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The Greening of Baptists

THE GREENING OF BAPTISTS: A SURVEY OF STATEMENTS ON THE ENVIRONMENT MADE BY BAPTISTS

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 been voicing their concern on environmental issues since the first Earth Day in 1970. Other Baptists, particularly those who are more evangelical and more theologically conservative, have only decided to join the conversation in recent years. This paper will survey the public positions and statements made by a wide variety of Baptist groups in America. While many of the statements are substantive expressions of concern for environmental issues, they also embody what has been called “resolutionary Christianity” and point to the need for concrete action that moves beyond reflection.

American Baptist Churches USA

The American Baptist Churches USA (ABC-USA) is a major Baptist denomination consisting of 1.4 million Baptists in approximately 5,800 Baptist churches. ABC-USA descended from the Triennial Convention of 1814 which was the first national Baptist denomination—primarily a foreign missions society—in the United States. ABC-USA was founded in 1907 as the Northern Baptist Convention. Over the past fifty years, ABC-USA has taken a public stand on a plethora of social issues including but not limited to affirmative action, arms reduction, the AIDS Crisis, capital punishment, civil rights, economic justice, gambling, hunger, homosexuality, immigration reform, peacekeeping and peacemaking, racial justice, tax policy and religious liberty. Since the modern environmental movement began nearly forty years ago, American Baptists have taken strong stands on a variety of environmental issues.

American Baptists first spoke out on environmental issues as a result of the Mideast Oil Crisis of the 1970’s. In 1977, the General Board of the American Baptist Churches responded to the energy crisis by adopting a policy statement entitled “Energy,” which called on American Baptists to exercise responsible stewardship of energy resources. The statement declared:

 

In the light of limited fossil fuels and while they are still relatively abundant, it is essential that we consider our stewardship of the earth’s resources for present and future generations, the use of energy in our society, the needs of persons in the rest of the world and the options presently seen for the future generation of energy currently and in the future. The choices we make concerning energy in the next few years will greatly affect the future of people on this planet.

 

The statement asked American Baptists to “conserve fossil fuels” and utilize renewable resources in order to avoid contributing to the “pollution of the environment and rape of the earth.” The General Board urged that more attention and funding must be given to the research and development of technologies that use alternative forms of energy. After including a long discussion of the biblical and theological foundations of environmental stewardship, the statement concluded with an even longer list of public policy recommendations in addition to recommendations for individuals and local congregations.

The General Board of the American Baptist Churches again waded into environmental waters three years later with a resolution on “The Disposal of Hazardous and Radioactive Wastes.” This statement focused on the interests and rights of humans while also stressing the biblical responsibility of humans to God’s creation. In the statement, the General Board reiterated that one human right is the “right to a secure and healthy environment, clean air, pure water and an earth that can nurture and support present and future generations.” Citing biblical concerns for humanity and the earth, the General Board encouraged the government to pass legislation and find real solutions to the pressing problem of radioactive waste disposal.

In 1983, the General Board also reaffirmed a short resolution adopted in 1970 which called upon American Baptist congregations and other Christian denominations to “take individual corrective measures to eliminate and reduce pollution in the environment in our homes, streets, parks and public places.” The resolution entitled “On Environmental Concerns” also called on the government to pass legislation which would do the same. In a 1988 resolution, American Baptists again emphasized the importance of caring for the environment and reducing pollution through both individual and governmental efforts.

During the summer of 1989, the General Board adopted an extensive policy statement on ecology. Convention leaders stressed that “the study of ecology has become a religious, social and political concern because every area of life is affected by careless use of our environment.” Consequently, “the Creation is in crisis.” Sounding the trumpets, the statement declared:

 

Today the human race faces an unprecedented challenge to rediscover the role of steward in a time of extraordinary peril and promise. The explosive growth of population, the depletion of nonrenewable resources, tropical deforestation, the pollution of air, land and water, waste of precious materials and the general assault of God’s creation springing from greed, arrogance and ignorance present the possibility of irreversible damage to the intricate, natural systems upon which life depends….The danger is real and great. Churches and individual Christians must take responsibility to God and neighbor seriously and respond (Eph. 2:10).

