They’re America’s other Baptists — the ones who appoint women pastors, work with theological liberals and line up more closely with President Carter than with President Bush.
Over the last 25 years, they have watched with growing concern as their conservative Southern Baptist brethren came to define the religious tradition for the general public.
Now, these other Baptists, who are spread among many different denominations, are slowly pooling resources on humanitarian work and evangelism, hoping they can have a bigger impact.
This Friday in Washington, two of the larger groups — the American Baptist Churches and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship — will worship together for the first time. They plan to commission two missionary couples who will represent both groups, and will organize a national Islamic-Baptist dialogue to improve relations with Muslims.
“It is an effort to celebrate our common heritages as Baptist Christians and to affirm our commitment to work together more collaboratively,” said the Rev. Daniel Vestal, national coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. “The Baptist witness is much richer and more nuanced than is characterized so often in the public square now.”
‘The greatest need in our world’
In January, an even broader group of Baptists will host an Atlanta meeting “to speak and work together to create an authentic and genuine prophetic Baptist voice in these complex times,” according to a joint document they issued called a “North American Baptist Covenant.”
The covenant grew out of meetings of Baptist leaders organized by Carter, a longtime Bible teacher who severed ties in 2000 with the Southern Baptist Convention because of what he called its “increasingly rigid” creed.
At 16.3 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the country. However, millions of other Baptists have churches nationwide that are either independent or affiliated with smaller groups.
The Rev. Frank Page, the Southern Baptist president, has accused the covenant’s drafters of promoting a “left-wing liberal agenda that seeks to deny the greatest need in our world, that being that the lost be shown the way to eternal life through Jesus Christ.”
But organizers insist they do not want to create a new denomination or a political platform. Bill Underwood, president of Mercer University in Atlanta, and one of the main organizers of next year’s meeting, said he hasn’t heard “any discussion one way or another” about whether any presidential candidates will be allowed to speak at the assembly. President Clinton, also a Southern Baptist, is a supporter of the meeting.
‘The underlying great divide in our country’
The religious leaders who endorsed the covenant say their churches span a wide range of beliefs on issues both theological and political, and have diverse styles of worship. Many oppose abortion and gay marriage, but believe that the Bible’s social justice teachings are just as important. The unity meetings also aim to bridge the divide between historically African-American and white Baptists.
“We really haven’t seen this kind of unity in Baptist life since the early 19th century,” Underwood said. “The more we talk to one another, the more we realize that despite some differences we have on matters of theology, we can focus on the common ground.”
The National Baptist Convention Convention USA, Inc., and the Progressive National Baptist Convention — both predominantly black and heavily involved in the civil rights movement — are among the participants.
“I think it is possible for denominations not to be predominantly one racial ethnic group or another, but it’s always hard work,” said the Rev. Roy Medley, general secretary for the American Baptists, one of the rare U.S. denominations that aren’t dominated by a single ethnic group. “Race is still the underlying great divide in our country.”
‘Seen as a united front’
The American Baptist Church, with about 1.2 million members, has about 5,500 congregations nationwide, concentrated more in northern states. The denomination has lost some churches and donors, due partly to differences over the Bible and homosexuality. The American Baptists have trimmed their national staff, and plan to sell their national office in Pennsylvania.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, based in Atlanta, was formed in 1991 by moderate and liberal Southern Baptists who opposed the conservative Southern Baptist leadership. The fellowship, with churches mainly in the South, has about 1,900 congregations and a ministry budget of $16 million.
Their joint worship Friday is on the day that each of their national meetings overlap.
Nancy Ammerman, a Boston University sociologist of religion who has written about Baptist battles, said that creating any kind of unified Baptist movement is difficult because local churches cherish their independence.
But boosting cooperation among the different groups, she said, is a more realistic goal.
“Maybe they could be seen as a united front,” Ammerman said, “so that people would think, ‘Oh, this is one of those non-Southern Baptist groups.”’