April 22, 2013, will mark the 44th annual celebration of Earth Day.
The first Earth Day in 1970 put environmental issues front and center in U.S. society in a very visible way. With more than 20 million Americans participating in this awareness effort, Earth Day displayed the grass-roots popularity of environmentalism.
Historians have attributed the success of Earth Day to the unifying nature of popular environmentalism. As our nation was caught up in cultural turmoil over the Vietnam War, environmentalism provided issues to which Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike could get behind and support to some extent.
The embrace of an environmental agenda by Republican President Richard Nixon and a Democratic-controlled Congress demonstrated the bipartisan nature of this environmentalism.
The years immediately following the first Earth Day witnessed a surge of environmental legislation and initiatives.
New environmental laws designed to protect nature and the public from industrial hazards included the Endangered Species Conservation Act, Water Quality Improvement Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, which established the Environmental Protection Agency.
For most Baptists, however, Earth Day is not a particularly special day of importance. Sadly, it can be safely stated that April 1 is a more widely celebrated day than April 22.
But this has not always been true.
Earth Day 1970 provided an occasion for Baptists in the South to consider environmental issues and begin speaking out about the problem of pollution.
Two notable environmental disasters had helped bring the pollution problem to the nation’s attention in the months leading up to the first Earth Day.
In January 1969, an oil tanker spilled off the shore of Santa Barbara, Calif. The U.S. public was confronted with images of dying sea birds soaked in oil.
Then, five months later, an oil slick and debris in Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire. The image of the polluted river on fire was featured on the front page of newspapers and the covers of magazines across the United States.
These events surely caused many Baptists to take notice.
Henlee Barnette, a renowned Baptist ethicist, organized students at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., in his ethics classes to participate in the inaugural Earth Day. Barnette also ensured that Earth Day was observed at the seminary’s chapel service that year.
There, Barnette prayed: “May this Earth Day be the beginning of a sustained and concerted effort on the part of all of us to create a cleaner world so that future generations will enjoy the beauty of the earth.”
Chauncey Daley, editor of the Western Recorder, the newspaper of Kentucky Baptists, applauded the efforts of Baptist students involved in Earth Day 1970.
He wrote, “More power to these young Baptists. Shame on the rest of us if we don’t join in their concern.” Chauncey called pollution a “sin against nature’s Creator.”
Following Earth Day 1970, the Southern Baptist Convention polled nearly 700 pastors and Sunday school teachers and found that the overwhelming majority felt strongly that local churches should lead their members to actively confront the pollution crisis and urge the government to take action as well.
Denominational publications began to discuss the nation’s pollution crisis and offer remedies. Resolutions were passed, too.
Two months after Earth Day 1970, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution declaring that humans had “created a crisis by polluting the air, poisoning the streams and ravaging the soil.”
Southern Baptist state conventions in Virginia, Mississippi and Kentucky also adopted statements on pollution that urged individual Christians and local congregations to work together to achieve a “wholesome environment.”
Notably, the Kentucky Baptist Convention concluded: “Only through government can much be done to regulate and control the principal polluters of our air and water.”
This strong statement about the central role of government in the search for solutions to environmental problems echoed a sentiment voiced by the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission (CLC) a year earlier. The Texas Baptist CLC’s antipollution advocacy actually predated the first Earth Day.
In 1967, the Texas Baptist CLC became one of the first Christian groups to publicly call for significant reform of laws regulating pollution. The Texas CLC understood that businesses could not be trusted to regulate themselves.
Other Southern Baptists like Barnette understood this reality, too. Barnette stressed that strict environmental regulations were desperately needed and “necessary if the ecological problem is ever to be solved.”
Fast forward 44 Earth Days later, this reality is no longer recognized by many Baptists who perversely promote environmental deregulation as somehow being consistent with the biblical concepts of stewardship and justice.
This Earth Day 2013, Baptists should celebrate Earth Day and allow Earth Day to serve again as a starting point for serious conversations and meaningful action to achieve that vision of a “wholesome environment.”
As individuals made in the image of God, we are entrusted with personal responsibility to care for God’s creation.
But we must not neglect the responsibilities owed by our churches and other faith-based organizations. Nor should we forget the vital role of government in helping to protect and preserve the earth.