A group of Southern Baptist leaders has taken a new stance on climate change, saying the denomination has been "too timid" on environmental issues and that churches have a biblical duty to stop global warming.
The declaration, signed by the president of the Southern Baptist Convention among others, shows a growing urgency about climate change even within groups that once dismissed it as a liberal ruse.
In Rock Hill, Baptist pastors are offering mixed reactions to what some view as a mostly symbolic gesture.
"If others have time to get involved in stuff like that, hooray for them," said the Rev. Tom Tucker of Calvary Baptist. "But I don't have time to serve on a committee to look at global warming. We don't need to be distracted from what our mission is: Winning the lost with the Gospel."
What does it mean?
Pastor Steve Hogg of First Baptist Church cautioned against taking the declaration out of context. It's not an initiative of the Southern Baptist Convention, he pointed out, but instead an idea from a 25-year-old seminary student who convinced some high-profile pastors to support him. One was the student's father, the Rev. James Merritt of Georgia, a former convention president.
Hogg says he would sign if asked, though he doesn't plan to join a Greenpeace rally anytime soon.
"We are responsible Christians for taking care of this planet," he said. "But I do not blame America for all the problems in the world, the way some of these people on the far, far left do."
For instance, Hogg disagrees with those who want the U.S. to sign the Kyoto accords, an international treaty on climate change. In his view, such moves would "give a blank check to some group so that they can control our economy."
"Most Baptists have a problem with turning over to some international group control of how we do our industries," he said. "There's a real trust issue with a lot of the people on the far, far left. We don't trust them at all."
Across town at Calvary Baptist, Tucker said he views environmental stewardship as a personal issue. His family recycles, uses energy-efficient lightbulbs and carpools when possible.
"Sometimes, I think we, as a church, get sidetracked on issues," said Tucker, who ran in 2006 for president of the S.C. Baptist Convention. "The church ought to be about winning the people to Jesus. I think it's a distraction to the church if we're not careful."
A departure from the past
Southern Baptists who signed the declaration were quick to point out that it will not reduce their commitment to opposing abortion rights and gay marriage.
However, they agreed that current evidence of global warming is "substantial," and that the threat is too grave to overlook: "We believe our current denominational resolutions and engagement with these issues have often been too timid," the statement reads.
"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."
Other denominations already have added their voices to the cause. Last year, Pope Benedict XVI called on the Catholic Church to stop wasting energy. Some Christians are using the season of Lent, a time of penance and prayer before Easter, to consider how they can reduce personal waste and become more eco-friendly.
The new statement could leave elected officials like Jim Reno in the delicate position of having to balance religion and politics. Reno attends First Baptist and also serves on the Rock Hill City Council.
In October, he voted against signing the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection agreement, a voluntary set of guidelines to reduce pollution through energy-efficient policies. Reno said he wasn't sure of the ramifications, but the agreement won approval by a 4-2 vote.
Reno didn't return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
Others in the political arena take a different tack. Mandy Powers Norrell, a candidate for the state House from Lancaster, calls climate change "an issue of humanity."
"I'm so proud of the Southern Baptists," said Norrell, who attends First Baptist in downtown Lancaster. "So often, we focus on other issues. This world that we have is God's greatest creation. If we don't take care of it, we're showing disrespect for our Lord."
Baptist churches in Rock Hill claim about 9,000 members. No one speaks on behalf of all Southern Baptists, who leave decision-making to local churches. In this case, the signatures represent some of the top figures in the convention.
Among them are the denomination's president, the Rev. Frank Page of South Carolina; two former presidents, Merritt and the Rev. Jack Graham of Texas; and the Rev. Ronnie Floyd of Arkansas, who helped conservatives solidify control of the denomination in the 1970s and 1980s.
The declaration by Southern Baptist leaders on climate change, which garnered 46 signatures, touches on 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.
-- Source: Southern Baptist Convention