Organizers of the Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative defended their statement released Monday urging Southern Baptists to take better care of the environment and fight climate change.
The statement, “A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change,” was quickly criticized for not offering specific actions, being weaker than the Evangelical Climate Initiative, critiquing previous Southern Baptist Convention resolutions and the absence of support from leaders of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Spokesperson Jonathan Merritt answered questions during a teleconference, along with his father, former SBC president James Merritt, and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary president Daniel Akin.
The signers termed the declaration, widely reported as a major shift for leaders of the nation’s second-largest denomination, an important “call to action” but admitted there are no specific actions recommended in the document.
Akin said it would not be “prudent” to propose specifics since the signers lacked expertise on the issue. James Merritt said he drives a hybrid car and that some churches were trying to be greener. The three spokesmen stopped short calling for other Southern Baptists to take similar actions, however, and refused to comment about a statement removed from an earlier draft of the declaration that affirmed efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., who spoke briefly but did not take questions, discussed legislation he has sponsored with independent Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. Warner said he hoped the group “will come in behind us on the content that we are the trustees of this planet.”
But Jonathan Merritt quickly asserted the group was “not necessarily going to speak about any particular legislation,” because the declaration is “not a political statement.”
James Merritt said they were “weary of big-government solutions.”
“We’re certainly not a Kyoto Treaty crowd by any stretch of the imagination,” he declared.
Akin said “we’ve got to get Southern Baptists moving” before discussing specific actions. He called the statement “a call to arms” rather than “a detailed game plan.”
Reporters on the teleconference pressed the organizers of the declaration to explain why their statement took a weaker position than the 2006 Evangelical Climate Initiative.
“It was not modeled after the Evangelical Climate Initiative,” Jonathan Merritt replied. “It is an independent document that was written under the guidance and the care of Southern Baptist leaders and thinkers.”
Despite Merritt’s denial, there are parallels between the two statements. EthicsDaily.com observed on Monday that the ECI “apparently served as a model for the SBECI” but doesn’t go as far.
The earlier ECI declared, “Love of God, love of neighbor, and the demands of stewardship are more than enough reason for evangelical Christians to respond to the climate change problem with moral passion and concrete action.”
The new statement argues, “Love of God, love of neighbor and Scripture’s stewardship demands provide enough reason for Southern Baptists and Christians everywhere to respond to these problems with moral passion and concrete action.”
Both documents end with the statement: “In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, we urge all who read this declaration to join us in this effort.
Another area of contention centered on the relationship between the statement and resolutions previously passed at SBC annual meetings. The declaration critiqued Southern Baptists for being “too timid” on the issue.
“Today marks a new day for many Southern Baptists as we pledge to take seriously Scripture’s creation care mandate in light of more pressing environmental realities,” Jonathan Merritt said at the start of the teleconference.
While early media reports said the statement departed from the 2007 resolution urging Southern Baptists “to proceed cautiously in the human-induced global warming debate,” Akin said the declaration instead built “upon what Southern Baptists have said in previous statements and position papers.”
“I voted for that resolution,” Akin added. “I thought it was a very fine statement and affirmed it fully.”
The declaration argues that the past “cautious response” could “be seen by the world as uncaring, reckless and ill-informed.” Jonathan Merritt said the intent was to critique Southern Baptist engagement and not resolutions.
Organizers also attempted to explain the absence of support from Richard Land of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Merritt said Land was invited to sign but did not. He said ERLC staff “offered quite a few suggestions and many of those were implemented.”
Land said in a statement the declaration promoted “a position at variance with the convention’s expressly stated positions.” Land disagreed that Southern Baptists have been “too timid” in addressing environmental issues.
Baptist Press pointed out the declaration is not an official SBC statement. Current SBC President Frank Page, who signed the statement, said it was not intended to repudiate previous convention resolutions.
Jonathan Merritt said a few individuals signed the statement and then removed their names before it was publicized, although he refused to identify individuals or their reasons. Since the statement was released, the name of Malcolm Yarnell of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was removed without explanation.
Brian Kaylor is communications specialist with the Baptist General Convention of Missouri.
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Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.