News this week of a remarkable conversion, as the Southern Baptist Convention — the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. and one of the most socially conservative — takes on environmental stewardship with both humility and boldness. The Southern Baptist Declaration on Environment and Climate Change is introduced with words like this:
“We believe our current denominational engagement with these issues have often been too timid, failing to produce a unified moral voice. 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. To abandon these issues to the secular world is to shirk from our responsibility to be salt and light. The time for timidity regarding God’s creation is no more.”
I can’t help but hear echoes of Ellen Davis here, and be confirmed in my sense that her kind of theological reasoning has spread much farther and deeper than has heretofore been visible on the surface of our public life. It is also a reminder of the effect of up-and-coming generations in and around Evangelical Christianity, like Shane Claiborne, who has continued to grow in visibility and influence since I interviewed him in 2006. We’re putting him back on the air this week.
Shane Claiborne — and this week’s Southern Baptist declaration — are reflections of a fascinating process of discernment and self-examination that has taken place in many quarters in the aftermath of the intense, electorally oriented, Evangelical political focus that culminated in the early 2000s. As Richard Cizik — then VP of the National Association of Evangelicals — said on SOF a few years ago, Evangelicals’ core virtue of “conversion” can be a powerful force when they change their discernment about something and throw themselves behind it. We called that show “The Evolution of American Evangelicalism.” And the group Cizik is now leading, The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, is yet another expression of that ongoing dynamic.
The fact that change is possible is one of the simplest and most powerful antidotes to despair about entrenched divisions in our culture. I cleave to that reality, and I see it borne out every day.
Volunteers with the Southern Baptist Convention based in Kansas clear debris from a yard in Biloxi, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina struck the coast in 2005. (photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)