Two significant conferences on environmental matters took place at the same time in May and only 250 miles apart. One was Al Gore’s North American summit in Nashville that focused on the ethics and equity of climate change and global warming; the other was Flourish ’09 in suburban Atlanta, a modest Southern Baptist gathering designed to foster the idea of “creation care.”
The former was a hard-hitting effort on the seriousness of the problems we are facing. It followed on the heels of the former vice president’s moving presentation before 2,500 people at last year’s New Baptist Covenant meeting.
The latter, according to Christianity Today editor David Neff, endeavored to avoid “polarizing environmental rhetoric.” The keynote speaker—Rusty Pritchard, a natural resources economist at Emory University—fended off the accusation that he was an “environmentalist.” For him that label was loaded with overtones of judgmentalism and apocalypticism. By so doing the conference immediately fell into the right-wing trap that to actually talk about climate change is polarizing, results in apocalyptic politics, and thus should be avoided, even though most clear-thinking people see it as the crucial matter that must be confronted now.
That it did not want to address the politics of climate change is not surprising; that would have put the conferees in opposition to Republican policy. Southern Baptist leaders have been in bed with the Republican Party for so long they have bed sores. The meeting would probably have come to a screeching halt if it had gone beyond talking about neighbor love and a modicum of social action flowing from that and instead turned its attention to the burning issues of public policy.
It would be easy to become discouraged about the low level of commitment to environmental concerns by American evangelicals. The issue in fact has been around for a long time, but only in recent years did evangelical activists decide they had better get on board. There were, however, some in the community who earlier had tried to arouse awareness.
In 1970 evangelical guru Francis Schaeffer tentatively addressed the problem in “Pollution and the Death of Man.” Two years later I co-authored a book titled “The Cross and the Flag” (Wipf & Stock regarded the volume as so significant that they reprinted it in 2007) in which we had a chapter by political scientist Earl J. Reeves on “Evangelical Christianity and the Ecological Crisis.” Also in 1972, Southern Seminary ethicist Henley Barnette alerted his Southern Baptist colleagues to the problem in “The Church and the Ecological Crisis.” Sadly, these evoked little attention at the time.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Environmentalism became a front-burner issue, but conservatives were so fearful of rising evangelical interest in the topic that they formed the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation (originally known as the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance). Its masthead is a “who’s who” of the Christian right, and its “spokesperson” has been E. Calvin Beisner, a sturdy fixture on the Christian right for the last two decades. In 2009 Shannon Royce, a former SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission Washington office chief and an old hand on the far right, was named its executive director.
Meanwhile, Richard Cizik, the vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), was pushing his conservative group to take a firmer stand on environmental issues. At a meeting in 2004 co-sponsored by the NAE, Christianity Today and the Evangelical Environmental Network (a 1993 spin-off from Ron Sider’s Evangelicals for Social Action), a strongly-worded covenant promoting “Creation Care” was adopted. The NAE reaffirmed its commitment to the principle a couple years later. The move made some on the right uneasy, as they perceived it as criticism of the Bush administration.
The situation became tenser in January 2006 when 22 luminaries of the Cornwall Alliance, including Charles Colson, D. James Kennedy, James Dobson and Richard Land, addressed a letter to the NAE demanding that the organization not take a stand on global warming. Meanwhile, a group of evangelical centrists drafted and released on Feb. 8, 2006, the Evangelical Climate Initiative, a strongly worded statement signed by 86 evangelical leaders, including Rick Warren, David Neff of Christianity Today and Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton College, that spelled out the seriousness of global warming and called on the U.S. government to adopt limitations on carbon dioxide emissions.
The Evangelical Climate Initiative quickly formed an ongoing organization to further awareness of climate change and is now calling for action at the highest levels to counter global warming. A number of prominent evangelicals currently belong to it, including Cizik, who had been summarily ousted from his NAE post in 2008.
On the other hand, the Evangelical Environment Network promotes the idea of creation care. A number of Southern Baptists are becoming interested in this, as reflected by Southeastern Seminary’s creation care conference in April and the Flourish ’09 meeting in May. It appears that some younger Southern Baptists are ready to climb on board the environmental wagon, but sadly, just as their elders had dragged their feet on the race issue (calling it too “political”), so now they are doing likewise on global warming (“Al Gore is behind it”).
When it comes to the truly urgent questions of the day, to steal a line from evangelist Merv Rosell in 1945 about the church in general, Southern Baptists get there “lasteth with the leasteth.”
Richard V. Pierard is professor of history emeritus, Indiana State University, and the general editor of Baptists Together in Christ, 1905-2005; a Hundred-year History of the Baptist World Alliance. He lives in Hendersonville, N.C., where he is a member of Providence Baptist Church (CBF).