A New Year: Baptists and Climate Change
When the House of Representatives voted on January 2 to pass the much ballyhooed fiscal cliff deal, President Barack Obama appeared on national television to offer a few stern words for his detractors. Toward the end of his statement, Obama called on Democrats and Republicans to work together and not allow the deficit and looming debt ceiling debates to be “so all-consuming all the time that it stops us from meeting a host of other challenges that we face.” The president cited “protecting our planet from the harmful effects of climate change” as one of the nation’s most pressing problems.
Yet, despite this tough talk, neither presidential candidate emphasized climate change during the 2012 election cycle. The president and his party were noticeably silent on the environmental front. The media was quiet as well. The Huffington Post recently reported that media coverage of climate change declined in 2012. According to one analysis, popular Sunday morning news programming devoted less than eight minutes to this pressing challenge. Ironically, this decline came as the United States enjoyed its warmest year, prompting numerous pundits and editorial boards to ask whether there will be any action on climate change in 2013.
Since the birth of the modern environmental movement in the late 1960s, churches and denominations have generally been followers rather than leaders when it comes to environment-related problems. Not surprisingly then, churches and denominations have been at least as silent, if not more, than the media and our elected officials over the past year. There are, of course, notable exceptions to this observation. Mainline Protestant denominations have continued their advocacy efforts. However, their influence in American culture is, as sociologist Robert Wuthnow has keenly observed, an increasingly quiet influence.
Evangelicals and Catholics have been especially quiet on environmental issues lately. Just a handful of years ago, centrist and conservative evangelicals were coming together to acknowledge the reality of climate change and its potential impact on the earth and specifically the poor. In April 2008, a group of prominent Southern Baptist leaders endorsed a widely-publicized statement on the environment to this effect. Fast-forward four years and there is little environment-related public conversation happening among this same group of endorsers. With very limited exceptions, Baptists off all varieties have failed to address environmental issues.
So, what happened? What is the reason for this collective ignoring of environmental issues? One obvious explanation is the economy. Historically, environmental issues have only been prioritized during times of economic prosperity. Environmentalism and recessions do not mix well. A healthy, clean environment is often viewed as a luxury that cannot be afforded in a stagnant or slow-growing economy. The economy versus environment debate presents a false dichotomy as many scholars over the years have demonstrated. But that is a different topic best left for another day!
With the nation’s economy on better footing, will more attention be paid to environmental issues such as climate change in 2013? Will churches and denominations once again discover that climate change is a challenge that is not going away? Will all involved begin to move from words to action? Will Baptists begin to collectively make good on their past promises and commitments to care for all of God’s creation and be active participants in the search for solutions to environment-related problems?
I am hopeful that the answer to all of the above questions is yes. And when speaking up, we Baptists should recover the language of eco-justice. Forty years ago, American Baptists coined that term after attending an historic United Nations summit on the environment in Stockholm, Sweden. American Baptist leaders such as Owen Owens and Jitsuo Morikawa invested much time and energy in the early 1970s to giving eco-justice theological meaning rooted in the Baptist tradition and our commitment to individual freedom.
Merging the concepts of ecological wholeness and social justice, American Baptists pursued an effective form of environmental engagement. This type of environmental engagement would again be beneficial to Baptists looking to transform verbal commitments of days past into concrete action in the public square. It is time for Christians in general and Baptists in particular to be leaders rather than followers when it comes to caring for God’s creation.