By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are leading an effort to forge dozens of small and medium-size, black and white Baptist organizations into a robust coalition that would serve as a counterweight to the conservative Southern Baptist Convention.
The giant SBC, with more than 16 million members, has long dominated the political, theological and social landscape among Baptists, often spawning resentment among smaller Baptist groups. It has also been closely aligned with the Republican Party.
The new coalition, which is Carter's brainchild, would give moderate Baptists a stronger collective voice and could provide Democrats with greater entree into the Baptist community. But Carter and other organizers are trying to walk a fine line, insisting that the alliance is not directly political while touting its potential to recast the role of religion in the public square.
"We hope . . . to emphasize the common commitments that bind us together rather than to concentrate on the divisive issues that separate us," Carter said. "There's too much of an image in the Baptist world, and among non-Christians, that the main, permeating characteristic of Christian groups is animosity toward one another and an absence of ability to cooperate in a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood."
The Rev. Richard Land, head of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said the smaller Baptist groups are in "a search for significance and relevance." He scoffed at the idea that the new coalition would be nonpartisan.
"I'm not going to question their motives. I just know that if I were them, I would be concerned about how it might appear to many people, the timing," Land said. "Purportedly they're going to hold a convention of several thousand people in Atlanta in early 2008, hosted by two former Democratic presidents, one of whom has a wife seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. Some would see that as an overtly political activity."
Carter and Clinton were raised as Southern Baptists but have expressed dismay over the SBC's increasingly conservative bent since traditionalists defeated modernists in a struggle for control of the denomination in the 1970s and '80s.
The leadership battle, which raged over issues such as biblical inerrancy, temperance, homosexuality, abortion and women's role in the church, culminated in 2000 with revisions to the "Baptist Faith and Message" that barred women from serving as pastors and called for wives to "submit graciously" to the leadership of their husbands.
Carter stopped calling himself a Southern Baptist that year. Clinton attended a Methodist church during his years in the White House.
On Jan. 9 at the Carter Center in Atlanta, the two ex-presidents brought together the heads of 40 Baptist denominations and organizations to launch a year-long organizing effort that they hope will climax with the celebration of a "New Baptist Covenant" in early 2008. Clinton described himself as just a "cheerleader" for the effort and declined to be interviewed.
One of the main organizers, William D. Underwood, president of Mercer University in Atlanta, said the covenant's members will spend the coming months identifying joint projects to undertake in international aid, domestic poverty relief and missionary work.
"We're not against any other group of people of faith," he said. "We're against the fact that 100,000 people died last month of malaria. We're against the fact that hundreds of thousands of Africans face starvation each year."
The covenant would not be not a new denomination but a coalition of four historically black Baptist churches -- including the 7.5-million-member National Baptist Convention USA and the 2.5-million-member Progressive National Baptist Convention -- and several predominantly white Baptist groups, including the 1.4-million-member American Baptist Churches USA and the 500,000-member Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Together, they have more than 20 million members, outnumbering the SBC, which was not invited to the Atlanta meeting.
"The elephant is no longer in the room. There's been a convergence of the rest of the Baptists in North America," said the Rev. Daniel Vestal, national coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a group of present and former Southern Baptists unhappy with the SBC's course.
"The thrust here is for a voice of Baptists that has not been heard," said the Rev. William J. Shaw, president of the Nashville-based National Baptist Convention USA. "Most of the representations of Baptists have come from the prominent television personalities, and that's okay, but they don't represent the full sweep of Baptist understanding of the faith."
Shaw said broadcast evangelists such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson, along with the Southern Baptist Convention, have "downsized the moral message" of the Bible "so that the dominant question has to do with sexuality."
Black Baptist churches, he said, are saying that "sexuality is not the only dimension of morality. The whole business of social justice, of a fair prosecution of offenders, caring for the environment, immigration, even the morality of our foreign policy, are things that really need to be put into the debate."
Land denied that Southern Baptists care only about sexual morality, noting that the SBC was heavily involved in relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina. But he agreed that there appear to be significant disagreements between the SBC and the new coalition.
"One of the areas where we would be in significant disagreement would be our view toward Israel, as highlighted by President Carter's new book," he said, referring to "Palestine Peace Not Apartheid," published in November by Simon & Schuster. Fourteen members of an advisory panel at the Carter Center have resigned over the book's depiction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Another difference, he said, was made clear last week when Carter spoke of sexual orientation as an "ancillary issue." "Most Southern Baptists would disagree with that," Land said. "We're not going to affirm and accept all sexual orientations."
Although the SBC was not invited to the planning meetings, Carter said he is confident that "many full-fledged Southern Baptists" will join the new covenant.
"We want our whole concept to be receptive and positive and inclusive -- and not exclusive or rejecting any Baptist," he said.