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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Prominent members of the Southern Baptist Convention said on Monday that the church, the largest U.S. Protestant denomination, has been too timid to speak out against global warming and must start taking strong stands.
The statement marks a significant shift in the way one of the country's most conservative churches regards climate change. If the membership at large accepts it, there could be political implications since evangelical Christians are a significant base for the Republican Party which has been wary of taking action on the issue.
Environmental and climate changes "have not always been treated with pressing concern as major issues. Indeed some of us have required considerable convincing ...," said a statement issued by 46 church members including the current and two former presidents of the 16-million-member denomination.
"We believe our current denominational engagement with these issues have been often been too timid, failing to produce a unified moral voice," they said in a statement issued after study by their ad hoc group.
"Our cautious response to these issues in the face of mounting evidence may be seen by the world as uncaring, reckless and ill-informed. The time for timidity regarding God's creation is no more," the group said.
Evangelical Christians in the United States have been paying increasing attention to environmental issues in recent years, citing what they see as a moral imperative for proper stewardship of God's creation.
Polls have shown that evangelicals want a broader agenda that goes beyond the recent focus on abortion and gay rights to include issues such as the environment. But they are divided on what should be done with the lead being taken by more liberal church leaders.
Last year church and scientific leaders organized by the National Association of Evangelicals issued an "urgent call to action" to President George W. Bush calling for "fundamental change in values, lifestyles and public policies ... to address these worsening problems before it is too late."
Bush, who has enjoyed heavy political support from evangelicals, pulled America out of the Kyoto treaty aimed at capping carbon emissions in developed economies, citing high economic costs. The administration has also been skeptical about the science of climate change.
Conservative evangelicals have tended to mirror the administration's take.
The Southern Baptists at their annual meeting last June in Texas passed a resolution urging caution "in the human-induced global warming debate in light of conflicting scientific research."
But Monday's statement could to indicate a possible shift if the membership at large goes along when the church holds its next meeting later this year.
"Today marks a new day for many Southern Baptists, as we pledge to take seriously Scripture's creation care mandates in light of pressing environmental realities," said Jonathan Merritt, a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary who headed up the project that led to Monday's proclamation.
Among those endorsing it were Frank Page, president of the convention, and past presidents James Merritt and Jack Graham, as well as the presidents of several colleges or seminaries and a number of pastors.
"This is a profound break with what they have said in the past. But it doesn't call for any specific policy remedy. And the positions of a church hierarchy often have much more political impact when the policy implication is clear than when it is ambiguous," said Matthew Wilson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
(additional reporting by Ed Stoddard in Dallas)
Editing by Cynthia Osterman