundreds of thousands of Americans out of work," the two-term Republican wrote.  

While just three Republicans defected from their party's support for the CRA resolutions last week, three red-state Democrats — North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III — backed the resolutions.  

Having spent 14 years in the coal industry, Hescox, who lives in Pennsylvania, is familiar with their arguments.  

"My dad was a coal miner," he said. "Both my grandfathers died from black lung."  

But coal's days are numbered, he said.  

"There are only 7,000 coal mine jobs in Pennsylvania. They’re declining and not going to return." From EEN's perspective, addressing climate change isn't just a moral imperative, it's an economic necessity, too.  

"We believe that addressing climate change will result in a clean energy future that will boost our economy," Hescox said. The evangelical environmental movement isn't new — it flourished in the mid-2000s. But that didn't last.  

recent paper from the New America Foundation  argues that the movement's lack of mobilized power didn't allow it to stand up to the organized right, which saw creation care as a threat to its conservative coalition.  

Today, with about 800,000 followers on its email list, EEN isn't anywhere as large as the green groups often identified with the political left. But its network is growing, Hescox said.  

According to the University of Michigan's National Surveys on Energy and the Environment, acceptance of global warming among American evangelical Christians rose 16 percent  — from 49 percent in the spring to 65 percent this fall — an increase partially attributed to Pope Francis' encyclical on the issue and his visit to the U.S. earlier this year.  

Even if he doesn't have the numbers that other groups have, Hescox thinks his organization brings an important perspective. ("My standard spiel is it’s not about polar bears, it’s about children," Hescox said, suggesting that traditional green groups don't message well.) Are conservative lawmakers responding?  

"It depends on the offices. Some really like to talk and engage; others don’t," Hescox said. "I just left a Republican office a few minutes, and one of the things I tell them is that I’m a Christian." "I n entire sincerity, I pray that those offices can open up to where God wants them to move," he added. And what of Paris, where America's carbon reduction goals will be on the world stage?  

"We're letting other people deal with Paris," Hescox said. "We need to work with our people in the pews."  

Related:

Kirk to Illinois Democrats: I Already Took Care of That
Pope Francis Speech to Congress Transcript
Roll Call Race Ratings Map: Ratings for Every House and Senate Race in 2016

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