By Bob Allen
A Southern Baptist Convention leader helped draft a statement against animal cruelty released Sept. 30 that is being hailed as a possible tipping point for raising animal-rights awareness among evangelicals.
On the heels of Pope Francis’ June encyclical terming any act of animal cruelty “contrary to human dignity” and just before the Oct. 4 feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, which liturgical traditions observe with a special ceremony called the Blessing of the Animals, a group of evangelical pastors, scholars and theologians issued a declaration titled Every Living Thing: An Evangelical Statement on Responsible Care for Animals.
The statement, drafted with participation by SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission Vice President for Public Policy and Research Barrett Duke, calls for “confronting any and all cruelty against animals, seeing it as a violation of our rule and an affront to the ultimate Ruler who created, values and sustains these animals.”
While Scripture teaches that God gave mankind authority to rule over the animals and to use them for food, the statement says, “This does not mean we can treat them as objects or act cruelly towards them.”
Unveiled in a press conference Sept. 30 at the National Press Club in Washington, the statement is a first step in a comprehensive campaign aimed at uniting evangelical Christians in a Scripture-based call for animal welfare.
The movement began in 2011 with a discussion involving Duke and the other two co-authors, Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Mark Rodgers of the Clapham Group, at a lunch of evangelical leaders discussing how Christian faith compels believers toward compassionate and thoughtful care of God’s creatures.
Cromartie, former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; Rodgers, former chief of staff to Sen. Rick Santorum; and Duke observed that while denominations like the Episcopal Church, United Methodist Church and United Church of Christ have adopted stances on animal welfare specific to them, there existed no single document focused on responsible animal care for the broad spectrum of Christian believers to affirm.
Discussing the tradition of animal welfare gleaned from past leaders such as Methodist founder John Wesley, British abolitionist William Wilberforce, author C.S. Lewis and evangelist Billy Graham, the trio determined it an issue that needed to continue in their Christian legacy.
In a survey commissioned by Every Living Thing, LifeWay Research reported Sept. 30 that 89 percent of Protestant pastors said Christians have a responsibility to speak out against animal cruelty. Two-thirds, however, said they seldom or never preach about the treatment of animals and four in five said their churches are not involved in animal welfare issues in the community.
Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research, said the disparity between pastors’ beliefs and churches’ action represents “a noteworthy gap” that merits exploration.
Wayne Pacell, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, described the campaign as “an exciting and new high-water mark for us” in the 10 years since the animal welfare group established a Faith Outreach Program based on the premise that religious values call for kind and merciful treatment of all creatures.
The statement affirms that God created humans as distinct from and superior to animals, but when sin entered the world it corrupted relationships not only between humans but also between humankind and animals.
“We believe that after the flood God caused all animals to fear humankind and gave them into our hand and for food,” the statement says.
It continues that “God included animals in the covenant He made after the flood and commands us to show the same respect and concern for the life and welfare of animals that He does.”
One day, it says, “the Lord Jesus Christ will bring about a new heaven and a new earth that will reflect right relationships in all of creation, including between humans and animals.”
An accompanying background essay rejects and disagrees with arguments that the Bible mandates a vegetarian or vegan diet. It notes, however, that the Hebrew word in Genesis 2:7 translated “the breath of life” describing the creation of man is also applied to animals in Genesis 1:30.
“We resolve to rule and treat all animals as living valued creatures, deserving of compassion, because they ultimately belong to God, because He has created them, declared them good, given them the breath of life, covenanted with them and entrusted them to our responsible rule,” the statement says. “So while animals have been given into our hand and for food this does not mean we can treat them as objects or act cruelly towards them.
“We resolve to examine all our practices relating to how we treat the domesticated animals that live among us and provide us with companionship, food and service as well how we treat animals that live in the wild apart from us; and hold them all up to biblical principles for compassionate care and responsible rule, in light of God’s view of them and His actions toward them.
“We resolve to exercise our responsible rule in part by confronting any and all cruelty against animals, seeing it as a violation of our rule and an affront to the ultimate Ruler who created, values, and sustains these animals.
“We resolve that because all kinds of animals are created by God and are sustained by Him, we need to work for the protection and preservation of all the kinds of animals God has created, while prioritizing human needs.”
A search of Southern Baptist Convention resolutions produced no statements specifically addressing animal welfare, but a 2010 resolution on the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico pledged to “protect what God loves,” which an earlier “whereas” paragraph defines to include “the eco-systems of birds, shrimp, oysters, fish and other life-forms.”
A 2006 resolution on environmentalism and evangelicals denounced efforts to deify “Mother Earth,” turn environmentalism into a neo-pagan religion and efforts by some to elevate “animal and plant life to the place of equal — or greater — value with human life.”
“Environmentalism is threatening to become a wedge issue to divide the evangelical community and further distract its members from the priority of the Great Commission,” the resolution warned.