To environmentalists, it must have seemed a sight as rare as an ivory-billed woodpecker nesting in a chainsaw factory: Roberta Combs addressing the annual gathering of the National Wildlife Federation?
Let's rephrase that: The president of the Christian Coalition, a staunch ally of right-wing Republicans, has befriended one of the country's most venerable environmental groups.
In a later phone interview with Pittsburgh City Paper, Combs confirmed it was her first public talk ever to an environmental group. And it happened right here in Pittsburgh, the latest development in a burgeoning partnership between Combs and NWF President Larry Schweiger.
"I feel at home here, with you guys, the National Wildlife Federation," Combs told some 250 staffers and volunteers from across the nation, at their May 1 gathering at Downtown's Omni William Penn.
Schweiger, a Pittsburgh native, told the audience that he and Combs have been quietly working Washington, D.C., together for some time. As a result, he said, "We're getting into places we've never gotten into before" -- like the offices of some Republican politicians.
The NWF has more than 4 million members and supporters. The Christian Coalition claims some 2 million supporters, a substantial pool of potential new allies in the fight against global warming and other ills.
For Combs, the chief motivator is energy policy. She said the alliance with the NWF dovetails with the Coalition's own America's Path to Progress initiative, which calls for ending our reliance on foreign oil to improve national security as well as to combat climate change. The urgency of those goals helped her see past a longstanding partisan divide.
"This is not a Republican issue. This is not a Democratic issue," said Combs, standing at the podium with her grandson Logan. "This is a family-values issue."
Energy efficiency and renewable energy, she added, are "the kind of progress that upholds our Christian values."
Since its founding 30 years ago by Combs and others, the Christian Coalition has aligned almost exclusively with conservative causes. It still spends most of its time raising alarms about issues like gay marriage and abortion, and typically opposes tax increases and government regulation of business.
Pro-business agendas are usually hostile to environmentalism: Combs' predecessor as president, Pat Robertson, for instance, still denies that climate change is caused by people. And Combs herself is friends with former President George W. Bush, who promoted a fossil-fuel-heavy energy policy and persistently refused to address climate change.
But on May 1, Combs, of Charleston, S.C., linked her environmental awakening to the hunters and fishermen in her family. She said they told her, "The birds are not comin' right. The birds are not doin' right" -- migration and nesting patterns altered by climate change.
There are precedents for religiously inspired environmentalism. What Would Jesus Drive?, for instance, was an anti-gas-guzzler campaign by an evangelical group called Creation Care. And in 2006, 86 Christian leaders, including mega-church pastor Rick Warren, co-signed a report titled Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action. The report broke with the Republican Party by acknowledging that climate change is man-made and will have far-reaching consequences, especially for the world's poor -- and by insisting that Christians must address it.
Nadivah Greenberg, a Princeton, N.J.-based scholar who studies the American right's relationship to environmentalism, says demographics also play a role. Christian leaders, she says, are "now seeing that the young evangelicals in particular are very concerned about the environment."
Yet many prominent evangelicals -- including Focus on the Family head James Dobson -- rejected the 2006 report. One reason, says Greenberg, is the religious right's pro-business bias: Growth advocates don't want to hear about new anti-pollution regulations. Some fundamentalists even resist buying into climate science, which might conflict with creationism.
Indeed, Combs' concerns likely leave her in the minority among evangelicals.
"For Roberta, this has been a hard stand to take," said Larry Schweiger at the May 1 NWF meeting. "There's been a lot of pushback."
Still, this year, for the first time, the 100 million voter guides the Christian Coalition distributed nationally addressed environmental issues, such as candidates' positions on cap-and-trade legislation for greenhouse-gas emissions.
"We have to do it at the grassroots level," Combs said May 1. "Little by little we are having an impact. ... When people have the knowledge, they will act."
It's easy to foresee fault lines developing in any enviro-gelical alliance. One problem is philosophical. As Greenberg notes, "Judeo-Christianity is fundamentally an anthropocentric tradition." The very first chapter of the book of Genesis, for example, asserts that God gave people "dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air ... and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth."
By contrast, many environmentalists hearken to the "biocentric" thought of pioneers like John Muir, who believed in defending nature for its own sake. Some critics even see Western religion as a root cause of our despoilation of nature. Another pioneer, Aldo Leopold, blamed our environmental plight on "our Abrahamic conception of the land."
Perhaps not coincidentally, adds Greenberg, "There's a real fear [among evangelicals] that environmentalism ... is some sort of threat to traditional religions."
But this could be an opportune time for enviros and evangelicals to find common ground.
For one thing, environmental groups are talking the sort of economic-development and national-security talk conservatives might cotton to ("green jobs," "energy independence").
Some evangelicals, meanwhile, are reinterpreting controversial Bible passages about "stewardship" -- once read as "domination" -- more greenly. Evangelical leader Richard Cizik told the New York Times Magazine in 2005 that he interprets Genesis require humans to "watch over creation and care for" the planet. "The air, the water, the resources -- all have been given to us by God to protect," And Creationcare.org states that "caring for all of creation provides a Christian with the deepest sense of joy and contentment since it is part of loving God."
And if environmentalism threatens to cause a schism among evangelicals, environmentalists have long faced similar divisions. The environmental movement often separates into "preservationists" like Muir and "conservationists" -- adherents of a people-first, development-friendly tradition whose exponents have included Theodore Roosevelt. The National Wildlife Federation itself seems to want to split the anthropentric/biocentric difference: Its slogan is "Inspiring Americans to protect wildlife for our children's future."
Combs frames her partnership with the NWF's Schweiger this way: "We didn't look at the issues we didn't agree on. We looked at the issues we could agree on."