This year the Baptist Center for Ethics – the parent organization of – will observe its 20th anniversary.

Our success challenges a religious myth that only conservative evangelicals can build vigorous organizations. Contrary to popular wisdom, a biblically based organization committed to the best of the Baptist tradition with a positive ecumenical spirit, an energetic engagement with members of the Abrahamic faith traditions, and a determination to advance the common good can grow.

Growth is not reserved for the evangelical conservatives, the politically calculating, the morally cautious, and the blur-the-lines, take-no-stand Baptist types.

BCE and show there is a hunger in the faith community for clearly defined centrist-to-progressive moral reflection that frames issues in the fullness of time and offers practical solutions.

Granted, we have been too busy with and our forthcoming documentary on immigration to have much time to think about celebrating what we’ve accomplished or remembering how we got here.

I do remember our press conference announcing the formation of BCE in late July 1991 as if it were last week.

The press conference came after James Sullivan, former head of the Baptist Sunday School Board, leaked information about plans for BCE to Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leaders, hoping to cripple the effort.

A board member of the SBC’s Christian Life Commission (CLC), where I was employed, expressed skepticism to the Tennessean about BCE. The director of missions from Arkansas said he doubted a fledgling center would be financially viable.

The CLC staff said they would stand on their convictions and we could stand on ours.

That part, at least, was true.

The SBC and CLC continued an anti-everything stand: anti-Disney, anti-women working outside the home, anti-public education, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim. Moreover, the CLC repeatedly endorsed the GOP as God’s Only Party.

The head of the CLC, now the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, even said he wanted a wedding ring from the Republican Party. He told the New York Times, “We want a wedding ring, we want a ceremony, we want a consummation of the marriage.”

Promoting the presidential ambitions of former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), the same leader said: “This is Fred Thompson’s race to lose.” He argued: “I have never seen anything like this grassroots swell for Thompson. I’m not speaking for Southern Baptists, but I do believe I have my hand on the pulse of Southern Baptists and I think I know where the consensus is.”

Claiming that American evangelicals saw Barack Obama “as a first-class arsonist,” this same agency head gave his stamp of approval to Gov. Sarah Palin, who he said had “electrified” evangelicals.

BCE has taken a much different path. We haven’t endorsed political candidates or parties with a wink and a nod. We have offered a moral critique of politicians and parties. We have said repeatedly that church leaders must retain a prophetic distance from partisan politics.

We have used the rules of just war to challenge President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and President Obama’s expanded war in Afghanistan and now Libya.

We have spoken up for women working outside the home. We have been pro-public education, pro-environment and pro-religious liberty for American Muslims.

We have sought constructive engagement with members of the Abrahamic faith traditions. Note two documentaries: Good Will for the Common Good: Nurturing Baptists’ Relationships with Jews and Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims.

We have addressed the tough topics instead of playing to the cultural crowd. Note Sacred Texts, Social Duty and the forthcoming documentary on immigration.

We have challenged and equipped churches with curriculum units and worship resources. During the 1990s, we held regular conferences for congregational leaders. Some of our speakers included Will Campbell and Bobby Bowden, Wayne Flynt and Tom Corts, John Claypool and Joel Gregory, Cynthia Tucker and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead.

Yes, we have taken a different path, a more difficult way. And I think it has made all the difference as evidenced by our growing readership.

Lord willing and with the generous support of readers, we’ll continue on the path less traveled but with a growing band of pilgrims committed to advancing the common good.

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