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Southern Baptist leaders urge climate change action

But their unofficial call to action has kindled skepticism within the conservative denomination.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 12, 2008

Leader's View: Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, has endorsed a call for Baptists to become more proactive in protecting the environment.

Lisa Krantz/San Antonio Express-News/Zuma Press/File

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Influential Southern Baptist leaders are seeking to move the country's largest Protestant denomination – and one of its more conservative – beyond its skeptical stance on climate change to keep step with a growing 'green' awareness in the evangelical community.

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A call to action on the environment, released Monday by 46 pastors and institutional leaders, "challenges Southern Baptists to be more proactive ... more aggressive and more informed," says Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.

Just last June, the politically and theologically conservative Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) passed a resolution urging Baptists to proceed cautiously in the light of "conflicting scientific research."

But as more Evangelicals become actively engaged in what they call "creation care," concerns are growing that the SBC will be left behind. "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 says.

While it is an unofficial step, the declaration represents "a major step forward," according to David Gushee, a Baptist ethicist at Mercer University in Atlanta.

The initial spark for the action came from a young seminary student, Jonathan Merritt, son of a former SBC president, who pressed his case among a range of leaders. Frank Page, the current SBC president, and some former presidents are among those signing. Other prominent leaders did not, including Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the SBC's public-policy arm.

The commission's role is to promote official SBC positions, Dr. Land said in a statement, and it did not agree with the declaration's language that Southern Baptists have been "too timid." The SBC could have taken a similar environmental stand last June, he said, but "voted 60 to 40 percent" to remove language from its resolution that would have encouraged government initiatives.

Some evangelical leaders strongly criticize the growing involvement in "creation care," saying it diverts attention from the foremost issues of abortion and gay marriage. The split has been so bitter that a conservative group sought, unsuccessfully, to remove a vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals from his post due to his environmental advocacy.

The SBC leaders' declaration does not propose specific actions, as did the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI), backed by 85 leaders of various denominations in 2006. Instead, they pledge to "find ways to curb ecological degradation" in homes, businesses, and churches; encourage preaching on the subject; and seriously consider responsible policies.

"It doesn't go far enough," says Dr. Gushee, who helped draft the ECI, but it "reveals a spectrum of opinion" in the SBC that he finds encouraging.

The SBC leaders have no plans at the moment to present a new resolution at the denomination's annual meeting in June. Some leaders have already taken steps themselves, from buying hybrid cars to spurring "green" church initiatives. They say it's essential to offer a "moral voice" for action.

"The church too often winds up being at the end of the parade, a Johnny-come-lately, a classic example being the segregation and racism issue, when the church should have been at the forefront," says James Merritt, pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Ga. "We have a responsibility ... and that's why I believe many have gladly signed on."