NEW YORK – In a major shift, a group of Southern Baptist leaders said their denomination has been "too timid" on environmental issues and has a biblical duty to stop global warming.
The declaration, signed by the president of the Southern Baptist Convention among others and released Monday, shows a growing urgency about climate change even within groups that once dismissed claims of an overheating planet as a liberal ruse.
The conservative denomination has 16.3 million members and is the largest Protestant group in the U.S.
The signers of "A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change" acknowledged that not all Christians accept the science behind global warming.
They said they do not expect fellow believers to back any proposed solutions that would violate Scripture, such as advocating population control through abortion.
However, the leaders said that current evidence of global warming is "substantial," and that the threat is too grave to wait for perfect knowledge about whether, or how much, people contribute to the trend.
"We believe our current denominational resolutions and engagement with these issues have often been too timid," according to the statement. "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."
No one speaks on behalf of all Southern Baptists, who leave decision-making to local churches. Yet the signatories 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, the Rev. James Merritt of Georgia 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.
Also backing the effort are presidents of three prominent Baptist-affiliated schools: David Dockery of Union University in Tennessee; Timothy George of Samford University's Beeson Divinity School in Alabama; and Danny Akin of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina. More than 35 people signed the statement.
Supporters plan to collect more signatures for the declaration through baptistcreationcare.org and encourage congregations to advocate for environmental protection.
Even before Monday's statement, religious activism on climate change had broadened beyond just liberal-leaning churches.
The 1993 "Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation" became a guiding document for the Evangelical Environmental Network. The Rev. Rich Cizik, Washington director of the National Association of Evangelicals, became a prominent environmental advocate, trying to persuade conservative Christians that global warming is real.
Polls of younger evangelicals found they considered environmental protection a priority.
But many of the most conservative Christians, including some Southern Baptist leaders, remained skeptical, and vigorously challenged evangelical environmentalists.
The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, backed by James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship ministries, among others, said that while conservation is important, some environmental concerns "are without foundation or greatly exaggerated."
Last year, Dobson and other Christian conservatives unsuccessfully pressured the National Association of Evangelicals to silence Cizik on the issue.
The last Southern Baptist statement on global warming came at the denomination's 2007 annual meeting, which approved a statement questioning the belief that humans are largely to blame for climate change and warning that increased regulation of greenhouse gases will hurt the poor.
Even so, Jonathan Merritt, a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, began rallying denominational leaders to take a different approach. Merritt, 25, son of former convention president James Merritt, said a theology class had inspired him.
His professor had compared destroying God's creation to "tearing a page out of the Bible."
"That struck me. It broke me," the younger Merritt said in an interview, "and that was the impetus that began a life change, a shift of perspective for me."