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.
"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.
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.
"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.