 

Before concluding with a list of policy suggestions, the statement strongly emphasized that ecology and justice are inseparable. It further asserted that as Christians and faithful stewards, American Baptists have a duty to affirm and support programs, legislation and organizations that protect the environment as well as the poor.American Baptists followed the lead of their General Board in 1990 and passed a resolution entitled “Individual Lifestyle for Ecological Responsibility” which called on American Baptists to reexamine their lifestyle and “live simply so that others may simply live.” This plea to conserve and consume less also urged American Baptists to become educated on environmental issues.

In 1991, American Baptist Churches became one of the first Christian denominations to address the issue of global warming. A resolution acknowledged that “increased levels of gases are gradually causing the earth’s atmosphere and surface to become warmer.” Much of the increase in levels of greenhouse gases were attributed directly to “human industrial activity.” Quoting from a 1990 report from the Second World Climate Conference held in Geneva, the American Baptist resolution warned that “if the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations is not limited, then predicted climate change would place stresses on the natural and social systems unprecedented in the past 10,000 years.” The resolution noted that consequences of global warming include the partial melting of polar ice caps and the rise in sea level. Such rises could “inundate land that is densely populated and totally submerge island nations in the South Pacific and elsewhere.”

Citing the biblical commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” the resolution put forth over a dozen different ways to “live in harmony with God’s creation” and “address the causes and reverse the consequences of global warming.” At the top of this list, American Baptists were urged to advocate the passage of legislation to reduce carbon dioxide output and to set reduction targets for other greenhouse gases. The support of mandatory higher fuel efficiency for new vehicles, greater support for public transportation, and an international treaty on global warming with specific targets for greenhouse gas reduction were also encouraged. Collectively, American Baptist Churches USA has issued more resolutions and policy statements on environment-related issues than any Baptist body in America.

 

Progressive National Baptist Convention

African-American Baptists have never been at the forefront of the environmental movement. Environmental action has tended to be costly, and pastors have questioned encouraging poor congregations who cannot afford food or clothing for their children to purchase more expensive light bulbs and other costly yet more environment-friendly products. Known for their involvement in social justice issues, the Progressive National Baptist Convention finally took up the issue of environmental justice at their 2007 meeting in Washington D.C. Messengers to the PNBC passed a resolution calling on “Progressive Baptists to recognize the urgent need to reduce global warming pollution.” The resolution asked Progressive Baptists to consider proposals to “reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the most catastrophic effects of global warming, to foster sustainable development around the world and to promote the development of innovative technologies.” The resolution issued a strong request to government officials to “ensure an appropriate balance between care for the environment, effects on economies, and impacts on the poor” when considering programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Like other resolutions, individual efforts to reduce pollution and improve the environment were also emphasized. Dewitt Smith Jr., President of the PNBC, explained the denomination’s rationale for passing the resolution: “We were placed here by God to be caretakers, and therefore we are concerned about global warming and will do all that we can to help in the situation rather than hurt.”

 

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

In August 1990, a group of moderate Southern Baptists who felt disenfranchised due to the “Fundamentalist Takeover” of the SBC convened in Atlanta and formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF). Unlike the Southern Baptist Convention and the American Baptist Churches USA, the CBF has chosen not to pass traditional resolutions at their annual General Assembly. For many in the CBF, the passing of resolutions elicited memories of coercive doctrinal statements.

In October 2006, the Coordinating Council of the CBF voted to endorse the United Nations Millennium Development Goals which aim to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, decrease HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, ensure environmental sustainability and create a global partnership for development. To ensure environmental sustainability, the United Nations has selected four targets to meet that goal. First and foremost, immediate international action must be taken to contain rising greenhouse gas emissions in order to mitigate climate change. Second, steps must be taken to “reduce biodiversity loss” by 2010. This involves slowing deforestation, preserving marine areas, and protecting species threatened with extinction. Third, by 2015 the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation must be cut in half. Fourth, by 2020 these seven millennium goals aim to achieve a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers.

