Correction to This Article
The Jan. 26 Religion article misstated the role of former president Bill Clinton in the New Baptist Covenant meeting this week in Atlanta. He is speaking at the event but is not a co-chair.

Giving Moderate Baptists a Stronger Voice

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 26, 2008

More than 30 groups representing over 20 million Baptists will gather next week in Atlanta for what is being touted as the broadest meeting of Baptists in the United States since slavery tore the faith apart more than a century ago.

The gathering -- a brainchild of former president Jimmy Carter, co-chairman of the event with former president Bill Clinton -- aims to give moderate Baptists a stronger national voice. Many hope it will also serve as a counterweight to the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, which has been closely aligned with the Republican Party.

"In the public eye . . . Baptists only seem to be either denouncing somebody or fighting among themselves," said Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest Divinity School, a member of the conference's program committee. "And there is a new generation of Baptist ministers -- conservative and liberal -- who are tired of that."

But fissures are already appearing in the delicate coalition. Baptists who support gay rights are unhappy at being blocked from an official role, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has backed out after Carter made remarks against President Bush, and there are complaints that the meeting is taking on political overtones.

And leaders of the 16.3 million-member Southern Baptist Convention aren't attending, saying it is aimed solely at boosting support for the Democratic Party.

"This is a meeting that is being called by two former Democratic presidents -- one of whom has a wife who is a major candidate for the Democratic nomination for president -- and the meeting is being held less than a week before Super Tuesday," said the Rev. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "Coincidence? I think not."

Organizers expect upward of 10,000 participants for the New Baptist Covenant meeting that begins Wednesday. The three-day gathering will feature a host of political heavyweights. Along with Clinton and Carter, former vice president Al Gore and Republican Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) are on the agenda. Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund and a Hillary Clinton supporter, is a speaker.

Organizers have high hopes for the gathering, which will focus on promoting evangelism, dealing with the HIV/AIDS pandemic, fighting poverty, reforming the criminal justice system, and other social issues.

After some participants expressed concern that the meeting was too heavily Democratic, organizers added Grassley and Graham to the lineup. But that led to complaints that there were too many politicians.

Organizers point out that the political leaders are Baptists and that other speakers include novelist John Grisham, football coaches and preachers.

"We have people of all kinds of political persuasions coming," Carter said in an interview last week.

But one who isn't coming is Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister. He had accepted an invitation to attend but withdrew last May after Carter called the Bush administration the "worst in history" in international relations. In a statement, Huckabee said the comment was "unbecoming to the office as well as unbecoming to one whose conference is supposed to be about civility and bringing people together."

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