Christians preaching environmentalism
By Linda B. Blackford
WILMORE, Ky. - J. Matthew Sleeth is a man of God
and a man of science.
He is a physician who believes that the Bible is
the literal word of God, that Jesus Christ walked on
water, and that our addiction to oil and energy is
killing our spiritual lives and violating a sacred
pact with God.
As a "born-again" Christian preaching
environmentalism, Sleeth is part of a growing
phenomenon of evangelical Christians who think
protecting the natural world should transcend
politics. He spreads that message with his new book,
"Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to
Action," and through an incessant speaking schedule
before groups and congregations across the country.
Sleeth's tale is a compelling one: A successful
Maine doctor chucks his big house and big cars to get
real with his spiritual life and his tangible
footprint on nature. Because his story is so personal,
he thinks he can open a door to other Christians who
have been stranded on one side of a historically
One place he hasn't told his story much is in his
new home in Wilmore, Ky., a move he made four months
ago because of his awakening.
He left the practice of medicine to devote full
time to his environmental cause. His two children
attend Asbury College, and he couldn't countenance the
fuel that would be used driving and flying back and
forth from their previous home.
But he's almost constantly on the road in his
hybrid car, and he sometimes flies, as he did last
week when he went to San Francisco to address the
board of directors of the Sierra Club, one of the
first environmental groups to reach out to religious
Sleeth's story helps engage religious people, said
Melanie Griffin, the director of environmental
partnerships for the national Sierra Club.
"I think that PR firms and lobbyists built a lot of
walls around different groups, but after a while we
started to see there are a lot of shared values about
a higher good and responsibility," she said. Sleeth
"is unusual because he's very low-key and soft-spoken.
He's not some big preacher, but he really believes in
what he's doing."
"The worst thing I can do is back people into a
corner," said Sleeth. "It's a process that people
don't do overnight."
He has good timing, too; his book came out shortly
after a groundbreaking move by 86 evangelical
ministers who signed a pact to help lower carbon
emissions in the fight against global warming.
More religious leaders are recognizing that
environmental issues go beyond the ballot box.
"It's a stewardship issue," said Jon Weece, senior
minister of Southland Christian Church in Lexington.
"Are we treating the world the way God commands us?"
Conservative Christians have maintained a distance
from environmental groups because they are often tied
to other, more liberal groups and values. "It's
unfortunate that so many important issues get lost in
the muck and more of politics," he said.
After six years at Southland, Weece is planning his
first sermon on Christians and the environment this
Sleeth started his journey as chief of staff and
head of the emergency room at a hospital in Maine. A
few years ago, he noticed three women in one month who
came in suffering side effects from breast cancer.
Then he started noticing the increase in the number of
children with asthma.
He turned to the Bible, exploring the nuances of
man's God-given "dominion" over the earth.
"Dominion is not the same as license, it's
stewardship. ... I was brought up on a dairy farm
where care of the land was something you did or you
paid for it later," he said. "So I took a long, hard
look at our footprint."
He didn't like what he saw. First, the whole family
- his wife, Nancy, and children Emma and Clark -
became "born-again" Christians. They sold their two
SUVs and bought two hybrids, moved to a much smaller
house, ditched the clothes dryer and put up a
clothesline. They planted an organic garden. They
stopped shopping for things and started getting rid of
them instead. Sleeth stopped practicing medicine and
started writing about his slower, cleaner and, yes,
"Seeing the spiritual benefits that went along with
our lifestyle changes gave me great optimism," he
writes in "Serve God, Save the Planet," which was
published in May. "I began to have faith that the
church could become a powerful part of the solution to
global warming and the degradation of the earth."
"God's beautiful earth will not be saved by words
or good intentions. It will be saved by humble,
anonymous acts like turning off the lights, hanging
clothing on the line, bicycling to work and planting
trees. People who are grateful for God's abundant
gifts, people of faith who are not afraid to be held
accountable for care of his creation, will save it."
