For Evangelicals, Is Gulf Spill a Moral Issue?

Some faith leaders say spill should raise community's ecological conscience.

June 29, 2010— -- For Baptist preacher and theologian Russell Moore, the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is more than an environmental disaster, a corporate fiasco or a political failure.

To Moore, it is a turning point that could shape how evangelical Christians view the environment. He says is could move people as powerfully as Roe vs. Wade shaped how they view abortion.

Before the Roe vs. Wade decision, most evangelicals assumed that bioethical questions weren't theirs to debate, he said, but after the ruling, the issue "pierced through" their consciences.

"I think the same is the case when we see this horrific ecological catastrophe. We simply can't be at the place where some evangelicals were prior to this of simply dismissing the whole idea of environmental protection as ... Al Gore's cause and the cause of hippies on their food co-op," he said.

In a blog post earlier this month, Moore, who is the dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote a plea to his community, calling for a reassessment of evangelicals' "uneasy ecological conscience."

Preacher: Evangelicals Should Apply Skepticism of Government to Corporations, Individuals

"We've had an inadequate view of human sin," he wrote. "Because we believe in free markets, we've acted as though this means we should trust corporations to protect the natural resources and habitats. But a laissez-faire view of government regulation of corporations is akin to the youth minister who lets the teenage girl and boy sleep in the same sleeping bag at church camp because he 'believes in young people.'"

He said that caring for God means caring for God's creation. And to do that, Christians need to hold the government, corporations and individuals accountable.

"Evangelicals, at least conservative evangelicals, tend to have a healthy skepticism of government," he said. "But often we haven't applied that same skepticism to corporations or technology our own consumption of resources. ... I'm calling for a distribution of our skepticism to ourselves and to every aspect of our lives.

At the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting this month, he helped write a resolution expressing a similar sentiment.

Southern Baptist Convention Resolution: Prayer, Government Action

The resolution calls for prayer for those along the Gulf coast; a recognition of the oil spill's seriousness; and government action "to fortify our coastal defenses ... ensure full corporate accountability for damages, clean-up, and restoration ... and to promote future energy policies based on prudence, conservation, accountability, and safety."

But some evangelical Christians argue that faith leaders should be careful about mixing environmental and political issues with religion.

"I feel that when so-called religious leaders exercise their asserted religious authority in matters that are not addressed by scripture -- that are indeed tangential to scripture -- they are taking the focus away from Christ and away from the primary goals of directing glory to God and saving souls by and through Jesus Christ," said James M. Taylor, a founding elder and Sunday school teacher at the Living Water Christian Fellowship in Palmetto, Florida.

Taylor is also a senior fellow of environmental policy at the Heartland Institute, a conservative Chicago-based think tank, but said he was speaking for himself and not his organization.

How Should Faith Leaders Raise Environmental Questions?

He said that though nobody disagrees that humans should strive to be good stewards of the environment, "by delving into such secular matters, these asserted religious leaders are dividing, rather than uniting, believers. And this is wrong in my opinion," he said.

While it's appropriate for religious leaders to cite scripture to encourage people to be good stewards, he said, advancing a particular view of what that means can be counter-productive.

"The best way to produce energy or what particular type of technology enables us to be good stewards ... are issues that certainly may be of interest to Christians, but the answers are derived more from secular debates than from scriptural ones," he said. "[That] tends to take the focus off of what evangelicals should focus on."

Galen Carey, director of government affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, said a fundamental Christian commitment is to "tend the garden," but "there's definitely some tension, especially when you get into the specificity of policy."

National Day of Prayer to Be July 18

"I think we've had an ecological conscience," he said. But "there's been some disagreement in our community over how that should be lived out."

Carey, who was in the Gulf area last week, said that when he spoke with people affected by the spill, the most often repeated request was for prayer.

"They ask for our prayers because they believe that divine intervention really is needed to bring the oil spill to a stop and restore all that's been damaged," he said.

In response, he said, the NAE has called for a National Day of Prayer on July 18 and is encouraging churches across the country to take some time during their services to remember the people in the Gulf region, as well as the natural environment.

"The Church believes that Jesus is lord of all, and that's a key belief, especially for evangelical Christians," he said. "That includes politics, science, the environment -- everything comes under the lordship of Christ."

The oil spill, he said, could be "a call for us to renew attention to the issue so we can understand better and come to greater clarity in how our people can be involved."

Could Gulf Spill Be an 'Epiphany' for Faith Communities?

While the impact of the spill on the people of the Gulf is the most immediate concern, he said, the ongoing leak heightens awareness about our dependency on a limited resource that not only jeopardizes the environment but national security.

And though debates over the environment and energy have traditionally divided the faithful -- and not-so-faithful -- along partisan lines, some religious leaders believe the massive environmental disaster in the Gulf could potentially lead to a massive shift in thinking within faith communities and perhaps beyond it.

"Epiphany is what comes to mind for me," said Jim Wallis, president of the progressive social justice group Sojourners and author of "Great Awakenings." "I think this has the potential to be, some might call it, a wake-up call for the faith community. I think it's deeper -- an epiphany -- a recognition that your faith is at stake in something."

He said that over the past decade, he's observed that, led by young evangelicals, more people in religious communities have rallied around environmental issues.

"We've moved from domination to stewardship and from sort of a silence of omission to a real focus on creation care," he said.

But he emphasized that the latest crisis in the Gulf -- and the constant reminder of how profoundly one generation can threaten future generations -- could unite people across partisan lines.

"The gushing of oil every day in the Gulf is really a picture of our future. I'm told children in Mississippi can smell oil on the playground. That is a picture of their future that we can't consign them to," he said. "I think you're going to hear people saying that [who] are theologically conservative and theologically liberal and everyone in between."