Painting Elephants

Baptists in America may never be the same. For one shining moment in Atlanta, at a three-day gathering termed a “celebration,” Baptists were called to repent of their long history of racism and sexism and affirm a New Baptist Covenant. Never before in the 400-year history of the Baptist denomination have black Baptists and white Baptists met with equal participation on the platform and equal numbers in the audience; never before in history have Baptists—black and white, male and female—met with more than token representation of prophetic women speaking from the pulpit; never before in history have moderate and progressive Baptists from North and South and Canada and Mexico met together to network and organize for Christian social action. If this moment becomes a movement, as its organizers hope and intend, then by re-orienting the Baptist denomination it may also help to change the political priorities of the nation.

Jimmy Carter and Mercer University deserve the credit or the blame, depending on your theo-political perspective, for organizing this moment. The backstory: Mercer University recently severed ties with the fundamentalist dominated Baptist state convention in Georgia, and they asked former President Jimmy Carter, a Baptist from Georgia known around the world, to help them expand the mission of their school. Jimmy Carter agreed on the condition that University President Bill Underwood would take the lead in organizing a meeting for him.

For more than a decade, Carter has been working, without success, to re-unite Baptists. Policies during his administration played a role in divisions within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC); in fact, the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC began in 1979 during his U.S. Presidency, a move that was very closely linked to the rise of the Religious Right in American politics.

Randall Balmer, in his book Thy Kingdom Come, recounts the precipitating event that thrust fundamentalist evangelicals into the secular political arena. As he explains it, the IRS revoked Bob Jones University’s tax exempt status on grounds of racial discrimination; the Carter administration supported the IRS ruling. This inspired fundamentalist televangelists and megachurch preachers to organize in 1979. While Jerry Falwell organized the Moral Majority, others, like Adrian Rogers and Charles Stanley, organized the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC with intentions of using the machinery of the denomination to influence secular politics.

This takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention was complete by 1989; purges of moderate denominational executives, agency heads, professors, and missionaries ensued. The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), a watchdog agency for the first amendment that helped to found Americans United for Separation of Church and State, was de-funded. A new Washington, D.C. based right wing lobbying organization called the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) was established. By 2000, Richard Land, head of the ERLC, was a weekly participant in conference calls with the White House. Three years later, Land was the leading apologist among American evangelicals who defended war with Iraq as a “just war.”

In 1990 moderate and progressive Baptists left the SBC and formed a new organization called the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. One of their first tasks was to raise the funds necessary to sustain the Baptist Joint Committee with its mission to preserve the historic Baptist legacy as advocates for separation of church and state.

Since 1990, Carter has organized several meetings between leaders of fundamentalist Southern Baptists and moderate Cooperative Baptists in hopes of reconciling and reuniting the two groups. Fundamentalist intransigence doomed those efforts. Gestures of reconciliation between Cooperative Baptists in the South and American Baptists in the North have proved more fruitful, however. (Baptists in the South separated from American Baptists in the North over the issue of slavery in 1845.)

Carter and Underwood met with key Baptist leaders in April 2006. They produced and signed a “New Baptist Covenant.” This covenant encourages Baptists to unite in efforts to “Promote peace and justice, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick and marginalized, welcome the strangers among us, and promote religious liberty and respect for religious diversity.” They also determined to plan a meeting that would bring all Baptists in North America together; 16 million Southern Baptists were invited, but their leaders declined to participate. Leading representatives of the other 20 million Baptists in America agreed to get involved. One group was invited to attend, but none of their leaders were invited to participate—the Alliance of Baptists, a group that welcomes and affirms homosexuals. Much to Carter’s chagrin, their participation was deemed too divisive to preserve unity.

In January 2007, leaders from 80 Baptist groups met for a press conference to announce a date for the “Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant.” The presence of two former US presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, attracted a lot of attention from the media. Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention immediately branded the event a political rally. Carter, Underwood and other organizers spent the next year explaining over and over again that the meeting was religious in nature and not political. Finally, during the convocation’s opening session, Carter warned all the speakers “There will be no criticism of others—let me say again—no criticism of others or exclusion of any Christians who would seek to join this cause.”

No one else could have done it. No other Baptist in the world had the authority and respect necessary to command that moderate and progressive Baptists refrain from criticizing fundamentalist Southern Baptists—and pull it off. John Grisham alluded to Southern Baptists when he talked about the racism and sexism and fundamentalism of his “home church”—a church that he left. Only Bill Clinton “painted the elephant in the room” as Mitch Randall, pastor of NorthHaven Church in Oklahoma, observed, and Clinton’s remarks were intended to elicit respect and understanding for fundamentalists. When he closed the meeting, Carter remarked that Bill Clinton made the only political statement at the convocation and that was to commend some work that a Southern Baptist Republican candidate for President had done as Governor of Arkansas.

Despite Carter’s claim, numerous political statements were made at this convocation of Baptists. Most of those statements were made in the cultured rhetoric and polite language that clothes criticism in discreet and indirect forms of speech.

In January 2007, at a meeting of leaders before the Carter-Clinton press conference, the leaders of the African-American Baptist Conventions spoke out loud and clear about what they expected would be said at the convocation. They railed in direct and explicit terms against the idea of preemptive war, against the war in Iraq, against secret renditions and torture, against violations of the Geneva Conventions, and against the wealth of this nation being used to build an empire. They pledged that convocation speakers would be free to boldly speak truth to power.

Something changed between that pre-press conference meeting and the convocation. Maybe the economy came to overshadow the war. Perhaps, opposing the war came to be perceived as a partisan issue (despite the position of Ron Paul).

There was a plethora of prophetic truth telling about poverty, about hospitality to strangers, and about the environment from the podium at this convocation. Unlike the private meeting of leaders in 2007, however, nearly all the references to the war in Iraq were brief, indirect, glancing critiques made while addressing other issues. Every speaker spoke with passion and eloquence, but there was no direct denunciation of our nation’s involvement in an unjust, preemptive war and no clear call to repentance for it

The war in Iraq: now that’s an elephant in the room.