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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

On a Mission from God

You know Eliot Spitzer's hooker problem? Turns out that's not the only thing that's happened in this young week. While Spitzer's reputation as a law and order straight arrow makes his story a "man bites dog" one, there's been an almost as surprising turn around elsewhere. The gay-hating, abortion-fighting, evolution-denying Southern Baptist Convention has decided not to be crazy about an issue. It's not really a fundamental shift -- it's been coming for some time -- but good news out of these guys is so rare that it pays to stop and pay attention to it.

Associated Press:

In a major shift, a group of Southern Baptist leaders said their denomination has been "too timid" on environmental issues and has a biblical duty to stop global warming.

The declaration, signed by the president of the Southern Baptist Convention among others and released Monday, shows a growing urgency about climate change even within groups that once dismissed claims of an overheating planet as a liberal ruse. The conservative denomination has 16.3 million members and is the largest Protestant group in the U.S.

The signers of "A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change" acknowledged that not all Christians accept the science behind global warming. They said they do not expect fellow believers to back any proposed solutions that would violate Scripture, such as advocating population control through abortion.

However, the leaders said that current evidence of global warming is "substantial," and that the threat is too grave to wait for perfect knowledge about whether, or how much, people contribute to the trend.

Real science wins out in the SBC -- wow. This is good news on a few levels. One, it shows that reason can light even the self-benighted. Two, a big part of the GOP's voting base isn't going with the party line on this. Three, there are people who are going to fight global warming like they're on a mission from God -- because they think they are.

This is a big turn-around for a very large faction of the religious right. The late and unlamented Jerry Falwell once said that global warming was "Satan’s attempt to redirect the church’s primary focus from evangelism to environmentalism." Environmentalism, apparently, takes too much time away from hating gays and fighting evolution in schools to be pleasing to The Lord. Almost a year ago to the day, James Dobson expressed his alarm that the National Evangelical Association was too freaked out about climate change and not freaked out enough about the ungodly nature of modern society.

This has become sort of a recurring theme for my posts; that sooner or later, the voters being led around by the religious right were going to wise up. For years, they voted for phonies who claimed moral superiority, who promised they'd get rid of abortion and fight the homosexual menace, only to deliver tax cuts, deregulation, privatization, and global trade deals. Elected to do Jesus' business, these paragons of false piety got right to work on corporate business. For example, in 2004 Bush made a big deal about same sex marriage. Once he was re-elected, he got right to work on Social Security privatization. You'd think he'd never heard of gay marriage before and that he'd run on his Social Security giveaway program. It was one more example of the bait and switch that "values voters" had been falling for for decades.

That this scam could go on for so long is a testament to the power of faith. Faith, as we've seen demonstrated again and again, can be a destructive as constructive, as oppressive as liberating, and as stultifying as enlightening. Faith, it seems, is good only about 50% of the time -- a record no better than guesswork would have.

It turns out that the transformative power of wising up is a greater force for good than faith. If I were a religious type, I'd say that God gave you a damned brain for a reason. We didn't pray the wheel into existence.

Of course, this is a shift on only one issue. They'll still hate gays with the burning passion of a thousand giant suns and compare abortion to the Holocaust. They'll still fight evolution in schools and try to ban Harry Potter books. But if it's a choice between wising up on one issue or wising up on none, I'll take one. Progress is progress.

This shift couldn't have come at a better time. A new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters tells us that we have to reduce carbon output to near zero. "The question is, what if we don't want the Earth to warm anymore?" asks report co-author Ken Caldeira, a senior scientist with the Carnegie Institution. "The answer implies a much more radical change to our energy system than people are thinking about." To even start moving in that direction, environmentalism is going to have to become a bipartisan issue. And, thanks to the recent shift in the evangelical movement, it is.

To tie this into the election, this is bad news for John McCain. With his embrace of end of days lunatic John Hagee, he's clearly tying himself to the sinking side of the evangelical movement. You don't give a damn about the climate if you think Jesus is coming to end the world next week. The fact that a good chunk of values voters are thinking about the future shows that the "rapture right" is losing ground. McCain is betting on a horse who's already falling behind.

This new side of the religious right has some bad news for the GOP in general. "It ought to be God's agenda, not the Republican Party's agenda, that drives us," said Rev. Paul de Vries last year. "We're actually tired of being represented by people with a very narrow focus. We want to have a focus as big as God's focus." And it's not just the leadership who are embracing this shift to non-partisanship. Back to the AP piece again:

[25 year-old seminary student Jonathan Merrit's] professor had compared destroying God's creation to "tearing a page out of the Bible."

"That struck me. It broke me,"... Merritt said in an interview, "and that was the impetus that began a life change, a shift of perspective for me."

So, yes, there's a story out there that's already tying the word "hooker" with the tired and no longer clever suffix "-gate." It's a big story and it deserves attention. But there are still other stories out there that, while less sexy in a tabloid sense, are much more far reaching and will have a much larger impact on our future. Eliot Spitzer's career may very well be over, but our new future has just begun.

And we may get there with the help of what once were unlikely allies.


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