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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 May 2007, 22:54 GMT 23:54 UK
Evangelicals split on global warming
BBC Washington correspondent Matt Frei goes to Virginia to take a look at how the issue of climate change is dividing America's evangelical movement.

The Reverend Jerry Falwell
The Rev Jerry Falwell said the jury was still out on global warming

Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Virginia, is one of the biggest evangelical colleges in the world.

With more than 20,000 students on and off campus, it is the creation of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, one of America's most influential Christian leaders who died on Tuesday.

The technology used here is modern - it uses the latest internet gimmicks and sermons are podcast - but the message is less so.

"The jury is still out on global warming," said the Rev Falwell, in a sermon broadcast on the internet in February this year.

"Despite all the hype by liberal politicians, the media, Hollywood and so forth, it is not yet proven by any means that greenhouse gas emissions are the cause of global warming."

His word is taken as gospel by the university's students.

One, Sharon Langat, says she thinks the attention paid to climate change is out of proportion.

"We should pay more attention to other global issues apart from global warming. I know there's money put there, I just don't think we should put that much money in there."

Fellow student Bliss Spillar, agrees. "There are many evangelical leaders that have made the statement that there are other things we should be focusing on.

"As a Christian, we believe that God created the Earth, that all things are in his control."

Left-wing conspiracy?

A lesson taught by Dr Thomas Ice, Liberty University's senior theologian, focuses on headaches like Armageddon, salvation and the Second Coming.

I think global warming is being used like many political issues to try to move the world from nationalism to internationalism or global governance
Dr Thomas Ice

Compared to these concerns, global warming is considered a mere sideshow at best, or a left-wing conspiracy at worst.

Asked his opinion on whether global warming is a reality or conspiracy, Dr Ice answers forcefully.

"It's a hoax, certainly," he says. "I think global warming is being used like many political issues to try to move the world from nationalism to internationalism or global governance."

And his class? Asked how many of them are worried about global warming, not one raises a hand.

'Body of evidence'

But just as America is bitterly divided on the issue of climate change, so is the evangelical movement.

Loren Swartzendruber, president of Eastern Mennonite University
Mr Swartzendruber says Christians should tackle climate change

At Eastern Mennonite University, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, concern about the environment is so high that the college has employed a full-time recycling officer and assistant.

Jonathan Lantz-Trisse, who travels around campus by bicycle with a trailer of recycling in tow, has been monitoring the efforts of staff and students to recycle their waste.

"The students are actually really good recyclers," he says. "Sometimes I think the challenge is getting the faculty and staff to recycle - I think the younger generations have grown up with it and it comes more naturally."

An address by the university's president, Loren Swartzendruber, gives a clue that here, too, it is the voice at the top that sets the tone for the university.

"There is a massive and mounting body of scientific evidence that global warming is a reality," he tells the gathered congregation.

"Hone your God-given talents, grow your entrepreneurial skills and stretch your scientific minds to co-create with God a better world. As disciples of Jesus, we can do no less."

Here, when asked if they are worried about global warming, almost everyone puts up their hand.

Opposing souls

Mr Swartzendruber is one of 86 Christian leaders to have signed an open letter calling on all Christians to battle global warming.

The BBC's Matt Frei talks to students at Eastern Mennonite University, Virginia
Students at Eastern Mennonite see climate change as important

"We understand that the Earth is important. We view it as a gift and it's just been part of who we are for many, many years," he tells me.

He rejects out of hand the suggestion that global warming is a hoax. "It's primarily, first of all, a scientific issue and secondly, it's a theological issue," he says.

And the students at his university sing from the same hymn sheet.

"I look around and I see beautiful trees and birds singing and I see the wind blowing, and I really don't want to see this messed up," says Timothy Shank.

Map showing Virginia

"I would like to sit outside on the lawn with somebody who disagrees with me and talk about what we appreciate about nature and creation - and then figure out ways we can live that doesn't hurt that."

In this way, two evangelical universities use the same quotations from the same Bible to make exactly opposite points of view about global warming.

What could give a clearer insight into the opposing souls of America?

In other parts of the world, the boundaries between left and rights, conservative and liberal, have been transcended by concerns about climate change.

But not here in the US - and especially not here in the conservative south, where science is still political.




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Inside the biggest evangelical college in the world



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