The Late Great Planet Earth

The Late Great Planet Earth June 6, 2017

Jack Wyrtzen was an old-school evangelist — a little bit Billy Sunday, a little bit Billy Graham. He was a former insurance salesman and a Bible-school drop-out who went on to become a radio preacher and eventually the president-and-founder of a popular para-church ministry, Word of Life. Wyrtzen had a loud, genuine laugh and a penchant for even louder jackets. He was also a straight-ticket fundamentalist — young-Earth creationism, premillennial dispensationalism, plenary verbal inspiration, inerrancy, the whole platform.

I met him on several occasions over the years and found him a hard man not to like.

Word of Life was a big deal in the fundie church and private Christian school I grew up in. My family wasn’t part of the Word of Life club, but many of our friends and neighbors made regular pilgrimages up to Schroon Lake for Bible conferences and Bible camp, and they studiously worked their way through correspondence courses for Wyrtzen’s Word of Life Bible Institute.

An undated, yet also very dated, photo from Word of Life Island in Schroon Lake, New York.
An undated, yet also very dated, photo from Word of Life Island in Schroon Lake, New York.

I went off to seminary and to work for Evangelicals for Social Action, both of which qualified me as an apostate in the eyes of many of the folks from my old church and school. ESA wound up as the institutional home for the Evangelical Environmental Network — the white evangelical branch of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.

This was the early 1990s, and back then the white evangelical community was still somewhat receptive to the notion of “creation care.” It was still a possibility. Some evangelicals worried that environmentalism was somehow a “New Age” concern — that was a major bogeyman at the time — but most regarded it as something mostly benign and not yet wholly partisan or “controversial.”

The major source of hesitation was still the worry that such other causes — whatever their merits — might distract from the paramount priority of proclaiming the gospel. That was Job No. 1, after all. Jesus commanded us to “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel” not to go ye unto all the world and recycle. Go ahead and worry about saving the ozone layer, but only if it doesn’t distract you from the higher priority duty of saving sinners. “Caring for creation” was something like sponsoring a child with Compassion International — a mostly permissible bit of extra credit that was probably fine just so long as it didn’t interfere with the more important homework of evangelism.

Anyway, we networking evangelical environmentalists set about the task of promoting “creation care” the same way that white evangelicals set about every task: We drafted a “declaration” and circulated it among prominent leaders and gatekeepers, authors and pastors and broadcasters.

This is how things work in the market-based ecclesiological structure of white evangelicalism. Evangelicals, after all, do not have bishops or archbishops, but we do have popes — hundreds of them. So we produce open letters and declarations and manifestos and try to get as many president-and-founders to sign on as we can so that any given evangelical Christian might see an imprimatur that provided them permission to pay attention. (Having spent years repeating this process, I should mention here that this is a terrible system and it does not work.)

And so it came to pass that I wound up mailing a copy of the soon-to-be-declared Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation to — among hundreds of others — Jack Wyrtzen, President and Founder, Word of Life Ministries, Schroon Lake, NY.

I didn’t expect that one would get a response. Our declaration wasn’t proving very popular within the creationist and “Bible-prophecy” fundamentalist branches of evangelicalism. Many young-Earth creationists bear a suspicion bordering on outright hostility toward ecology which is, after all, a secular science. And most premillennial dispensationalists couldn’t be persuaded to care much about the environment because Jesus was coming back any day now and it’s all gonna burn. The world that Hal Lindsey had taught them to think of as “The Late Great Planet Earth” was going to be destroyed as part of God’s great plan, so why bother taking care of it? (For the record, I believe we also sent a letter and a draft of the declaration to the Rev. Tim LaHaye. We did not receive a response from him.) Sure, our “declaration” was full of chapter-and-verse proof-texts supporting “creation care,” but those tended to be from all the wrong parts of Genesis and Revelation, so most of the creationism and Rapture crowd weren’t eager to sign on.

But from that faction there was one surprising exception: Jack Wyrtzen. Jack added his signature and sent back an enthusiastic, hand-written note affirming that he was confident Jesus was returning soon (multiple exclamation points!) — but that he also believed that loving God meant, in the meantime, taking care of “God’s beautiful creation!!!”

I treasured that endorsement for personal reasons, and hoped it might persuade others from the fundier-side of evangelicalism to join Jack in permitting their followers to listen to what we were saying. (It didn’t.)

That was almost 25 years ago, but I found myself thinking fondly of that sweet note from Jack Wyrtzen last week as the hand-picked president of 81 percent of white evangelicals announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the global effort to combat the damage from climate change.

A lot has changed over those years and I’m not sure a new “Declaration on the Care of Creation” today would ever receive the kind of response the old one got from folks like Jack Wyrtzen. The evangelical “Christian radio” pioneered by old-school “Bible” preachers like Wyrtzen is now home to culture-warriors and scores of wanna-be Limbaughs and Hannitys who regard environmentalism as a hoax or a socialist conspiracy. The Fox News toxin has infected much of the evangelical subculture so that these days any talk of the environment triggers their hippy-punching instinct (liberals care about something so we must oppose it). And after the 2000 election here in the U.S., even the facts and science of climate change became a matter of partisan dispute.

But the biggest change is more subtle, and it’s not limited to the particularities of environmental issues or “creation care” or climate change. It has to do, instead, with that once-standard objection about preaching the gospel. White evangelicals are still leery of embracing even benevolent-seeming causes because they still worry that such things can become a distraction from what they see as their paramount duty and the thing they believe is required to be their No. 1 priority.

But that’s no longer the Great Commission. Now it’s about opposing legal abortion. …


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