March 2008 Church & State | People & Events

Best-selling author John Grisham has warned fellow Baptists that the church’s reputation is harmed when it gets too close to partisan politics.

Grisham, author of best-selling novels like The Firm, The Pelican Brief and The Appeal, is a long-time Baptist who was born in Arkansas and lived much of his life in Mississippi. He spoke Jan. 31 at a national gathering of Baptists in Georgia.

“Evangelical politics has become a big business, and the results are disastrous,” Grisham said. “When the church gets involved in politics, it alienates many people it is supposed to serve.”

Grisham reminded attendees, “As a church, our mission is to serve God through teaching, preaching and serving others. Our business should be that of the church and not the state.”

Grisham spoke at the “Celebration Of A New Baptist Covenant” in Atlanta, a three-day event that drew more than 15,000 Baptists from about 30 different denominations and associations. The event was organized in part by former President Jimmy Carter, who said he wants to see Baptists focus more on service to those in need and less on politics and theological bickering.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Baptist body in America, did not participate in the event. Since the early 1980s, the Convention has been under the control of fundamentalists who have aligned the denomination with the Republican Party.

Grisham, a member of University Baptist Church in Charlottesville, Va., urged Baptists to reject literalist interpretations of the Bible and said congregations should be open to diversity.

“God made all of us, loves us equally and expects us to love each other equally, without respect to gender, race, sexual orientation or other religions,” he said.

Other speakers echoed Grisham’s comments. J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, called on Baptists to embrace a universal standard: “I must not insist that government promote my religion if I don’t want government to promote somebody else’s religion, and I should not permit government to harm someone else’s religion if I don’t want government to harm my religion.”

Walker, a former Americans United trustee, noted that church-state separation has helped America flourish religiously without the deadly sectarian strife that has troubled other nations.

Organizers expressed an interest in continuing the dialogue. Carter said he had been approached by many people at the event who urged him to work toward forming a new Baptist organization. The Baptist bodies that attended the meeting represent more than 20 million people, making them larger than the Southern Baptist Convention, which claims about 16 million members.

“I think that where we go from here will be very important,” Carter said. “We don’t want this to be a wasted moment. We want this to be the initiation of a movement.”