WASHINGTON (ABP) — A group of prominent Southern Baptists — including the denomination's president — released what some are calling a mild statement on climate change and environmental stewardship March 10.
But the names of several prominent denominational leaders are conspicuously absent from the statement, and the head of the Southern Baptist Convention agency charged with public-policy engagement has pointedly distanced himself from it.
The apparent divide may reflect changing ideological and generational views in the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
SBC president Frank Page, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Danny Akin and other prominent pastors and agency heads released “A Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative” March 10. The statement laments the fact that the denomination's previous engagement with environmental stewardship has been “too timid, failing to produce a unified moral voice.”
It continues, “Our cautious response to these issues in the face of mounting evidence may be seen by the world as uncaring, reckless and ill-informed. We can do better.”
The declaration also says that Christians have a responsibility to protect the environment. It says that, while there remain legitimate disagreements among scientists and Christian thinkers about whether climate change is caused by human activity, Southern Baptists nonetheless have the responsibility to embrace principles of “creation care” and take “prudent” actions to protect God's creation.
“[E]ven in the absence of perfect knowledge or unanimity, we have to make informed decisions about the future,” the statement says. “This will mean we have to take a position of prudence based partly on science that is inevitably changing. We do not believe unanimity is necessary for prudent action.
“Though the claims of science are neither infallible nor unanimous, they are substantial and cannot be dismissed out-of-hand on either scientific or theological grounds.”
While the scientific community has come to an overwhelming consensus in the past decade that human activity contributes to global climate change, a vocal minority has claimed the global-warming scare is a hoax.
Many scientists and environmental activists dismiss the argument, noting that many of the studies mounted to disprove global warming were funded by organizations linked closely with the oil industry.
But some pro-business political conservatives have taken up the doubters' arguments nonetheless. Southern Baptists who question the reality of human-induced warming won a victory during the SBC's annual meeting this year, when they weakened an already-tepid resolution on global warming before the convention's messengers approved it.
They removed provisions from the resolution that would have encouraged “government funding to find definitive answers on the issue of human-induced global warming that are based on empirical facts and are free of ideology and partisanship” and “economically responsible government initiatives” to develop energy alternatives to oil.
The resolution as passed mentioned many pieces of evidence cited by global-warming doubters and urged Southern Baptists to be cautious in advocating the subject of climate change.
Richard Land, president of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, noted the resolution in a March 12 letter about why he did not sign the new statement.
“Southern Baptist public policy advocacy is most effective when it is supported by the broadest possible consensus among Southern Baptists,” Land said.
He noted that his agency's role is “to express the consensus of Southern Baptists on public policy matters when they have reached such consensus. If the ERLC asserted Southern Baptists were in a different place on an issue than they actually were, we would lose the trust of Southern Baptists, and we would rapidly lose our credibility in Washington as well.”
Therefore, Land said, “it would be misleading and unethical of the ERLC to promote a position at variance with the convention's expressly stated positions.”
Land also disagreed with the declaration's assertion that the denomination had been “too timid” in dealing with environmental issues.
But in a March 10 conference call announcing the environmental initiative, its backers claimed it did not conflict with the 2007 SBC resolution.
“It's not contrary to that statement; it simply builds on it,” said Southeastern Seminary's Akin. “It has, I would say, a greater sense of urgency. I see it … building upon what Southern Baptists have said in previous statements and position papers.”
Both Akin and Jonathan Merritt — a seminary student who is the spokesperson for the initiative and son of former SBC president James Merritt, who also signed the statement — said the document incorporated several suggestions from Land's ERLC staff.
The organizers took pains to say that, while the document calls Southern Baptists to engage further on the issues, they aren't making any specific policy recommendations.
“We readily acknowledge that, at this particular moment, we don't think it would be prudent for us to step out in terms of policy statements, to be specific,” Akin said.
Nonetheless, the press call with organizers featured an appearance by Sen. John Warner (R-Va.). Warner and his colleague, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) are co-sponsors of the first major greenhouse-gas-reduction bill to make it to the Senate floor. In December, when the bill passed the Senate Environment Committee, Warner was the only Republican on the panel to vote for it.
“I took on this challenge of global warming thinking that I'd like to achieve one more piece of legislation before I retire,” Warner told reporters. “I think it's in the interest of my children and my grandchildren that I'm a trustee of our environment — a steward of our environment, as are you.”
The SBC's news arm, Baptist Press, led its March 10 issue with a story headlined, “Seminary student's climate-change project is not SBC's.” It quoted Land extensively and noted that “the so-called ‘Southern Baptist' statement is not an initiative of” the denomination. However, it acknowledged that its supporters include “a number of high-profile Southern Baptist leaders.”
Besides Page, Akin and Merritt, other signers included Jack Graham, a former SBC president and pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas; Ronnie Floyd, a former SBC presidential candidate and pastor of the First Baptist Church of Springdale, Ark.; David Dockery, president of Union University; Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University; Anthony Jordan, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma; and Ken Hemphill, former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and current professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
One prominent signatory's name was removed from the initiative statement between the time it was released March 10 and the afternoon of March 11. The name of Malcolm Yarnell, a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, disappeared from the initiative's website, www.baptistcreationcare.org.
Yarnell's boss, Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson, is one of the most glaring omissions from the names of supporters. Patterson is one of the architects of the successful effort by theological and political conservatives to take control of the SBC's governing structures from moderates during the 1980s.
David Gushee, a Mercer University professor and Associated Baptist Press columnist who has advocated for Southern Baptist attention to climate-change issues, said March 11 that the apparent divide over the statement indicates larger faults within the SBC.
“If you know the Southern Baptist landscape at all and you look at the names of who signed and who didn't sign, this may be the first public revelation of real differences in the currently existing Southern Baptist Convention leadership between center-right leaders and more hard-right people,” he said. “I see this as a center-right statement, and it was just a little bit too far, a little bit too much, for those who would be more right, hard right.”