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.
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Unity remains a tough challenge for Baptists, however. Leaders of the politically and theologically conservative Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest US Protestant denomination, at 16 million members, are not participating, though pastors and members may do so.Skip to next paragraph
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"What those who are calling the meeting are clearly trying to do is to rebrand the Baptist identity in direct contrast to the SBC and other more conservative groups," says R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, an SBC leader.
He says there are clear theological and moral issues that churches should deal with, and he questions whether they can do so without causing division.
"Whether they'll be able to come out of this with any substance and with a movement rather than just a meeting remains to be seen," Dr. Mohler adds.
Conservatives in power since '80s
Since conservatives took over SBC leadership in the 1980s and insisted on conformity to a strict "biblical faithfulness," numerous churches have split off from the denomination and created at least two other entities, which are both participating in this week's meeting. Some state conventions have divided as well.
In 2000, the SBC approved a new confessional statement that, among other points, disallowed women pastors and called on wives to be submissive to their husbands.
Carter, a longtime SBC leader, and his wife publicly renounced membership in the wake of that stance, a step he terms "somewhat presumptuous since only congregations are members." He had tried for some time to reconcile conservatives and moderates, but to no avail.
"In this country saturated with religion, there's a great struggle over what it means to be religious and particularly to be Christian," says Dr. Gushee, who teaches Christian ethics. "There's a clash in visions between what the SBC leadership says it means to be Baptist and what this large group of other Baptists is projecting it to mean."
Another trend that helped spur the New Baptist Covenant is the "softening" of denominational identity.
The dynamic growth in nondenominational megachurches has wooed people away from both black and white congregations, says Bill Leonard, dean and professor of church history at Wake Forest University Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C.
That concern, together with the disaffection of many young people, "has Baptists asking, 'What does it mean to use the B word?' " says Dr. Leonard. "How do we think together about that and pass on that identity ... to a new generation?"
Many students even in Baptist colleges find the Baptist label problematic because they associate it with hard-right politics and intolerance, Gushee says. "We need a Christ-centered vision ... that is full of love; that's about what we are for, not what we are against."
Organizers of the New Baptist Covenant have made strong efforts to bring college and seminary students to this week's meeting, during which Leonard will teach a course on "A New Baptist Identity for the 21st Century," giving the youths a voice in defining that future.