Baptists as a whole have a mixed track record when it comes to the environment. Some Baptist groups, such as the American Baptist Churches-USA as well as some moderate Baptists in the South, have voiced their concern on environmental issues since the first Earth Day in 1970.
Other Baptists, particularly those who are more theologically conservative, have only decided to join the conversation in recent years. In response to the birth and growth of the modern environmental movement, numerous resolutions and policy statements have been made by a wide variety of predominantly white Baptist groups in the United States. While many of these official statements are substantive expressions of concern for the environment, they also point to the need for concrete action that moves beyond reflection.
American Baptist Churches-USA
The American Baptist Churches-USA (ABC-USA) has taken strong stands on a variety of environmental issues from the outset of the modern environmental movement. In 1977, during the height of the Mideast oil crisis, ABC-USA adopted a policy statement that called on American Baptists to exercise responsible stewardship of energy resources through the conservation of fossil fuels in order to avoid contributing to the “pollution of the environment and rape of the earth.” Three years later, they adopted a resolution on the disposal of hazardous radioactive wastes that championed clean air and clean water.
Two resolutions in the 1980s called upon churches and denominations to reduce pollution through both individual and governmental efforts. An extensive policy statement on the environment adopted in 1989 asserted that American Baptists have a duty to affirm and support programs, legislation and organizations that protect the environment. This statement acknowledged that environmentalism and social justice are inseparable. In 1991, ABC-USA became one of the first Christian groups to address the issue of global warming.
Southern Baptist Convention
In 1970, the moderate-led Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) passed its first resolution that dealt with the environment . The statement “On the Environment” acknowledged that “man has created a crisis by polluting the air, poisoning the streams and ravaging the soil.” It called on Christians and churches everywhere to “practice stewardship of the environment and work with government, industry and others to correct the ravaging of the earth.” In 1974, Southern Baptists resolved to “ask the forgiveness of God … for the selfish use of God’s creation.”
When fundamentalists took control of the SBC, resolutions on the environment adopted a decidedly more skeptical and conservative theological/political outlook. Unlike previous resolutions on environmental stewardship, the 1990 resolution “On Environmental Stewardship” did not accept personal responsibility for the misuse of God’s creation. Before actually calling on Southern Baptists to be “faithful stewards” and “better stewards,” the resolution strongly warned that Christians are “forbidden to worship the creation.” It also failed to urge any type of governmental action.
Southern Baptists revisited the environment in 2006 with a resolution that warned that environmentalism was “threatening to become a wedge issue to divide the evangelical community and further distract its members from the priority of the Great Commission.” The following year they passed a resolution, “On Global Warming,” which, according to the Associated Press, “questioned the prevailing scientific belief that humans are largely to blame for the phenomenon” of climate change. With this resolution, Southern Baptists adopted a human-centered utilitarian approach toward the environment, which tends to emphasize free-market ideology over faith convictions.
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship
Delegates to the annual General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) voted in 2007 to endorse the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and consequently committed themselves to “ensuring environmental sustainability” worldwide. These goals aim to ensure environmental sustainability through the reduction of biodiversity loss and by containing rising greenhouse gas emissions in order to mitigate climate change.
Several Baptist churches affiliated with the CBF, such as Peachtree Baptist Church in Atlanta and Beacon Hill Baptist Church in Boston, have attracted media attention in recent years for their “green” efforts and environmental activism. However, most CBF-affiliated Baptist churches appear to be apathetic to environmental issues.
Over the past four decades, Baptist groups have passed multiple resolutions commending environmental stewardship and urging governmental action. While these resolutions undoubtedly left many of its supporters feeling good, what good have these resolutions actually accomplished? Further, what good is it to urge governmental action without making specific policy recommendations? Perhaps resolutions were a start, but thankfully, several Baptist groups are now offering tangible solutions to the environmental crisis of the 21st century.
Baptist environmentalists must focus their attention and efforts on more than solely passing resolutions and policy statements. Instead, they must focus on educating local Baptist congregations on how to be better stewards of God’s creation. Some Baptist churches are already involved in this ministry; most are not.
In addition to educating local Baptist congregations, Baptist environmentalists must continue to urge governmental action with specific policy recommendations for local, state and federal levels. Often these policy recommendations will include initial actions as basic and simple as recycling or conducting a church energy audit.
If Baptists desire to speak with any sense of credibility on the subject of environmental stewardship, Baptists who have claimed through resolutions to care for God’s creation must start practicing what those resolutions preach. Baptists must make their words meaningful through concrete action.
Aaron D. Weaver is a doctoral student in the Religion, Society and Politics program at Baylor University’s J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies. He blogs at The Big Daddy Weave.