Would Jesus Use a Carbon Calculator?

Southern Baptists wrangle over climate change--and what to do next.

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Think all conservatives are lined up solidly against global warming? Think again. In a groundbreaking move last week–one that almost entirely escaped public notice–a sizable group of Southern Baptist leaders broke from the church’s official stance on climate change and called for a more concerted effort among the faithful to combat a future filled with carbon dioxide.

The group, which calls itself the Southern Baptist Climate & Environment Initiative, originally included 46 pastors, theologians, and seminary professors, plus three presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention (the church’s official governing body). However, the number of signatories has more than doubled since the statement became public, which suggests that the sentiment is registering with a wider subset of the evangelical world.

What did the 46 say? Their statement, called A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change (note the intentional use of “A”), acknowledges that there is almost-indisputable evidence of global warming and calls for immediate and aggressive action to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The signatories admit that “some of us have required considerable convincing before becoming persuaded that these are real problems that deserve our attention,” but now believe that “the time for timidity regarding God’s creation is no more.” The statement proceeds to cite Scriptural support for its position, citing especially Psalms 19 and Romans 1. In that vein, one signer later equated man’s abuse of the planet to “tearing pages out of the Bible.”

While the declaration does prescribe specific solutions–either personal or policy recommendations–it is nonetheless a powerful and provocative statement given its conscious departure from the Southern Baptist Convention’s official position. Issued last June, SBC Resolution No. 5 explicitly rejects the idea of human-caused climate change, urges members to resist any effort to mandate GHG caps, and calls the idea of specific emission targets “very dangerous.” As one church executive said after the resolution was approved, “We don’t believe in global warming.” You don’t decide to challenge that degree of orthodoxy lightly.

Not surprisingly, the declaration has ignited a firestorm of debate within the evangelical blogosphere, which like most of the religious community is poorly covered by the mainstream media. Some conservatives tackled the statement head-on, making constructive arguments about its theological grounding and the limits of science. Others–let’s call ’em hardliners–dismissed the statement out of hand, slamming it for even acknowledging the possibility of anthropogenic causation and the need to make policy changes. And some went straight for the apocalyptic jugular, including the following comment posted in response to a young theologian’s pro-declaration blog:

Have you ever taken “a peek” at Revelation wherein it says that God Almighty Jesus Christ is going to scorch men with fire? HE is gradually turning up the heat of the sun. We expect the ungodly world to take hold of a farce cause such as “global warming”, but a seminary student that claims to know God and His Word??? The wisdom of man is surely foolishness with The Almighty God and LORD Jesus Christ just as He states in His inerrant and infallible Word. Surely the last days are upon us.

On the other side, a variety of eco-minded evangelicals and fundamentalists weighed in, most praising the courage and thinking of the declaration authors. (Two interesting blogs in this vein are The Evangelical Ecologist and Conversation Creates the Change, written by Jonathan Merritt, spokesperson of the SBECI, son of former SBC president James Merritt, and target of the above quote.) There is also some sentiment in these circles, however, that the declaration wimped out, not going far enough in recognizing the degree of consensus in scientific circles about the rise in temperatures and degree of human impact.

There’s no doubt that this declaration deserved more press coverage than it received. After all, Southern Baptists have been among the staunchest defenders of the anti-global warming faith, even as one-time allies have moved into alignment with the IPCC and other “apostates” of climate change. But if the declaration is momentous, it’s not all that surprising.

As a PhD in American religious history with an evangelical upbringing and an interest in environmental politics, I’ve kept tap on a growing movement within conservative churches that is distinctly pro-environment and pro-conservation. The schism between religious greens and non-greens was going to happen sooner or later; the interesting thing will be to see how it plays out. On one side, you have ultra-conservative Baptists (and other Christian denominations) who are serious skeptics of anyone who claims scientific certainty about the natural world; this is a strain of fundamentalist thinking that clings to Biblical revelation and inerrancy — most notoriously represented by William Jennings Bryan and the Scopes Monkey Trial. Many of these folks are also bound by the SBC’s decades-long marriage to the Republican party and are loathe to split with it on any issue with so much political gravity. On the other side, you have green evangelicals who’ve been organizing and proselytizing around a stewardship theology with an equally rich tradition in the church, one that says our highest duty is to protect the environment–God’s creation–against the ravages of mankind.

Having eaten, prayed, and sang hymns with both camps, I understand where everyone is coming from and wouldn’t begin to question the authenticity of anyone’s beliefs. It appears to me, though, that the trend within Protestant churches–and in American thinking as a whole–is toward a greater acceptance of climate science and the need to reduce greenhouse emissions. As a backpacker who’s seen glaciers vanish, I’m convinced that’s a good thing.

As for Jesus and the carbon calculator, my guess is He never would’ve let it get so bad that we’d need a tool to divine our environmental sinfulness.

For more news coverage, see the CNN story.

 –Jonathan Dorn