The following summer at the 2007 General Assembly of the CBF, delegates affirmed these eight Millennium Development Goals and committed themselves to “ensuring environmental sustainability” worldwide. At the General Assembly, the Coordinating Council also approved an official partnership with Micah Challenge USA, a Christian campaign whose aim is to challenge governmental leaders to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

Less than a year after committing themselves to “ensuring environmental sustainability,” the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship took an additional step towards becoming a better steward of the environment. On February 27, 2008, the CBF headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia announced that it was “Going Green” by implementing several new environment-friendly, energy-saving practices in order to reduce their impact on the environment. Several churches affiliated with the CBF have also taken newsworthy steps towards becoming more “earth-friendly.” Beacon Hill Baptist Church, a small congregation in Boston, Massachusetts, implemented a church-wide recycling program. Pastor David Draper suggested that larger churches establish “environmental committees” to determine how to become more “earth-friendly.”

Another CBF-affiliated congregation, Peachtree Baptist Church of Atlanta, Georgia, has gained a national reputation for their commitment to environmental stewardship. The Sierra Club, the oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization in the United States, profiled Peachtree Baptist Church in their 2008 Faith Report. The church was commended by the Sierra Club for launching a “Faith and the Environment” ministry which provides educational programs, organizes community events and implements green practices. According to the ministry coordinator, environmental values are integrated into all aspects of Peachtree’s worship: the sermons, music, prayers, children’s sermon and weekly bible study. Peachtree Baptist is also a member congregation of Georgia Interfaith Power and Light, an organization that works with faith communities to find practical ways to conserve energy and become more responsible stewards.

Other CBF-affiliated churches such as Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky have made efforts to increase awareness of global warming by hosting screenings of Al Gore’s Academy Award Winning documentary on the climate crisis entitled “An Inconvenient Truth.” According to Highland Baptist Pastor Joe Phelps, “The trickiest thing is how you present [An Inconvenient Truth] in a way so it doesn’t look like a partisan political stand. [Climate Change] is a political issue, but it is not just a political issue. It is a moral issue as well.” Despite the “green” efforts of churches like Peachtree Baptist Church and the environmental activism of Highland Park Baptist Church, most CBF-affiliated Baptist churches appear to be apathetic to environmental issues. When asked about the environmental stewardship practices of Fellowship Baptists, one high-ranking CBF leader explained: “I’ve probably been in 100 Baptist churches over the past 26 months – and I can honestly say that not a single one of them has struck me as being particularly concerned about environmental issues. In that period of time, I’ve sipped hundreds of cups of coffee in pastors’ offices out of styrofoam cups! And I’ve seen very little evidence of recycling in most churches.” This fact begs the question of how many CBF-affiliated churches actually practice what moderate Baptists have historically preached in terms of basic environmental stewardship?

 

Al Gore and The New Baptist Covenant

Organized by mostly moderate Baptist leaders, including former United States President Jimmy Carter, President Bill Underwood of Mercer University and Rev. Jimmy Allen, the last moderate President of the Southern Baptist Convention (1978), the New Baptist Covenant is an informal alliance of thirty Baptist organizations representing over twenty million Baptists in North America. This informal alliance hosted an historic three-day celebration in January 2008 which attracted more than 15,000 Baptists and addressed issues such as poverty, immigration reform, race and racism, sex trafficking, HIV/AIDS pandemic, religious liberty, global warming and environmental stewardship.

At a “Stewardship of the Earth” luncheon attended by 2,500 Baptists during the New Baptist Covenant Celebration, Robert Parham honored former Vice President Al Gore as the 2007 Baptist of the Year. Presenting Gore with a symbolic Bible with a green cover, Parham declared, “We have with us today a Baptist prophet who is so unacceptable that the Baptist establishment in his hometown of Nashville neither acknowledged his winning the Nobel Peace Prize nor honored with coverage his notable Nobel lecture….Prophets are unacceptable because their truth is inconvenient.” Parham expressed his hope that Gore with his “green Bible and good science” will awaken and “activate goodwill Baptists to become active in caring for the earth.”

