Fifteen thousand pastors and laypersons representing churches across the land met last week in Atlanta under the banner of the New Baptist Covenant to offer a progressive voice for Baptists. All Baptists in North America were invited, and every major group signed on except Southern Baptists.
This ground-breaking event affecting millions of Baptists was an image-changing, agenda-shifting event worth the attention of people even beyond Baptist borders.
That black, white and Hispanic Baptist groups met together seems hardly significant, though it was a historic first meeting of its kind. The three-day event was organized and orchestrated by a cross-section of leaders from both all participating conventions. There were obvious differences in practices (the crowd more animated and participatory when black pastors spoke; quiet and reflective for a white speaker) and in beliefs (we differ on who can preach, who can join, and what the text says here or there).
But differences were tolerated, even welcomed, because of what united us.
I think we were being brought together by a deeper understanding of the Baptist concept of conversion.
For too long personal conversion has been the sum total of the Baptist message: become a disciple, then go make disciples. My childhood memories as a Baptist are of conversion sermons three times a week (twice on Sundays, once on Wednesday).
We were also encouraged to do good deeds but, truth be told, it was too often a kind of bait and switch: we mostly did good things in order to impress non-believers in hopes that they might be attracted to the faith and be converted. We were conversion machines.
The New Baptist Covenant recognizes that there is more to Jesus’ message than saving souls for heaven. Jesus’ inaugural sermon quotes from the prophet Isaiah about good news for the poor, blind, prisoners, oppressed and proclaims a new day. Converted people, that is, those who respond to the call to be Jesus’ disciples, are charged to re-enact his sacrificial, healing compassion for the least and last in our world.
We progressive Baptists still seek to convert people, not just to an ideology, but to active participation in caring, healing, becoming good news for broken people and not merely as a ploy for recruitment.
With so many Baptists in the U.S., this new self-understanding could have many hopeful, helpful implications for our community.
Coupled with this deeper, more faithful understanding of conversion is a deeper understanding of one of Baptists most cherished principles: the separation of church and state. Baptist children are taught that our forebears championed the Bill of Rights’ First Amendment, which protects both religion and government from each other.
Somewhere along the way, however, we falsely assumed that this Baptist hallmark limited our voice in the public square. We were told that politics and religion don’t mix, that churches should only focus on personal conversions instead of worrying about today’s needs.
This notion that politics and religion were a toxic cocktail was exacerbated in the last two decades when fundamentalist Baptists used partisan politics as a way to promote their particular religious agenda. They rewrote history to their liking, turned the First Amendment disestablishment clause on its ear, and worked to restore the U.S. to its supposed place as a Christian nation.
Progressive Baptists wanted no part of this bastardized history or this partisan conscripting of politics.
And so some worried when politicians were invited to last week’s Atlanta gathering, fearing that partisan politicking and electioneering would creep into the agenda.
What we are discovering is that there is a profound difference between sectarian partisan politics that seeks power, and politics that selflessly focuses on the common good of all people regardless or religion or practice.
The New Baptist Covenant was political but not partisan. It talked about Jesus’ concerns for poverty, child welfare, equality, the environment and other issues that affect the common good. It never once came close to promoting one candidate or party over the other, but rather held up those concerns that we believe Jesus would champion.
This felt faithful to our Baptist heritage and to the people of our communities who need us to be our best.
Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.
A minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is now Justice Coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center. He leads, along with Kevin Cosby, EmpowerWest, a black-white clergy coalition calling for recognition, repentance, and repair of injustices to black Louisvillians.