ATLANTA (BP)–Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have proposed the establishment of a broadly inclusive alternative Baptist movement to counter what they called a negative image of Baptists and to address poverty, the environment and global conflicts.
Carter and Clinton kicked off their plans with a news conference Jan. 9 at the Carter Center in Atlanta, flanked by leaders of moderate Baptist groups including the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a breakaway group of an unverified number of churches that objected to the election of conservative leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention. Carter and Clinton announced a “Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant,” tentatively set for Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 2008, at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, which they hope will attract 20,000 Baptists.
“This is a historic event for the Baptists in this country and perhaps for Christianity,” Carter said at the news conference.
About 80 leaders of 40 moderate Baptist organizations claiming to represent 20 million Baptists in the United States, Canada and Mexico met at the Carter Center for the announcement. Leaders from the Southern Baptist Convention were not invited to attend.
“This is an attempt to bring people together and say, ‘What would our Christian witness require of us in the 21st century?’” Clinton said, adding that his goal is to be a “cheerleader” for the group.
Bill Underwood, president of Mercer University in Georgia, said at the news conference that the 2008 meeting is meant to draw attention away from “the Baptists who have the microphone,” meaning conservative leaders who frequently appear in the media voicing conservative views.
“North America desperately needs a true Baptist witness,” Underwood said.
Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., took issue with Underwood’s assertion and Carter’s and Clinton’s remarks apparently aimed at Southern Baptists.
“Instead of engaging in a war of words, let’s do a reality check,” Page told Baptist Press. “Word games are fine, but reality says Southern Baptists are presenting a positive life-changing message, impacting our culture with our ministries and sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Carter and Clinton “said they want to counter concerns that Baptists have been ‘negative’ and ‘exclusionary’ and promised an inclusive organization willing to debate openly on all issues.”
Morris H. Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, said that Carter’s concerns about negative perceptions of Baptists ring hollow.
“He has been one of the most vocal critics of Southern Baptists, using ‘fundamentalist’ as a pejorative and drawing a caustic comparison between Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power in Iran and the resurgence of conservative leadership being elected in the SBC,” Chapman wrote to Baptist Press.
Chapman also disputed Carter’s and Clinton’s notion about a negative perception of Baptists.
“Research shows this premise is false,” he said. “Zogby International conducted a survey for the SBC that showed adults view Southern Baptists favorably, equally to their views about Catholics and United Methodists. Not surprisingly, we fared best in areas where we have a strong presence and the community at large experiences our ministries and is familiar with our beliefs.”
Tentative themes for plenary sessions at the 2008 meeting in Atlanta, according to a CBF communications report, are: Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant, Unity in Bringing Good News to the Poor, Unity in Respecting Religious Diversity, Unity in Seeking Peace with Justice and Unity in Welcoming the Stranger and Healing the Broken-Hearted.
Both Page and Chapman addressed Clinton’s and Carter’s statements that the gathered group offered something new for Baptists.
Page pointed out that although Southern Baptists are painted as a white denomination, “It was not long ago that the Saturday Evening Post described the Southern Baptist Convention as ‘the most ethnically diverse of all U.S. Protestant denominations.’”
According to SBC data for 2002, 4,742 out of 43,071 churches identified themselves as predominately ethnic, with 2,085 describing themselves as African-American. The SBC does not keep demographic information on individuals, so churches identified as predominately one race may have diversity among their members not reported in the data.
Chapman defended Southern Baptists’ record of ministering to the poor.
“Southern Baptists address world hunger in many ways, but a good example this past year was their giving $5.8 million, collected by the SBC Executive Committee, with every penny going solely to combat this global tragedy,” Chapman said.
According to budget allocations, about 20 percent of funds collected for the SBC’s World Hunger Fund are used in the United States and 80 percent overseas.
“In the U.S. alone, Southern Baptists provided over 5 million meals,” he said. “The great difference in our approach from liberals is that in ministering to the body, we do not neglect the needs of the soul, and the Gospel was shared with over 500,000 people with over 32,000 professions of faith resulting.
“When we offer a loaf of bread, no strings attached, we also present Jesus as the Living Bread and lives are changed both physically and spiritually,” Chapman told BP.
The 2008 confabulation Clinton and Carter propose will coincide with a U.S. presidential election year. Clinton’s wife, U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), is a possible candidate and has hired a consultant to advise her on religion. Democrats have made the winning over of “faith voters” a major election strategy.