Southern Baptists Save Souls — and the Planet Leaders of the Protestant denomination signed a declaration this week urging members to care for the environment. Seminary student Jonathan Merritt explains a growing Christian movement.
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Southern Baptists Save Souls — and the Planet

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Southern Baptists Save Souls — and the Planet

Southern Baptists Save Souls — and the Planet

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OK. So, earlier this week several Southern Baptists leaders signed something called a Southern Baptists Declaration on the environment and climate change and in it they urge members of the faith to pay attention to the environment and to do more to care for it. Southern Baptists are the latest religious group in the U.S, to join what's becoming a growing movement within Christianity, creation care. It's been gaining ground for a while now. In 1993, Evangelical leaders approved the Evangelical Declaration on the care of creation in an effort to get more churches to talk about how caring for the environment is really a Biblical issue. Young Christians are a large force behind this movement and 25-year-old Jonathan Merritt is largely responsible for getting Southern Baptists on board. He is a seminary student, and the son of a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. He helped write the declaration on the environment and he's on the line now with us from North Carolina. Hi, Jonathan.

Mr. JONATHAN MERRITT (Seminary Student): Hi, how are you doing? Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: Doing just fine. Hey, thanks for being here. I want to ask you first, Jonathan, about word choice. Your document is called, officially, a Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change, but you believe it's more accurate to call it a Creation Care and Stewardship document. What's the important distinction for you? What's the difference?

Mr. MERRITT: Well, when you read the document you'll see that it is derived from difficult principles and that there are several mandates in scripture from Genesis all through the rest of the scriptures, the New Testament even, to care for the environment, to be a good steward of God's handywork and so that's sort of the larger issue that the document addresses.

MARTIN: What about climate change, though, do you not find all encompassing? Why doesn't that work for you?

Mr. MERRITT: Well, the thing is that the media has sort of gotten a hold of this and that's sort of a hot-button issue right now and they've tried to, I think, make it about this - about climate change, but only one of the four points addresses climate change and so the larger issue here I believe really is that creation cares stewardship. So, when people asked me what the document is about that's what I tell them.

MARTIN: Was there a particular moment when you began to think this way about the environment and your role in this movement?

Mr. MERRITT: Yeah, you know, I've been asked that a lot and I tell this - I tell the same story every time and some people don't believe it, but it's what happened. I was sitting in a seminary classroom and my theology professor was lecturing on the revelation of God, you know. As Christians we always have believed that there are two forms of revelation. There is a special revelation through God's holy inherent word, the Bible, and there is general revelation through creation. God shares a little bit about himself through glorifying himself through creation, and we were learning about general revelation, and my professor made the statement that when we destroy God's revelation through creation, that it's similar to tearing a page out of the Bible and that really broke me, and God really began to work on me, and that's really when I began to think what I could do to perhaps make a difference in the conversation.

MARTIN: Jonathan, when you say that really broke you, what does that mean? What was so intractable about these ideas to you before, why didn't you support that before?

Mr. MERRITT: Well, it wasn't that I didn't support it, but I think like a lot of Christians I've been blinded to these things. You know, there are sort of an over-looking of a lot of these scriptures that's gone on in the American church in the 21st century, the end of the 20th century. Partly probably because some of these issues have been overly politicized, and so for me it was just sort of that nudge that got me to really begin rediscovering the verses, the creation care mandates that we find in scripture.

MARTIN: You talked about how the fact that some of those has become so political. What about that confluence between the politicization of the environment and the environmental movement was so off-putting to you?

Mr. MERRITT: Well, you know, I wouldn't say that it was necessarily off-putting, that's just sort of nature of the beast, things like this, because they have policy implications, tend to be political in nature, but the problem I guess that I have with it is that Christians should first think biblically, not politically, and we should derive our beliefs first from scripture, and so that's something that we even state in this document is that these issues are not primarily social or economic or political. They are primarily biblical, and so because we have these teachings in scripture we believe that ecological crises or theological problems, and we should address them as such.

MARTIN: Jonathan, I'm going to ask you a favor, I know you're a seminary student, and I understand you have to get to a class, but there are two more questions I'd really like to ask you. Would you mind staying on the line for us?

Mr. MERRITT: Sure, I can stay for few more minutes.

MARTIN: Thank you. We're just going to take a quick break, and then we'll be right back. We are talking with Jonathan Merritt. He is one of the co-authors of a new declaration, a Southern Baptist declaration on the environment and climate change. He helped author that study and is one of the young people responsible for getting new attention to the environmental movement within the Southern Baptist Convention. We're going to continue our conversation with him. Also, we're going to recap the week in Iraq. There was some interesting news out of the Pentagon this week that didn't get quite as much attention as you think perhaps because of a certain governor of a certain state. They happen to be sitting in right now. Plus, we are going to check in with the BPP blog. We got a contribution from our resident astrophysicist, everyone should have one, Summer Ashe. Web editor Laura Conaway will stop by to share that with us. This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News. Come back.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Hey, welcome back to THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News. We're continuing our conversation with Jonathan Merritt. He is the co-author of a new document, A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change and, Jonathan, I wanted to point out another thing in the declaration. A part of that there's a phrase that says, if I can just quote this, quote, "Our cautious response to these issues in the face of mounting evidence may be seen by the world as uncaring, reckless and ill-informed." Those are pretty strong words. Do you feel like that's - why include that in the declaration? Is that how people were perceiving Southern Baptists as uncaring, reckless, and ill-informed about the environment?

Mr. MERRITT: Well, you know, I think that it's better put in perspective when people read the entire document, so I definitely direct people to our Web site,, especially if you're a Southern Baptist, because all Southern Baptists, even lay people, are invited to sign the document electronically. But we did think that that was an important piece to put in there because one of the very first things that we have to do when we are realizing that we are not involved in a conversation that we should be involved in is sort of to admit the problem. It's like getting over the denial in order to sort of deal with the issue, and so we felt that it was prudent to be honest about the fact that these things have not been on our radar screen in the past and that may not exactly represent us well. We should be, as Christians, concerned about these things.

MARTIN: Now, your father James Merritt is a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is a signatory to this declaration. Has he always been on board with this or did you shape his thinking on this issue? Did you guys have some debates about this?

Mr. MERRITT: Well, I wouldn't say I have shaped his thinking on this, but it has been really a joy for me and for him to get together over the last six, eight months and sort of rediscover the creation care mandates together. So, there was some dialogue that went on. He was one of the men who shaped the language with me and so, in that sense, I guess we sort of co-shaped each other's thoughts.

MARTIN: And lastly, what specifically do you want this document to do?

Mr. MERRITT: Well, what we want it to do, this is sort of a phase one or a call to arms so to speak. We don't offer specific policy recommendations, so we really just want this to move Southern Baptists to a more faithful witness on creation care, to put aside politics and posturing and to commit to the biblical message for creation care that we find in scripture. So, that's really what we hope to do is just get the dialogue happening. Be aware of the things that scripture teaches us and really just get people involved in this, get people excited in this and I think we're doing that.

MARTIN: Jonathan, thanks very much. Jonathan Merritt is the man behind the Southern Baptists Environment and Climate Initiative. We appreciate you being here, Jonathan.

Mr. MERRITT: Thank you so much and again, please direct people to the Web site

MARTIN: Will do. Go to class. And now we're going to get some news headlines from Matt Martinez.


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