With God on Our Side?

Last week, Barack Obama set out a bold new plan for saving the planet. This week, he told us why: It’s a matter of faith. “Not a blind faith, not a faith of mere words, not a faith that ignores science, but an active searching faith,” the Democratic presidential hopeful - a member of the United Church of Christ - told religious leaders. “It is our responsibility to ensure that this planet remains clean and safe and livable for our children and for all of God's children.” 

Obama has tried to rally the religious community behind his policy positions in the past, with limited success - he earned comparisons to the Antichrist last year when he addressed Rick Warren’s congregation at a church-sponsored conference on AIDS prevention. 

This time around, though, Obama looks well-placed to ride the coat-tails of an unlikely but increasingly prominent coalition between progressive environmentalists and conservative religious groups. Last year, 86 evangelical leaders signed a statement calling for their movement to join the fight against global warming; since then, godly greens have become a sizable and politically important faction, with even Pat Robertson throwing his weight behind the campaign. 

The GOP has already felt the cost of crossing the new breed of environmental evangelicals: Arch-conservative Republican Rick Santorum lost his Senate seat in last year’s midterms after drawing fire from religious groups for his opposition to Kyoto and his support for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Overall, Democrats won almost a third of the white evangelical vote and well over half the Catholic vote in last year’s elections, sending a clear message that religious voters are once again up for grabs.

Unsurprisingly, that’s riled many Republican-aligned religious leaders and pundits; they’ve tried to stem the tide by arguing that fighting climate change is incompatible with tackling hot-button issues like abortion and homosexuality. “As long as one is concerned about diminishing BTUs, there is little concern about killing babies,” one conservative commentator spat recently

This kind of disingenuous nonsense only serves to illustrate the void in Republican thinking about the environment. If the GOP wants to reclaim its hold on the religious vote, it’s going to need to show that it can do as good a job of caring for the planet as its opponents are promising to do. Trying to twist the focus back to abortions and gay marriage will only splinter the party’s religious base - and Barack Obama and the rest of the Democratic hopefuls will be on hand to pick up the pieces.