· Modernising leaders urge action on emissions
· Southern Baptists' timid policy is reckless, they say
A group of more than 40 leading Southern Baptists has widened the divisions within the powerful American evangelical movement over global warming, denouncing the denomination's stance as "too timid" and warning that its cautious response to the environment is seen around the world as "uncaring, reckless and ill-informed".
A declaration backed by the president of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, Reverend Frank Page, as well as by two former presidents, Rev Jack Graham and Rev James Merritt, argues that the "time for timidity regarding God's creation is no more". Though it acknowledges that the church's followers continue to be split about the causes and extent of global warming, it says it is prudent to take action now to avoid disaster.
The statement marks the culmination of a growing body of feeling within the Southern Baptists that the church's stated position is outdated. At its convention in June last year, church leaders approved a resolution saying any attempt by government to limit greenhouse gases was "very dangerous" and risked hurting the poor.
The Southern Baptist Convention is the second largest denomination in the US after Catholicism, with 16 million members. Since the 1970s it has played a central role within the religious right, the alliance of political and theological interests that helped to sustain the administrations of Ronald Reagan and both George Bushes.
But in recent months there has been a groundswell of opinion among its members that the warming of the Earth's atmosphere needs to be taken seriously. Al Gore, the former Democratic vice-president and Nobel laureate for his work on climate change, is a Baptist from Tennessee.
Tanya Erzen, an expert in US evangelicals at Ohio State University, believes the church has been influenced by members who have grown increasingly concerned. "The bottom line is that the mega-churches have to retain their memberships to stay relevant, and for that they have to stay in tune with their congregations."
Climate change has been fiercely divisive for many evangelicals. Leading figures such as Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell have sought to head off the mounting grassroots calls from younger pastors for action on the environment.
Leading members of the religious right have insisted that climate change is not one of "their" issues, unlike abortion or stem cell research, and distracts attention from other political concerns. The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, founded by the Colorado-based evangelical James Dobson, propounds the view that higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide "would benefit plant growth" while action to reduce energy consumption would harm the economy and damage "societal well-being". It quotes the statistic that the Kyoto treaty would lead to 1.3m job losses in a year among black and Hispanic Americans. Concerted attempts have been made to marginalise pro-environmentalists among church leaders.
Richard Cizik, the Presbyterian minister who is vice-president of the National Association of Evangelicals and a leading environmental protection advocate, was forced to withdraw his name from an earlier petition in 2006, after being threatened with dismissal if he continued to raise the issue.
The declaration released on Monday was organised by Jonathan Merritt, the 25-year-old son of James Merritt, a former president of the convention. He said he came round to the need for environmental action through a spiritual revelation while attending a class at a Baptist theological seminary in North Carolina.
"The Lord spoke to me in that class through my theology professor, who said we receive revelation from God not only through His word, the Bible, but also through His creation, nature. When we destroy His creation, it is no different to tearing a page from the Bible."
The call for action on climate change is the latest sign of the tectonic plates moving under the religious right. In recent months, observers have detected rising disaffection among Christian conservatives with the Bush administration, which is criticised for failing to pursue a sufficiently aggressive approach to core social conservative issues.