Former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton joined leaders of 40 Baptist organizations Tuesday to announce a major meeting in early 2008 to offer an alternative Baptist voice to often-negative messages of the Religious Right.

“This has been what may turn out to be one of the most historic events, at least in the history of Baptists in this country, and perhaps Christianity,” Carter said at a meeting of groups aligned with the North American Baptist Fellowship at the Carter Center. “We believe it will bear fruits.”

Carter is a confirmed speaker at a Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant, tentatively scheduled Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 2008 at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. Other keynote speakers to date include broadcaster Bill Moyers and children’s advocate Marian Wright Edelman. Planners hope to attract 20,000 participants from the United States and Canada, making it one of the largest U.S.gatherings of Baptists in years.

Clinton said he was at the meeting “as a cheerleader.”

“This is an attempt to bring people together and say, ‘What would our Christian witness require of us in the 21st century?'” Clinton said. “If we were just trying to do what we are told in the New Testament to do, how would we go about alleviating poverty in a way consistent with our faith, how would we go about preserving our natural resources and our environment for our children and our grandchildren, how would we go about eliminating religious and racial conflict, how would we go about dealing with the healthcare challenges of our day.”

The North American Baptist Fellowship is one of six regional fellowships that are part of the Baptist World Alliance, which is made up of 214 Baptist unions and conventions comprising a membership of more than 34 million baptized believers. That doesn’t include the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, which dropped out of BWA in 2004, alleging a drift toward liberalism in the global fellowship.

Though both Carter and Clinton come from a Southern Baptist background, the denomination’s leaders were no fans of their politics. After the SBC elected its first in a line of “inerrantist” presidents in 1979, one reportedly told Carter during a White House visit that he hoped the president would repent of his “secular humanism.”

During Clinton’s presidency, the SBC issued resolutions critical of his policies on homosexuality and abortion. In 1993 there was an unsuccessful attempt to deny seating to messengers from Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., where Clinton was a member and sang in the choir before moving to Washington, for failure to “discipline” a wayward member.

Presidents of two seminaries publicly called on Clinton’s church to exercise “biblical discipline” on him, meaning to kick him out.

By 2000, Carter, a one-time member of the SBC Brotherhood Commission, was sufficiently disenfranchised by changes in the denomination to renounce his lifelong Southern Baptist ties.

In a 2005 book, Carter cited changes in the Southern Baptist Convention to illustrate what he argued is a fundamental shift in U.S. values.

In April Carter joined with Mercer University to convene a diverse gathering to discuss a unified Baptist voice in North America. Their deliberations produced a statement called “A North American Baptist Covenant,” which affirmed their desire “to speak and work together to create an authentic and genuine prophetic Baptist voice.”

The covenant affirmed a “commitment to traditional Baptist values, including sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and its implications for public and private morality,” including obligations to “promote peace with justice, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick and the marginalized, welcome the strangers among us, and promote religious liberty and respect for religious diversity.”

Planners say other Baptist voices have been muted by the SBC. The only image most Americans have of Baptists in North America negative rhetoric and right-wing politics on television news programs.

Mercer President William Underwood called Tuesday’s meeting “an historic gathering of Baptists from the north and south, black, white and brown, theologically conservative, moderate and progressive.”

“All are committed to traditional Baptist values and all committed to our obligations as Christian to address poverty, health care and religious liberty,” Underwood said. “I believe the convocation in January 2008 will be an important first step in mobilizing 20 millions Baptists to find a unified voice in addressing these critical issues.”

Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics was among 81 Baptist leaders present for the meeting.

“Good-will Baptists held a historic meeting today pregnant with potential for advancing the common good,” Parham said. “The 2008 meeting will correct the misperception that the name Baptist is synonymous with fundamentalism, counter the misguided agenda of the Christian right, and call for a new era in which Baptists recover a commitment to social justice.”

Tentative themes for the four plenary sessions at the meeting are: “Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant,” “Unity in Bringing Good News to the Poor,” “Unity in Respecting Religious Diversity,” “Unity in Seeking Peace with Justice,” and “Unity in Welcoming the Stranger and Healing the Broken-Hearted.”

In addition to the plenary sessions, the convocation will feature special-interest sessions dealing with topics such as racism, religious liberty, poverty, AIDS, faith in public policy, stewardship of the earth, evangelism, financial stewardship and prophetic preaching.

William Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., said he is “tremendously excited” by the initiative. “We will be addressing issues in non-partisan ways but in prophetic ways,” he said.

Bob Allen is managing editor of This story is based in part on reporting by Lance Wallace of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

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