During his presentation, Gore explained that climate change is not a political issue. “It is a moral issue. It is an ethical issue. It is a spiritual issue,” said Gore. He expressed his hope that “Creation Care” would become a major initiative of the new coalition of Baptists across North America. He noted, “I think that there is a distinct possibility that one of the messages coming out of this gathering and this new covenant is creation care…that we who are Baptists of like mind and attempting in our lives to the best of our abilities to glorify God, are not going to countenance the continued heaping of contempt on God’s creation.” Gore challenged the group of Baptists to “reason together” and “tell one another the truth, inconvenient though it may be, about the crisis, including the opportunity that we now face.” To a standing ovation, Gore concluded:

The evidence is there. The signal is on the mountain. The trumpet has blown. The scientists are screaming from the rooftops. The ice is melting. The land is parched. The seas are rising. The storms are getting stronger. Why do we not judge what is right? When did people of faith get so locked in to an ideological coalition that they got to go along with the wealthiest and most powerful who don’t want to see change of the kind that’s aimed at helping the people and protecting God’s green earth?…Don’t tell me we can’t solve this climate crisis. If we just had one week’s worth of the money spent on the war in Iraq, we’d be well down the road!

 

Concluding Thoughts

Since the advent of the modern environmental movement nearly forty years ago, Baptist denominations across America have chosen to publicly address issues related to the environment. However, these Baptist groups, American Baptist Churches USA excluded, typically have addressed environmental causes much less frequently than other pressing social concerns. In 1970, the moderate-led Southern Baptist Convention was the first Baptist body to acknowledge the ecological crisis. Southern Baptist messengers again called on their fellow Southern Baptists to practice environmental stewardship in a 1974 resolution. American Baptists entered the environmental scene in 1977 with a policy statement on the energy crisis. In 1989, an extensive policy statement on the environment was issued by the General Board of American Baptist Churches USA. Both policy statements urged American Baptists as well as other Christians to be responsible stewards of God’s creation. Similarly, the Southern Baptist resolutions and American Baptist policy statements all urged governmental action on these environmental issues.

American Baptists Churches USA became one of the first Christian denominations to address the issue of human-induced global warming the following year in 1991. ABC-USA took the historic step of urging legislation with the purpose of reducing carbon dioxide output and reducing other greenhouse gases. Though Baptist denominations generally refrained from making public pronouncements over the next decade, denominational executives were not so quiet. These denominational executives from mainline Baptist groups such as American Baptist Churches USA, National Baptist Convention USA and the Alliance of Baptists attached their signatures to various ecumenical and interfaith statements in order to express their Christian commitment to pressing environmental issues such as global warming. Finally in 2007, the Progressive National Baptist Convention followed the lead of environmentally-conscious African-American Baptist leaders and passed a resolution calling on Progressive Baptists to take up the issue of environmental justice in the fight to “reduce global warming pollution.”

Finally, the question begs: how effective have all of these resolutions and policy statements been in promoting environmental stewardship? Baptist ethicists Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics and William Tillman Jr. of Hardin-Simmons University offer few positive words on this “resolutionary Christianity.” Tillman asserts that historical review “demonstrates little motivation, persuasion, and implementation” regarding the issued addressed by resolutions. Tillman describes resolutionary Christianity as the tipping of the hat to social issues through non-binding resolutions. While believing that resolutions are “better than nothing,” Tillman concludes that “there have been too many statements and too few actions on the part of too many Baptists.” Recently, Robert Parham made a similar point in an editorial on racism. Parham explains,

The Baptist approach to racism is best described as “resolutionary,” at least within the dominant white community. Every time we face a racial problem, we resolve to do better. At annual meetings, we pass resolutions condemning racism and promise to combat it. Resolutions make us feel good without doing good.

 

Parham’s point applies to the Baptist approach towards environmental issues as well. A number of large Baptist groups have passed multiple resolutions commending environmental stewardship and urging governmental action in recent decades. While these resolutions undoubtedly left many of its supporters feeling good, what good have these resolutions actually accomplished? That is a near impossible question to answer. Further, what good is it to urge governmental action without making specific policy recommendations? Thankfully, as previously mentioned, several Baptist groups are at least now offering tangible solutions to the environmental crisis of the 21st century.

