God on the Radio
Jim Jewell, chief operating officer of a small evangelical advocacy organization, mailed a letter to supporters earlier this year. “As I walked the aisles of the National Religious Broadcasters convention,” he began, “I found that it was easy to sign up for luxury accommodations in Jamaica or a tour of Israel…. What I knew I wouldn’t find was information on how we as Christians could be faithful in obeying God’s call to care for His creation, or material on environmental stewardship.”
Jewell knew this information would not be available because his organization, the Evangelical Environmental Network, had been denied permission to set up a booth in the National Religious Broadcaster’s exhibit hall. NRB is a trade association representing more than 1,400 evangelical broadcasters and related organizations. The “Statement of Faith” to which all NRB members must ascribe makes no mention of politics—their credo is biblical infallibility, the divinity of Jesus, and salvation through the Holy Spirit. But EEN’s account of its rejection by NRB suggests that NRB uses its influence to perpetuate a narrow conservative evangelical agenda that many Christians are beginning to reconsider.
According to Jewell, the NRB staff initially accepted EEN’s application for a spot in the exhibition. But, he says, “we later received a rushed notification that the NRB executive committee had reversed the staff decision.” No explanation was given for this change, making it hard to attribute the shift to anything other than politics. Political groups that did have booths at the NRB conference included “family values” stalwarts such as Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, the Alliance Defense Fund, and the Liberty University Law School.
The Evangelical Environmental Network is more than 15 years old, but only in the past two years has its cause become a central topic of evangelical debate. It received a major boost in 2006 when 86 evangelical leaders signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative, which suggested the fight against global warming deserved a place on the evangelical agenda alongside the battle to ban abortion.
The Climate Initiative sparked a hostile backlash from the religious right. Radio personality James Dobson of Focus on the Family bitterly denounced the Climate Initiative’s backers, even joining with the Family Research Counsel’s Tony Perkins and 23 other leaders to demand that one of its main architects be fired from his position at the National Association of Evangelicals. The late Reverend Jerry Falwell even described global warming advocacy as “Satan’s attempt to redirect the church’s primary focus.”
Today, however, Dobson and his allies seem to be on the defensive. The National Association of Evangelicals, which represents some 30 million members, has identified “creation care” as one of its top five priorities. The Reverend Pat Robertson has reversed his opposition to global warming measures, even appearing in advertisements for the “We Can Solve the Climate Crisis” campaign.
But the fight over environmentalism is far from over. Recently, Dobson, Perkins, and other old-guard leaders launched a group called “We Get It,” which purports to be a Christian environmental organization. In actuality, its declaration of principles denies scientific consensus on global warming and opposes environmental measures because it claims they will hurt the poor.
Citing organization policy that prohibits discussion of membership decisions, National Religious Broadcasters Vice President Craig Parshall declined to comment on blocking EEN’s access at the convention. But Parshall is comfortable with NRB’s conservative orientation, even seeing a symbiotic relationship with the conservative political media. Parshall claims that Christian radio is one of the three fastest-growing radio formats, a success he attributes to the popularity of conservative talk radio. “A lot of people, when they’re listening to conservative talk, don’t know that they’re listening to conservative Christian talk,” he says.
This overlap is not surprising, given that some of conservative evangelicalism’s most influential voices gained prominence through radio shows. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family organization syndicates material to over 2,600 stations across the United States. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the backers of the “We Get It” global warming denial campaign, hosts a radio program that reaches more than 600 stations. Jay Sekulow, who heads the American Center for Law and Justice, also hosts a syndicated radio program. Land, Sekulow, and a Focus on the Family representative all sit on the NRB board of directors.
In his letter to supporters, EEN’s Jim Jewell explains that evangelical environmentalists still must “find ways to work around barriers that continue to be constructed by our Christian brothers and sisters who are not ready to blend a message of creation care into the conservative church.” In order to “get avoid these negative filters,” EEN is launching a series of “Creation Care Minutes” to be broadcast on airtime purchased from the very Christian stations they could not reach at the NRB convention. These short broadcasts, Jewell says, will not necessarily tackle divisive issues like climate change, but rather start engaging with Christian audiences on concrete steps that individuals can take to make their daily lives greener and “inspiration moments” tying environmental stewardship to biblical principles.
In making its appeal to audiences through paid airtime, EEN is following the precedent of the evangelical broadcasters who first formed NRB. Until the 1960s, the mainline National Council of Churches divvied up the airtime broadcasters set aside for religious broadcasters to use free of charge. They cut evangelicals out of this arrangement, forcing them to reach audiences by buying commercial time on local stations. The strength of paid evangelical programming’s audience, coupled with rule changes by the Federal Communication Commission, led to the dominance that NRB-affiliated stations enjoy today.
With the new administration expected to take up climate change legislation, evangelical broadcasters will find it increasingly hard to ignore this issue. Though it seems unlikely that EEN will have the resources to match conservative voices on the air, its paid announcements may prod Christian radio into more open discussion about a subject that is increasingly a mainstream evangelical priority. As one senior evangelical environmentalist said of conservatives who want to sidestep the issue, “They can run, but they can’t hide.”
Lester Feder is a freelance journalist covering conservative politics and popular culture. He is currently working on a book about the evangelical environmental movement.
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