The word “Baptist,” and especially Southern Baptist, is for many a synonym for Republican politics. Many Baptist leaders such as Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, have enjoyed unparalleled access to the White House and the ear of the president. They have played a key role in setting the conservative political agenda, and have been instrumental in keeping Republicans in power.
Southern Baptists have also walked in concert with other conservative Christians on several culture-war issues. These include opposition to abortion, gay rights, stem cell research and the teaching of evolution. Southern Baptists have also been vocal in calling for teacher led prayers in public schools and the display of Scripture in public buildings. A few Southern Baptist leaders have even called for Christians to remove their children from public schools and either home school them or place them in private Christian schools.
The rhetoric and tone employed in the waging of the culture war is often harsh and judgmental. After all it’s hard to tell someone they are doomed to hell and not sound at least a little caustic. As a result, Southern Baptists nationwide have developed a bit of an image problem.
The image problem has become so severe, that in 2004 then-convention president Jack Graham called for the denomination to change its name. Graham said his reason for the recommendation was to help the denomination reflect a more worldwide presence. But part of the motivation certainly included awareness that in many places saying “Southern Baptist” closes more doors than it opens.
Sadly, this Baptist image problem also affects Baptists who are not Southern Baptists. Moderate and progressive Baptists are often forced to explain to interested parties that they are Baptists, but not of the Southern variety.
In an effort to address this concern, former President Jimmy Carter announced this past week the formation of a new Baptist coalition that he calls the “North American Baptist Covenant.” The idea behind the covenant is to gather together several moderate and progressive Baptist groups in North America and reclaim traditional Baptist principles. Carter hopes these groups will participate in convocation in Atlanta in 2008.
Carter described the event: “This is a historic event for the Baptists in this country and perhaps for Christianity. Our goal is to have a major demonstration of harmony and common commitment to honor the goals of Jesus Christ. We want to be all-inclusive, and we call on all Baptists to share those goals and join us.”
Several Baptist groups are expressing interest including the National Baptist Convention, the American Baptist Convention, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Baptist World Alliance.
Joining in the effort to rally moderate and progressive Baptists is Bill Underwood, president of Baptist-affiliated Mercer University.
Underwood told a group of about 30 Baptist denominational leaders: “North America desperately needs a true Baptist witness. There’s no organization in this room that has a strong enough voice…but the organizations in this room together do have a strong enough voice.”
I have struggled for years to know how to answer the question, “Are you a Southern Baptist?” Normally I just say, “No, just a Baptist living in the South.” The formation of a new Baptist coalition, one that is committed to traditional Baptist principles, offers the hope that maybe, in the near future there will be a better way to answer that question.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of the Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.