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Leading Questions: Climate Change Polls and Evangelicals

Dr. E Calvin Beisner | Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation | Monday, May 11, 2009

Leading Questions: Climate Change Polls and Evangelicals

May 11, 2009

Over the last year multiple polls have shown very few evangelicals share fears of manmade global warming. In fact, they are the least likely of all Americans to support global warming legislation.

So, what do you do when you're desperate to get lawmakers to believe they'll have evangelicals' support if they back massive, expensive legislation to fight global warming?

If the latest development is any indication, you fake it. You try to create the illusion of massive evangelical support even when it's not there.

It began with the Evangelical Environmental Network's (EEN) attempt to get the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) to endorse what became known as the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI). In January 2006 the NAE, wisely seeing that there was no consensus among evangelicals, declined, despite strong support by then-vice president for governmental affairs Richard Cizik (since resigned in a flack over his public support of civil unions for homosexuals).

Undeterred, Cizik, assisted by other ECI supporters like the EEN's Jim Ball and Florida megachuch pastor Joel Hunter, spent the next two years giving speeches around the country, asserting that support for global warming legislation was a moral imperative. Cizik rarely acknowledged that he spoke for himself personally, not for the NAE--whose executive board had instructed its staff not to exceed the language of its 2004 "For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility," which didn't even mention global warming.

All to no avail.

  • A January 2007 Barna survey found that only 33% of evangelicals "identified [climate change] as a major issue"--one of the sharpest differences between evangelicals and the general public.

  • A September 2007 Barna study concluded that "Evangelicals would rather think about other things."

  • A September 2008 Barna study found that evangelicals “express the greatest caution regarding their perception that media has hyped the story (65%), their belief that cyclical climate change is not primarily caused by human activity (62%), and their concern that proposed solutions would hurt the poor, especially in other countries (60%).”

  • An October 2008 survey by LifeWay Research found that only 32 percent of pastors in evangelical denominations "believe global warming is real and man-made" (compared to 75 percent of pastors in mainline denominations).

Indeed, even the American public as a whole isn't on the bandwagon. A Pew survey in January found that Americans ranked global warming dead last in a list of policy priorities.

Even those who've been on the bandwagon are now jumping off. In March Gallup reported that the percentage of Americans who believed the news media exaggerated the seriousness of global warming had climbed from 30% in 2006 to 35% in 2008 to 41% in 2009.

Now, in desperation, some evangelicals are banding with long-time Left-wing advocates for yet another attempt to foist an illusion on politicians and the public. Ball and Hunter have teamed up with the Left-wing group Faith in Public Life (FIPL) and Oxfam America to advertise results of their own poll.

To design the poll, FIPL and Oxfam hired Public Religion Research, headed by long-time liberals Robert P. Jones, who got his start with People for the American Way, and Daniel Cox, formerly of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. And to showcase the news, as Dan Gilgoff of US News reports, FIPL and Oxfam have linked with American Values Network, a "new faith-based advocacy group founded by Hillary Clinton's former religious outreach director" Burns Strider.

Not surprisingly, granted its sponsors and designers, the new poll purports to find that 61% of Americans believe "dealing with climate change will create new jobs and help avoid more serious economic problems in the future." Some 69%, "with similar numbers of . . . evangelicals agree that climate change is making it harder for the world's poorest people to support their families by causing increased drought and crop failure." And 50% of white evangelicals believe "the federal government should be doing more on the issue of climate change."

Why the striking contrast with all the other polls? It's not clear, since to date FIPL has declined to provide more than a few, selective results for religious groups. But Public Religion Research now admits that its survey finds that only 40% of white evangelicals feel there is solid evidence that the earth is warming because of human activity--an important figure omitted from press releases, which highlighted people’s desire for action.

Last, did the wording of some questions prejudice responses? It’s hard to say, but the survey's topline is intriguing. Several key questions used prejudicial language, offered respondents more options to support climate action than to oppose it, and explicitly discouraged neutral answers. Even more subtly, questions asking whether respondents supported policies and whether government should do more attached no price tags and didn't ask respondents to rank priorities, although polling experts know that as soon as price tags and priority ranking come into play, apparent support dwindles.

Bottom line: the FIPL/Oxfam poll is suspect. But that won't stop its sponsors from launching an expensive campaign, spearheaded by American Values Network, touting it--with e-mails to 5.3 million evangelicals and Roman Catholics in eight key states, and a radio ad read by Hunter.

This is just the latest effort to create an illusion.

E. Calvin Beisner is national spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and helped found the WeGetIt.org Campaign, an effort to gather one million signatures of Christians concerned that global warming policy will hurt the poor.