“Welcome to the Church of Al Gore! Out with the 10 Commandments and in with the new. It’s the hip, moral code of green living: do your best to save the planet, and forget about the rest. No membership required. Conservative bigots not welcome.”
That kind of crunchy dogmatism has, until now, made the green movement the calling card of liberalism and the object of scorn of conservatives everywhere. Next only to abortion and homosexual marriage, environmental policy has defined ideological camps into “left” and “right.”
But that may all be changing. The largest Protestant denomination in the United States, known for its recalcitrant defense of conservative social issues, is going green. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has published a position statement on a brand new Web site that invites member churches to “actively preach, promote and practice biblical creation care.”
The good news is that Southern Baptists have found a third way, free from ideology. They are inserting planet conservation into an ordered hierarchy of Bible-based morality, while rejecting unscientific predictions of imminent disaster and the pitfall of moral equivalence (the mistaken philosophy that there are no degrees of evil).
Roman Catholics and Pope Benedict XVI, in particular, are the Southern Baptists’ unlikely partners in this quest to rescue valid environmental concerns from competing political interests.
Not all conservative Christians are pleased. Paul Chesser is the director of Climate Strategies Watch. Yesterday in the American Spectator he wrote a stinging critique of the Southern Baptist Convention’s position as pandering to political correctness: “It’s all evidence that the SBC has been intimidated into addressing an issue over which there is no clear Biblical mandate, and in which its members are sharply divided. When the signers say they must 'humbly take responsibility for the damage we have done…,' they should speak for themselves. They only reveal their ignorance in areas of science and economics, and their cowardice in compromising their Biblical principles in the face of political pressure.”
Mr. Chesser is rightly concerned over the thought of one of America’s strongest bastions of traditional morality being allured into trading in Christian doctrine for a secular fad. He is tired of Hollywood stars, media personalities and politicians gleefully proclaiming a new era of a God-free moral code where the only sin is greenhouse gas emissions and the pinnacle of virtue is the neutralization of one’s carbon footprint.
But the Southern Baptists have not fallen into that secularist crowd Mr. Chesser so loathes. They are in-step with Pope Benedict XVI who is offering a Biblical and rational alternative to the two extreme positions of disregard for the environment, on the one hand, and militant environmentalism on the other. The Pope regularly points to God’s mandate to man to be a careful custodian of his creation, as a gardener in Eden (Genesis 2:15). But he is careful to point out that we are to take care of the earth as a precious gift from God for humanity, not because the earth is more important than man himself. In fact, according to the Pope, any policy that puts the defense of the earth above the interests of human life, is unacceptable: “How disturbing it is that not infrequently the very social and political groups that, admirably, are most attuned to the awe of God’s creation pay scant attention to the marvel of life in the womb.” (September 15, 2007)
Pope Benedict XVI suggests this principle of a human-centered environmentalism has other logical consequences. First of all, decisions about protecting the environment should be based on scientific evidence, not on what he has called the predictions of the “prophets of doom.” Secondly, environmental policy should be “sustainable,” meaning it should not put unrealistic financial burdens on countries, businesses, or individuals that can’t afford them. Finally, environmental obligations must be “shared.” We should not expect one or even several countries to carry all the weight (China, take note).
The four parts of the SBC declaration are very much in line with these principles. The Southern Baptists leaders looked to the Bible for guidance and then used human reason to apply Biblical revelation to a new social phenomenon. Some Christians — apparently, Mr. Chesser included — consider this collaboration between faith and reason unacceptable, as if every ethical dilemma we face now and in the future will have an explicit chapter and verse assigned to it, with no need for interpretation. Mr. Chesser writes, “I defy anyone to read the entire Bible and find clear condemnation from God for ‘damaging the world.’ People, yes, dirt, no.”
I think we can learn a great deal from this environmental debate. Being “green” is the newest semi-spiritual movement to sweep American culture. Part of its success can be attributed to the hollow and thirsty hearts of millions of Americans who long for spirituality and want to take part in the adventure of doing good for others, but who are fed-up with what they consider harsh and senseless demands of religion and its hypocritical leaders. They have found in environmental activism a moral cause.
This said, for the conservative and for the religious, there exists a strong temptation to reject outright this cause simply because it “belongs” to liberals and secularists. As we have seen, some conservatives even use the Bible to justify their crusade against environmentalism, as moderate and rational as the proposal may be.
That is a mistake. Following the example of the Southern Baptist Convention and Pope Benedict XVI, we can choose the third way, personal responsibility and prudent political policies based on scientific consensus where the flourishing of the human person — not ideology — remains central.
God bless, Father Jonathan
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PS: Many readers have asked me to comment on the reported “new deadly sins” from the Vatican. As I explained on television, the story was fabricated. Click here to watch the video.
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