Former Vice President Al Gore delivered the most energetic, substantive and potentially transformative speech made by a Baptist to a Baptist audience in 30 years.
From my first Southern Baptist Convention in June 1978 in Atlanta to the New Baptist Covenant celebration last week in that same city, I can remember no address that matches the urgency and profundity of Gore’s riveting presentation.
Speaking to a luncheon of some 2,500 North American Baptists, he displayed his mastery of a complex subject with straightforward clarity, mixing in the newest scientific reports with moral reflection and placing biblical stepping stones throughout his lengthy presentation. He concluded with the passion of a moral evangelist, calling the lost to commitment and the committed to rededication.
The most prominent Baptist in the room heard the call and walked the aisle. Former President Jimmy Carter moved unnoticed before the platform and waited in the shadows for his turn to give a testimony. He unexpectedly announced, “We’re going to be considering what to do as a result of this New Baptist Covenant meeting.”
“How many of you think we should join Al Gore in being one of the strongest voices on earth?” Carter asked to ringing applause. “Does anyone disagree? OK, now you see that was a unanimous vote. Thank you very much.”
It was an electric event marked by positive energy, spontaneous enthusiasm and sustained applause. It was the apex of the three-day gathering.
The environment is now on the Baptist agenda at a time when we must act together swiftly. Yet it almost didn’t happen. Providentially it did.
From an analytical perspective, Gore’s presence on the program bore the mark of irony.
Gore was not even on the program list when the New Baptist Covenant was announced a year ago. When pressed about his exclusion, program planners said having him speak would make the meeting look partisan. Some said Luke 4:18-19, the gathering’s foundational text, did not speak to the environment, ignoring the meaning of the “acceptable year of the Lord.”
From an organizational perspective, Gore’s presence bore the markings of low expectations or indifference.
Some Baptist publications either did not mention the luncheon or did little to encourage attendance. The luncheon was not strongly promoted on the New Baptist Covenant Web site, compared to Sen. Lindsey Graham, who didn’t show. Few Web sites promoted the event.
From a generational perspective, Gore’s presence bore the moral priority for the newest generation of Baptist adults.
According to The News & Observer, young Baptists are going green. “The environment is the No. 1 issue in terms of how we are putting hands and feet to the call of Christ–not just saying but doing,” said Bailey Nelson, a 24-year-old seminarian at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, who had helped coordinate the gathering. Her comment was echoed by Sarah McCoy, a 26-year-old divinity student at Campbell University.
From a previously undisclosed perspective, Gore’s presence bore the fulfillment of an earlier expressed commitment.
At the end of an hour-long interview in June 2006 before the red carpet screening of “An Inconvenient Truth” in Nashville, I asked the former vice president if he would be open to speaking to Christian audiences. Gore said, “Absolutely, absolutely. I will go any where, any time, to show my slide show to the Southern Baptist Convention, to other gatherings.”
And he now has.
From a spiritual perspective, Gore’s presence on the program bore the stamp of providence.
God surely labored through the labyrinth of timid Baptist planners and outdated Baptist thinkers to ensure a program would appeal to a younger generation of leaders and grab the attention of Baptist laity and clergy who have done little about earth care. God certainly worked through the Nobel Peace Prize committee to elevate Gore’s moral status, and that helped to prepare the hearts and minds of goodwill Baptists for this movement.
Having heard the call, what do we do with what we know and feel?
“We who are Baptists are not going to tolerate heaping contempt on God’s creation,” Gore asserted. “It’s up to us to send that message, as Christians, as Baptists.”
But what is the content of that message and how do we send it?
For Baptists the answer is the green Bible. Our message must be centered in the biblical witness. Our message-sending must begin with sermons and Bible studies from which we draw our moral vision. After all, the Bible is at the core of what it means to be Baptist.
So it is fitting and right that the prevailing symbol from the New Baptist Covenant is the Bible, the green Bible in particular, Al Gore holding high the green Bible to be precise.
Is it possible that years from now, when memories of this historic gathering are blurred, that the one crystallizing icon will be the green Bible?
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
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