March 2007 Church & State | People & Events

Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have announced a plan to forge several moderate Baptist bodies into a coalition that will serve as a counterweight to the right-wing Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

Carter convened a meeting of 40 Baptist denominations at the Carter Center in Atlanta Jan. 9, which Clinton attended. The Washington Post reported that Carter hopes to spend the next year organizing and then sponsor a “New Baptist Covenant” gathering early next year.

The plan came under immediate attack from Richard Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Land accused Clinton and Carter of using the new group as a vehicle to promote Democratic candidates.

“I’m not going to question their motives,” Land told The Post. “I just know that if I were them, I would be concerned about how it might appear to many people, the timing. Purportedly they’re going to hold a convention of several thousand people in Atlanta in early 2008, hosted by two former Democratic presidents, one of whom has a wife seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. Some would see that as an overtly political activity.”

Land’s claims to be concerned over political activity by the group might be more plausible if the SBC were not firmly wedded to the Republican Party and the presidency of George W. Bush. In June of 2004 as Bush was locked in a tight reelection effort, SBC leaders allowed the president to address their national meeting via satellite hookup.

Bush also sent Ralph Reed, who was then working on his campaign, to the meeting. Reed, according to a report in The New York Times, urged “pastors to do everything short of risking their churches’ tax-exempt status to support the president’s reelection.” He was joined by Jack Graham, then departing president of the SBC, who praised Bush as another Ronald Reagan.

Reed asked the SBC clergy to conduct voter registration and sponsor a “Party for the President” just before the election. After Bush’s reelection, Land told the National Journal that he regards Bush as “the greatest president of my lifetime.”

Under Land, the SBC worked closely alongside Bush to advance the president’s agenda. In January, Land went so far as to present Bush with a religious liberty award during an Oval Office ceremony.

The Post reported that Carter conceived the idea for the new coalition, and Clinton calls himself a cheerleader for it. Carter says he is dismayed over the SBC’s obsession with divisive social issues such as abortion and gay rights.

“We hope…to emphasize the common commitments that bind us together rather than to concentrate on the divisive issues that separate us,” Carter said. “There’s too much of an image in the Baptist world, and among non-Christians, that the main, permeating characteristic of Christian groups is animosity toward one another and an absence of ability to cooperate in a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood.”

The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in America, claiming 16 million members. But several smaller Baptist bodies, if combined, outnumber the SBC, totaling more than 20 million members.

“The thrust here is for a voice of Baptists that has not been heard,” the Rev. William J. Shaw, president of the Nashville-based National Baptist Convention USA, told The Post. “Most of the representations of Baptists have come from the prominent television personalities, and that’s okay, but they don’t represent the full sweep of Baptist understanding of the faith.”