Weary of Southern Baptists' dominance in American Protestantism, a new push is starting by other Baptist groups aimed at working on social justice issues and showing their religious tradition is broader than the conservative SBC. Former President Jimmy Carter is leading the effort.
More than 10,000 moderate and liberal Baptists are expected for three days starting Wednesday in Atlanta for the "Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant." Organizers aren't forming a new denomination but want to develop common ministries that would have a big impact.
Carter, a longtime Bible teacher at his Plains, Ga., church, hopes the event will "solidify the image of Baptists and Christians being able to cooperate with other."
"We're not going to delve into past divisions," Carter said. "We're going to try to show we can work in harmony."
The meeting is taking place just days before Feb. 5, when 24 states hold delegate-rich presidential primaries and caucuses. Baptists organizers say the timing is coincidental; they began planning the Atlanta event about two years ago before the primary schedule was set.
"This has not anything to do with Super Tuesday," Carter said.
Yet the biggest Baptist names at the event are prominent Democrats. Along with Carter, major speakers include former Vice President Al Gore and former President Bill Clinton, who has played a leading and provocative role in the presidential race of his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Huckabee backs out
Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa will also address the meeting. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister and GOP candidate for president, had agreed to participate, then canceled. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had been scheduled to speak but instead will be campaigning with Republican presidential contender John McCain.
"I think it's going to be viewed, especially by lots of folks in the Southern Baptist Convention, as a Democratic gathering," said James Guth, a professor at South Carolina's Furman University who studies religion and politics. "Mr. Clinton is still too controversial a figure to be a neutral arbiter."
Conservatives waged a long, vicious campaign for control of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1970s and '80s to wipe out any moderate or liberal thinking in seminaries, churches and Baptist agencies. Paul Pressler, a retired Texas judge and one of the leaders of the purge, famously said that conservatives were "going for the jugular" for the cause.
With 16.3 million members, the denomination is not only the largest U.S. Baptist group but also the largest Protestant group in the country.
SBC leaders were asked to participate, but convention president Frank Page said last year, "I will not be part of any smoke screen left-wing liberal agenda." Page issued a more conciliatory statement last week, after Carter contacted him to explain the gathering.
"I continue to be concerned as to at least some participants' motives for this event," Page said. "However, I have assured President Carter of my prayers for this meeting."
The 30 groups joining the new covenant effort say they represent millions of Baptists. Among them are historically African-American Baptist denominations, which produced many civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"This is an opportunity to correct what should have happened long ago," said the Rev. William Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., the largest black Baptist group. Northern and Southern Baptists split in 1845, when Northerners said they wouldn't support missionaries who were slaveholders. African-American Baptists generally formed their own denominations, and had their own splits over civil rights strategies and other differences.
The groups meeting in Atlanta span a range of beliefs on theological and political issues, and have diverse styles of worship. Many oppose abortion and gay marriage, and several groups only ordain men.
However, they also heavily emphasize Bible teaching on social justice. The gathering will spend a significant amount of time discussing poverty, health and other policy concerns, along with talks on preaching and the Gospel.
Organizer: 'Baptist brand has been damaged'
A leading organizer of the event is the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, an association for Southern Baptists who distanced themselves or broke with their national denomination after conservatives took control. Carter severed ties in 2000 with the convention because of what he called its "increasingly rigid" beliefs.
In the last few years, Southern Baptists have been struggling to reverse stagnant membership. SBC leaders blame a lack of emphasis on effective evangelism in their churches.
But many of the Baptists gathering in Atlanta contend the denomination's ties to the religious right and its role in the culture wars have alienated potential newcomers.
"The Baptist brand has been damaged over the last 40 years, especially the Southern Baptist brand, by the idea that conservatives or Baptists or Southern Baptists are mainly known for what they're against, who they're boycotting next," said David Gushee, professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University, a leading organizer of the new covenant.
"The sad thing is, on the grass-roots level, this is not how Baptists are. I'm hoping, and actually praying, that the spirit of this event, will reflect that kind of loving, inclusive community."