Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics defended a recently announced meeting of “Golden Rule” Baptists under attack by leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“Baptists are more than Southern Baptists–who are more Southern than Baptist, more exclusive than inclusive, more negative than positive–yet Southern Baptists too often define what it means to be Baptist,” Parham, executive director of the Nashville-based BCE, told The Tennessean.
In an interview Wednesday on Nashville ABC affiliate WKRN (video here), Parham defended former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton’s call for a historic convocation in Atlanta next year to counter a negative and judgmental image of Baptists too often promoted in the media.
“Baptist has become a word that is synonymous with an anti-everything posture: anti-women, anti-public school, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-Disney,” Parham said.
SBC leaders attacked the effort to broaden Baptists’ image as an attack on their denomination.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, feigned surprise he wasn’t invited to last Tuesday’s gathering, aimed at uniting some 20 million U.S. Baptists around issues like poverty, the environment, healthcare and eliminating religious and ethnic conflict.
“I am puzzled as to why I wasn’t invited,” Land told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “For 18 years, I have been doing what they are trying to do, and my organization has as well.”
The director of Baptist Press, Will Hall, told Agape Press: “Why are they coming on the scene just now about helping the poor, about addressing issues of inequity and such? I mean, it’s insulting, and not only to Southern Baptists but all the other Baptist organizations out there that have been doing this already.”
Even SBC president Frank Page, who introduced himself to reporters after his election last year as an “irenic conservative” and “an inerrantist … I’m just not mad about it,” took umbrage.
“They want control again,” Page said in an interview with News-13, an ABC affiliate in Panama City, Fla. “They want to have it the way it was going, when it was very much in lockstep with the left-wing political agenda. And Baptists said, ‘No, that’s not who we are.'”
“Most people out in the real world are fairly positive about Baptists,” Page said. “But it’s a particular group of people in the media and a particular group of people on the left hand side of the political spectrum, who are constantly wanting to show us as negative people.”
Florida Baptist Witness Editor James Smith said Southern Baptists’ differences with Baptists gathered last week at the Carter Center–representatives of more than 30 groups aligned with the North American Baptist Fellowship–go beyond “ancillary issues” to “first-order issues of Christian truth” like whether salvation is found only in Jesus Christ or if homosexuality is subject to biblical interpretation.
Russell Moore, theology dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called it “voodoo ecumenism.”
SBC president Page said he is all for unity, but, “The Bible is firmly against abortion, and we will not be part of a movement that affirms the right to kill a baby.”
Both Carter and Clinton said their intent is not to exclude Southern Baptist leaders.
“I think we ought to give the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention a little pat on the back,” said Clinton. “I called President Carter after he [Frank Page] made his first speech…. It’s no secret we’ve all had our different opinions about what happened to the seminaries and other things. He [Page] said ‘I’m still a conservative and I’m not mad at anybody.’ We both called him and thanked him.”
“I don’t want this to be the source of a fight, and I know nobody else here does,” Clinton said. “We’re trying to find ways to come together and do things together. And we’d be thrilled to have them come to this meeting.”
Land said he suspects Carter and Clinton are upset because many Southern Baptists voted against them. Some speculated about a hidden agenda to jumpstart a 2008 presidential bid by a Democrat like Hillary Clinton or Al Gore.
Parham, who attended the meeting, said that isn’t true. “I heard no discussion of this being a partisan event intended to advance a political agenda or a political candidate,” he said.
At Tuesday’s press conference, Mercer University President Bill Underwood emphasized the 2008 gathering would not be a political rally.
“President Carter and President Clinton are not here today in their capacity as statesmen,” Underwood said. “They are not here in their capacity as political leaders. They are not here today in their capacity as Democrats. They are here today in their capacity as Baptists. We anticipate there will be many other Baptists participating in this endeavor who happen to also be public officials and happen to be Republicans. This is a Baptist endeavor.”
Despite the chorus of criticism from SBC leaders, some were more open to the idea. Wade Burleson, a blogging International Mission Board trustee who is pushing for more tolerance of diverse views in SBC leadership, said he is not familiar with the “Baptist Covenant” or acquainted with leaders of the 2008 convocation in Atlanta.
“However, it would be difficult for me to criticize any evangelical Christian movement whose stated goals are to live out the gospel through doing justice and loving mercy,” Burleson said. “There comes a time when we as Southern Baptists should simply remain silent if we cannot say anything supportive of other Baptist attempts at addressing pressing social and cultural issues in a prophetic manner.”
“To provide a public defense of our convention’s record, while at the same time criticizing others, seems to be acting in a manner contrary to the spirit of our Lord and the good of His kingdom at large,” he added. “I wish nothing but success for all Baptists who seek to live out the gospel for a world in need of a Savior.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.