But Texas Baptists Oppose Coal Power Plants
Southern Baptist Convention
forbids environmental activism

By Matt Curry
The Associated Press

DALLAS, Texas — Baptist leaders are working to block Republican Gov. Rick Perry's plan to speed the approval process for 18 new coal-fired power plants — an unusual move because the largest national Baptist organization officially opposes environmental activism.

The Texans stress that they're not jumping into full-blown activism, avoiding high-profile marches and demonstrations, but even a small move toward environmentalism is significant.

"This is cutting-edge stuff for Baptists — even moderate Baptists," said Bruce Gourley, associate director of the Center for Baptist Studies at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.

Even though Christian evangelicals nationwide are making forays into environmentalism, using phrases such as "creation care," an informal survey by the Georgia center didn't turn up a single Baptist pastor who acknowledged giving a sermon about the environment in recent months.

In Texas, the Christian Life Commission, the public policy agency of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, is mobilizing Baptists to oppose the coal-fired plants by urging members to contact legislators.

"A lot of people felt like our industries, our policy leaders, are going to take care of these big issues like air quality; it's not going to be something our local people are going to have to get up every day and worry about," said Suzii Paynter, director of the commission. "It can't be left to big interests to make these decisions in our behalf."

The Baptist convention, largest of the state conventions, with more than 2.3 million members, approved a resolution in November affirming "that we advocate for sound environmental policies in the public square."

That runs counter to the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, with more than 16 million members, which adopted a resolution last summer denouncing environmental activism and warning that it was "threatening to become a wedge issue to divide the evangelical community."

The moderate Texas group, which is autonomous but considers itself part of the Southern Baptist Convention, clashes frequently with the larger group's leadership.

Paynter said Texas Baptists' involvement stems from heightened concern over how dirty air is affecting the health of church members.

TXU Corp.'s coal proposal is on the fast track under an executive order Perry issued last year to expand the production of electricity and lower its cost. The company says the plants will meet growing demand for power, boost the economy of small towns and reduce toxic emissions by replacing older plants.

But critics — including environmental organizations, a coalition of Texas cities and counties, and a group of influential Dallas business executives — contend that the company is driven by profits and is rushing to beat more stringent federal restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions.

"I do not believe God wants us to continue to pollute and cause the world to degenerate the way it is," said Mary Darden, a Baptist deacon and president of Keep Waco Green.

Darden, whose congregation is affiliated with the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said the coal issue is rarely discussed at her church because members include power company employees. Sometimes people offer support in hushed tones, when she wishes they would "come out of the closet and help."

Coal plant opponents have planned a "Stop the Coal Rush" rally on Sunday and a lobbying day Monday at the state Capitol. The two-day campaign is being organized by groups such as the Sierra Club - organizations conservative-minded Baptists may not be eager to support.

But Paynter said the Texas Baptists, while not opposing the demonstrations, won't be involved.

"I know environmentalists. They want to see a bunch of Christians marching on the Capitol," she said.

"I don't really want to be seen as out there beating the drums to try to get people to the Capitol. We have a longer-term goal, which is about the stewardship of creation."