"Serve God, Save the Planet" has sold 5,000 copies
and is being reprinted by Chelsea Green, an
environmental publishing company. The paperback rights
were recently picked up by Christian publishing house
Zondervan, a partnership Sleeth described as akin to
"Ted Kennedy and Dick Cheney starting a business
Sleeth is not the first person to preach about the
link between environmental degradation and a soulless,
materialistic culture, but he might be one of the few
who drives to churches in a car that gets 60 miles a
And he thinks people respond to the idea that they
can do "humble, anonymous acts" rather than wring
their hands in despair.
Put another way, Sleeth doesn't make the rounds
showing Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." "People go
see that movie and they're so depressed they go
shopping," Sleeth exclaims with his trademark
enthusiasm. "I've found the worst way to make a
religious statement is to say `you're stupid and you
need to be more like me.'"
He does perceive that he has to walk the walk
before people will even listen to the talk. Hence the
big clothesline in the back yard in Wilmore, the newly
dug garden, the fruit trees in the front yard, the
low-energy washer and the compact fluorescent light
bulbs in every socket.
It's not always easy, but Nancy and the children
have been willing participants in this huge life
"I was afraid of taking such a huge leap," Nancy
Sleeth admits, "but God provided everything."
J. Matthew Sleeth is eager to learn more about
Kentucky and its environmental problems such as coal
mining, particularly mountaintop removal. Coal, after
all, provides all that electricity we take for
granted, and its use releases pollutants into the air.
At an interview, he pulled a well-worn pocket-size
Bible out of his back pocket.
"That's a Biblical warning, the mountains being
laid low is not a good sign," he said. "When it was
written 2,000 years ago, it was impossible to
Sleeth also thinks that his message will resonate
"Everybody can afford to put up a clothesline; not
everyone in this area can afford a $20,000 hybrid
car," he said.
Saving the planet starts with small steps, but it
ends up with big ones, he thinks, big steps that are
too important to our physical and spiritual lives to
be bogged down in politics.
"It can't be about politics," he said. "It can't be
if we're going to engage 40 million evangelical
Christians, and we have to engage them. We are, like
it or not, on this planet together."
RURAL PARISHES INCORPORATE STEWARDSHIP OF LAND INTO
Evangelical Christians may be joining the fight
against global warming, but in Appalachia, opponents
of mountaintop removal have already turned to religion
as a resource in their fight.
John Rausch, a Catholic priest in Stanton, has been
leading tours of mining sites since 1994. "My
perspective is that if people were to see what's going
on, they would come away saying there's something
morally wrong here," said Rausch, who works with the
Catholic Central Committee.
"My job is to take people who have no understanding
of mountaintop removal and have my friends tell them
how they are powerless when a coal company fills their
streams or their tap water comes out orange.
"God gave us a garden, and we're screwing it up."
The stewardship argument is an important one,
Rausch said, especially when people see the
devastation caused by mountaintop removal, a process
in which the tops of mountains are removed to extract
coal. The extra dirt and rock are piled into hollows,
called valley fill.
A few years ago, Rausch joined with Steve Peake of
Corinth Baptist Church to organize a prayer service on
a nearby mountain to try to raise awareness of
"People need to understand what's going on," Peake
said. "This is God's green earth, and we ought to take
care of it."
In October, the Mennonite Central Committee in
Whitesburg started giving tours of mountaintop removal
sites in far Eastern Kentucky.
"This is attracting attention not just inside
Christian faith, but inside of many faiths," said
Charman Chapman-Crane, a committee member who helped
organize the first tour.
Chapman-Crane is also a member of Kentuckians for
the Commonwealth, which has mountaintop removal as one
of its top priorities.
"It's going to take the clout of a number of
different segments of the American population to solve
this," said KFTC spokesman Jerry Hardt.
One of the newest members of the fight is Allen
Johnson of Marlinton, W.Va., who recently founded
Christians for the Mountains.
"We're trying to get this issue out as an issue for
churches to engage in as a moral issue," Allen said.
"Mountaintop removal is a one-shot deal; once it's
done, it's ruined the land for any productivity."
Christians for the Mountains recently held a
conference in West Virginia and have released a DVD
titled Mountain Mourning, about mountaintop removal.
Johnson is trying to get churches in Appalachia to
show the DVD, and if they get involved, all the
"When churches get involved, there is passion, a
fervency in the spirit," Johnson said.