Spurred by Carter, some Baptists meet to build bigger tent.
Some 20,000 are expected in Atlanta this week to show that they can work together despite political and religious divisions.
Jimmy Carter has taught the gospel of Christ in Baptist Sunday Schools for 60 years – even while governor of Georgia and many times during his presidency. But in his travels, he has encountered a less flattering view of his religion.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"Not only young people in America, but in the many countries where Rosalynn and I have worked, when you mention Christianity, the first thought that comes to people's minds is dissension and divisiveness," says former President Carter in an interview. "Not between Baptists and Methodists, but among Baptists, among Anglicans, among Methodists."
To spark a new era of cooperation, he and other prominent Baptists have called a three-day meeting in Atlanta, which begins Wednesday. Some 20,000 people will gather to form a New Baptist Covenant and demonstrate that Baptists with theological differences can work together on the basis of Jesus' teachings. Organizers insist that they're not creating a new denomination or making a political statement (although some conservatives have said the aim is to boost Democrats in an election year). With blacks joining whites and Latinos, many Baptists see it as a historic moment.
"This is an opportunity to reenvision what it means to be Baptist, and especially to build bridges across racial and denominational divides in a way that has never been done before," says David Gushee of Mercer University's school of theology. "It's really a vision of the Christian faith that is driving this."
With the theme of Unity in Christ, one aim is to forge local partnerships among Baptist groups based on Jesus' message on his ministry as found in Luke 4:18. Special workshops will deal with Christian obligations not only to spread the gospel, but also to promote peace with justice, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, and welcome the stranger.
The four major black Baptist conventions are key players in the gathering, along with Latinos and whites. "This will be the first time in 160 years that black and white Baptists have met in a major meeting in harmony," Carter says.
Meeting bridges political divide
Besides Democrats Carter and former President Clinton, who joined with Baptist leaders last year to announce this week's meeting, participants include Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Charles Grassley of Iowa, along with bestselling author John Grisham.
Speakers have been told to avoid politics altogether.