Baptist environmentalists must focus their attention and efforts not solely on passing resolutions and policy statements. Instead, Baptist environmentalists must focus on educating local Baptist congregations on how to be better stewards of God’s creation. Several churches affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship have demonstrated that there are practical steps that both churches and church members can take to become more “green” or environment-friendly. 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 be as basic and simple as recycling. 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.

 

 

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Discussion

  1. Except for Al Gore, this misses the work of individual Baptists. I’d especially highlight the work of Henlee H. Barnette (The Church and the Ecological Crisis[Eerdmans, 1972] ).

    In American Baptist circles, Tony Campolo took a major lead in the 1980s.

  2. Blake says:

    I’d be very interested in seeing that paper on Thomas Helwys.

  3. Alexis says:

    In the longer version, I briefly discuss Campolo, Barnette, Parham and cite from Kingdom Ethics by Gushee/Stassen.

    In a dissertation, I’m going to obviously take a closer look at Campolo and especially Barnette. Jim Ball of the Environmental Evangelical Network, long-time member at the Alliance-affiliated Riverside in DC and Baptist minister with a SBTS degree – deserves to be examined too. I’m very interested in identifying the early Baptist environmentalists in addition to Barnette. You know, I’m sure there were a number of grassroots environmental activists who were faithful Baptists – I just don’t know their names yet.

    My research this past semester focused on the Black Church and the Environmental Justice Movement. That paper was not focused on Baptists but on the African-American Christian leaders who were involved in protesting toxic waste dumping during the 80s and 90s. The National Council of Churches and the United Church of Christ were big players during this period but the EJM was primarily grassroots.

  4. The above comment was from me not Alexis.

  5. Yes, the first time the term “environmental justice” was used was in a UCC report that showed that race was 2nd, right after poverty, in factors that determined whether or not one lived next to toxic waste.

    Another early eco-Baptist was Eric Rust, Barnette’s colleague and a British transplant, who wrote Nature–Garden or Desert?. Jimmy Carter had environmental measures as GA governor and as POTUS. He created the Dept. of Energy, put solar panels on the WH (Reagan removed them on day 1) and tried to form an energy policy that would have begun our current move to green energy in 1978! Thousands of acres of wilderness were added to federal protection during Carter’s admin and his EPA was quite activist.

    For decades at SBTS, Stassen taught a course that linked global hunger and global environmentalism.
    I knew Jim Ball at SBTS.

    Another early “Green Baptist” is my wife, Kate. Rev. Katharine E. Westmoreland-White has a B.A. in Forest Management from UT-Knoxville as well as her M.Div. from SBTS (1989) where we met. During seminary, she led the students in forcing the school to undertake more eco-friendly practices.

    She is a major activist with the National Religious Partnership for the Environment http://www.nrpe.org and has worked on eco-legislation in KY with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. Our church now has solar panels and most of our members pay a premium to Louisville Gas & Electric to get our electricity through green energy sources. (Kate is only one voice here. We also have an engineer, Dave Brown-Kinloch, who has taken an abandoned hydro-electric dam and refurbished it–and is a leader to wean KY from big coal.)

    Kate has led our church to be involved with Kentucky Interfaith Power & Light–a green energy group and the “I Love Mountains” campaign against coal-mining by mountaintop removal. On the latter issue, she has both protested outside and testified before the state legislature. Her major partner in this work has been Rev. Donna Trabue, another member of our congregation, who works for Volunteers of America. (I find it interesting that Donna works for a homeless shelter and Kate works with the Catholic charity St. Vincent de Paul Society to provide low-cost housing for people who would otherwise become homeless. The concern for people and the environment are linked.)

  6. R. E. Cooper says:

    If one looks hard enough, one can find Baptists who were environmentalists in the 1960s and 1970s, including yours truly. In the mid ’60s, my Christian (then SBC) beliefs led me to be an environmental activist (along with my egalitarian activism) and in the late ’60s, I changed my career goal from being a chemist to studying how people think about and understand environmental risk.
    There are others, as well.

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