WASHINGTON (BP)–Jonathan Merritt, a 25-year-old student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., captured widespread media attention March 10 in releasing a statement titled “A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change.”
The so-called “Southern Baptist” statement is not an initiative of the Southern Baptist Convention which voiced its views on global warming last summer in a resolution, “On Global Warming” .
However, the student’s project carries the names of a number of high-profile Southern Baptist leaders including his father, James Merritt, pastor of Cross Pointe, the Church at Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga., and a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Frank Page, pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., and the current SBC president, and Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, and a past president of the SBC, also signed the document.
Although he signed Merritt’s declaration, Page, in a statement to Baptist Press, voiced support for the 2007 SBC resolution and earlier SBC resolutions on the topic.
“Southern Baptists have long stood for a clear environmental message which takes seriously God’s call to guard and keep the earth,” Page said. “We have been balanced and responsive in our calls for care….
“However, in a broader sense, many of God’s people have been timid about speaking out regarding issues which relate to environmentalism. Perhaps this timidity has been a fear that speaking out would tie us to the very extreme left wing liberal environmental lobby. Some in this group are known for harsh political tirades. Others have issued irresponsible calls for economic change which would devastate the economies of some of the poorest nations in the world.”
In a teleconference with media March 10, Merritt said the idea for the initiative came to him during a theology class.
“In the lecture,” he said, “my professor made the statement that when we destroy creation, which is God’s revelation, it is no different than tearing a page out of the Bible. At that moment, God began to work in my heart and call me to do something. [This document] is the product of that nudge from God that day.” Merritt has been identified as the project director of the Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative, which is behind the document.
The declaration, which carries 46 signatures, says Southern Baptists’ “current denominational engagement with these issues [has] often been too timid, failing to produce a unified moral voice. 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 released March 10 offers four main points:
— Human beings have a responsibility to care for creation and acknowledge their participation in environmental decline.
— Addressing climate change is prudent.
— Stewardship of the earth is required by Christian and Southern Baptist beliefs.
— Individuals, churches, communities and governments should act now.
The statement included the disclaimer that advocacy of environmental stewardship will not reduce the signers’ commitment to protecting unborn and other human life or to the biblical view of marriage.
“We will never compromise our convictions nor attenuate our advocacy on these matters, which constitute the most pressing moral issues of our day,” the statement says. “However, we are not a single-issue body.”
One of the most glaring missing endorsements was that of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
During the teleconference, Merritt mentioned that the ERLC had provided helpful inputs to reshape the statement but in the end did not endorse the final draft.
In a statement to Baptist Press, ERLC President Richard Land said he declined to endorse Merritt’s declaration out of respect for Southern Baptists’ autonomy.
“They reserve to themselves the right to decide through Convention action what the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy positions are to be,” Land said. “The ERLC will continue to share the officially adopted positions of the Convention with public policy makers and the media.”
Land also took issue with the signers’ statement that Southern Baptists have been “too timid” in addressing these issues.
“[T]he Convention has officially addressed the issues of creation care and environmental stewardship in its 2006 and 2007 Conventions through resolutions adopted by the Convention’s duly elected messengers,” Land said. Referring to the 2007 action, he added that the approved action “is as close to an ‘official’ position as the SBC is capable of making, apart from its formal confession of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message.”
“Consequently, in our convention-assigned role to share faithfully with Washington and other public policy venues where the convention is on an issue, it would be misleading and unethical of the ERLC to promote a position at variance with the convention’s expressly stated positions.”
While some media reports interpreted the declaration as a major shift of position in Southern Baptist circles, the document actually builds on statements adopted in the past, Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Seminary, said during the teleconference.
“What the statement does is in concert with what Southern Baptists have said,” Akin said. “The difference is that this comes as a grass-roots movement, not through the mechanism of a resolution that comes when the convention is in session.
“It does challenge Southern Baptists to be more proactive,” he added. “I see it as building on what Southern Baptists have said in previous statements and position papers.”
Southern Baptist messengers, in speaking to the issue of global warming during the 2007 annual meeting in San Antonio, encouraged their fellow Southern Baptists “to proceed cautiously in the human-induced global warming debate in light of conflicting scientific research.” It also called for public policies that guarantee “an appropriate balance between care for the environment, effects on economics, and impacts on the poor when considering programs to reduce” carbon and other emissions.
The resolution affirmed Southern Baptists’ responsibility to protect the environment while urging caution in the debate over humanity’s role in global warming.
Messengers to the 2007 convention voted to delete two paragraphs of recommendations that were in the global warming measure when it came from the Resolutions Committee. They approved an amendment from the floor that removed proposals for government funding to do research on the human impact on global warming and to find energy alternatives to oil and other carbon-producing resources. Messengers passed the amendment with about 60 percent in the majority before approving the resolution overwhelmingly.
Last year’s SBC resolution, which cited the Bible and offered a scientific and historical summary of climate change, is the seventh since 1970 to affirm that Christians have a responsibility to be stewards of creation.
Evangelical Christians have expressed differences of opinion on how to address global warming.
The Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI), a coalition of more than 100 evangelical leaders, contends human beings are the main cause of global warming, which it says will negatively impact poor people the most. The ECI, which issued a statement in February 2006, has endorsed legislation to decrease carbon dioxide emissions in an effort to combat climate change.
The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation says the cause of global warming is uncertain. It has expressed concern about the effects that policies proposed by those who believe in human-induced climate change would have on the poor. Some proposals might make little difference in the environment while harming economic progress, especially for the needy, it fears. The Cornwall Alliance released a document in July 2006 that was partly a response to ECI’s statement and was signed by more than 170 mostly evangelical scientists, economists and ethicists. Barrett Duke, the ERLC’s vice president of public policy and research, has endorsed the Cornwall statement.
Compiled by Baptist Press staff, with reporting by Washington bureau chief Tom Strode and BP assistant editor Mark Kelly.