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President Carter announces anew his allegiance in Baptist debates

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Former President Jimmy Carter, echoing his words in 1993, stated Oct. 19 he no longer counts himself as a Southern Baptist.

Carter’s Oct. 19 announcement received immediate attention in the nation’s news media, as did his first such declaration in 1993 on key faith issues which prompted a conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention.

In 1993, Carter declared, “In the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, my wife and I have found a home [and will] cast our lot with this fellowship for the rest of our lives,” in addressing the General Assembly of the denomination-like CBF, which was formed in 1991 in protest against the Southern Baptist Convention leadership.

Carter, in an interview with Associated Baptist Press, said of his Oct. 19 announcement, “This is a torturous decision to make. I do it with anguish and not with any pleasure.”

In a letter being mailed to 75,000 Baptists across the country, Carter said he has been “disappointed and [I] feel excluded by the adoption of policies and an increasingly rigid SBC creed,” a sentiment expressed among anti-SBC leaders within CBF and within the Baptist General Convention of Texas after the SBC’s adoption of a Baptist Faith and Message statement of beliefs at its June annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., replacing a statement dating back to 1963.

In distancing himself from the SBC’s Baptist Faith and Message, Carter’s stance may have the same effect with the Georgia Baptist Convention. A resolution affirming the BFM as having “great value as information, as a guide to interpretation, as a source of enlightenment and instruction concerning basic Baptist belief” was approved by Georgia Baptist Convention’s executive committee on a 73-23 vote Sept. 12. The recommendation will be presented to messengers to the state convention’s annual meeting in November.

The Georgia recommendation also describes the BFM “while not being an official creed, and while possessing only such authority as voluntary acceptance imposes, as a general consensus of what Southern Baptists believe.”

Morris H. Chapman, chairman of the SBC Executive Committee, issued a statement Oct. 20 on Carter’s announcement the previous day.

“The decision by former President Jimmy Carter is not surprising. His identity has been with the moderate faction of the Southern Baptist Convention for some time now,” Chapman said.

Chapman recounted, “Several years ago, he invited SBC leaders to meet with him at the Carter Center. In conversation with him at that time, it was apparent he had a much better grasp of the moderate perspectives than the conservative perspectives.

“The core difference between these two groups of Southern Baptists is their beliefs about the authority of God’s Word,” Chapman noted. “The moderates believe the Bible contains God’s Holy Word. Southern Baptist conservatives believe the Bible is God’s Holy Word. We appreciated the time with him because it gave us opportunity to convey to him our convictions about the need for the Southern Baptist Convention to return to the biblical roots of our forefathers.

“President Carter’s timing and need to make a public announcement are curious,” Chapman said, “but I do think an individual should follow the dictates of his own heart. I pray God’s continued blessings upon him and Mrs. Carter as they serve our nation and our Lord.”

The mailing of Carter’s letter to 75,000 Baptists across the country is being accompanied by a video tape of Charles Wade, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, addressing issues surrounding the BGCT’s upcoming vote to reduce funding to the SBC by $5.3 million. The vote is slated for the Oct. 30-31 BGCT annual meeting in Corpus Christi.

Of Wade, Carter wrote in his letter: “Not having any religious or theological training, I am not qualified to explain how profound and revolutionary are the changes in the Baptist Faith and Message that are being proposed to unsuspecting Baptists. The best explanation that I have heard is by Dr. Charles Wade … . I hope you will listen carefully to this tape … .”

In his letter, Carter also wrote, “I had never been involved in the political struggle for control of the SBC, and have no desire to do so.”

Yet the Dallas Morning News reported Oct. 20 that a key Texas Baptist leader, David Currie, gave Carter counsel to publicly end his Southern Baptist identity.

Carter initiated a meeting with him in September, Currie told the Dallas Morning News. “He was sharing his feelings and he said, ‘What can I do to help?'” Currie recounted. “I said, ‘Well, Mr. President, Baptists across the nation need to know how you feel. All Baptists know who you are, and they need to know how you feel.’ He said, ‘I kind of have a letter in my head [that] I’d like to share with Baptists.'”

Currie is the coordinator of a key anti-SBC organization, Texas Baptists Committee, and a former finance official with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Also at the meeting, according to Associated Baptist Press, was Becky Matheny, director of the Georgia Baptist Heritage Council, which the news service described as a Baptist “moderate” organization.

Conservatives embraced Carter in his run for the presidency in 1976 as he publicly described himself as a born-again Christian, but they began to back away from Carter once he was in office after such actions as appointing Sarah Weddington — the lead attorney in the landmark 1973 abortion case, Roe v. Wade — to the White House position as assistant to the president.

As Carter distinguished himself after leaving office in his diplomatic, human rights and humanitarian initiatives, such as in Habitat for Humanity, conservatives continued to be wary when Carter agreed in 1992, for example, to serve as honorary co-chair of a fund-raising dinner for one of the nation’s leading homosexual advocacy groups, the Human Rights Campaign. In doing so, Carter became the first president of the United States to associate himself with a fund-raising effort in the homosexual community. The other co-chair of the Atlanta HRC dinner was South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Carter, in his Oct. 19 stance against the SBC, stated that he shares concerns with “most Texas Baptists, Virginia Baptists and the CBF” in such areas as separation of church and state, servanthood of pastors, priesthood of believers, a free religious press, and equality of women.”

“Most disturbing has been the convention’s recent decision to remove Jesus Christ, through his words, deeds and personal inspiration, as the ultimate interpreter of the Holy Scriptures,” Carter said in a news release. “This leaves open making the pastors or executives of the SBC the ultimate interpreters.”

The charge has drawn an array of responses from SBC leaders, such as R. Albert Mohler Jr.’s this summer in Kentucky Baptists’ Western Recorder newsjournal.

“The Bible is not a fallible witness to the revelation of God, it is God’s perfectly inspired Word,” Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote. “The written Word testifies of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, as our Lord Himself explained.”

Back in Texas, as tensions continue to build over the proposed BGCT cuts in SBC funding, Bill Streich, leader of the Texas Baptist Laymen’s Association, noted that “if the conservative resurgence was indeed necessary, it must have ultimately come to a purging of those who — purged by their own conscience — demand soul freedom FROM biblical truth to the end that their own conceptions of the Christian faith might be nurtured.”

“May Southern Baptists faithfully and humbly be slaves to the Christ of the Bible, and never to the Christ of our own imagination,” Streich said, “even if it means that kings despise us.”