Before a delegation of some 60 Baptists metrecentlywithWhiteHouseofficials, White House officials apparently were unfamiliar with the term “goodwill Baptists.”
Why should that be a surprise?

Most Baptists are unfamiliar with the idea of “goodwill Baptists.”

We are more familiar with our historic pattern of taking an anti-everything stance, especially those of us from the lineage of white Baptists in the South.

Our ancestors were anti-dancing, anti-alcohol, anti-unions, anti-gambling, anti-Catholic.

They were against integration, opposed to the civil rights movement and stiff-armed Martin Luther King Jr., who, of course, was a Baptist.

They fought against changing the Blue Laws.

More recently, we have witnessed a long list of anti-everything stances – anti-women, anti-Disney, anti-public schools, anti-evolution in biology classes, anti-science of climate change, anti-immigrant.

Of course, northern Baptists had their own anti-movement at the turn of the 20th century – opposition to modernism.

All together, Baptists past and present have fed the narrative that Baptists are a negative people. Negativity means being against something and suggests ill will.

Speaking at the New Baptist Covenant II meeting in Atlanta, Ken Fong, pastor of Evergreen Baptist Church in Los Angeles, said, “Baptist has come to mean intolerant, mean spirited, irrelevant, judgmental and a bunch of religious stuffed shirts.”

He said that he often has to define himself as “not that kind of Baptist.”

His confession rings true across the land.

But this narrative about babbling Baptists of negativity isn’t the only narrative. Another narrative recognizes that Baptists have a tradition and practice that seeks social justice, honors science, values public schools, protects the environment, welcomes the undocumented and engages the issues of the day rather than retreating from them with judgmentalism.

In search of a way to speak favorably about this Baptist way, I began using the descriptive word “goodwill,” perhaps for the first time in June 2004.

“During the past quarter century, the relationship between Southern Baptists and Jews has hit rock bottom,” I said at the Baptist Center for Ethics’ Baptist-Jewish luncheon.

“Of course, goodwill Baptists have sought to advance the common good with their Jewish neighbors,” I said. “In an era of rising religious conflict, goodwill Baptists would do well to remember the best of our tradition, advocating the separation of church and state, articulating the need for democracy over theocracy, asserting civility over ideology and acting for the poor.”

At the Birmingham event, I added, “We would also do well to reclaim the centrality of Jesus, who taught us to love our neighbors, not as a means toward conversion, but because it’s the right thing to do.”

The descriptive term reappeared when we released a 2006 global hunger video and a resource supporting public education.

“Goodwill is an energetic, positive word. It’s a proactively muscular word. It contains enough self-definition that further commentary is unnecessary in casual conversation,” I wrote in April 2007. “Let’s start describing ourselves as the goodwill Baptists.”

One reader rejected the language, arguing that another organization already had the word goodwill – as in Goodwill.

Later in 2007, the phrase was used in articles about HerbReynolds, a BWAexperience at a slave castle on the Ghanaian coast, and BaptistsinLebanon who responded with humanitarian aid during the war between Hezbollah and Israel.

Before the 2008 New Baptist Covenant meeting, I wrote, “NBC afforded the opportunity for goodwill Baptists to find new ways to work together.”

Later that year, one editorial title about BWA meeting read: “Goodwill Baptists Share Common Future with Goodwill Muslims.”

In 2009, an editorial title read, “Goodwill Baptists Ought To Be Bullish on New Baptist Covenant.”

By this point, I was peppering editorials and statements with the word goodwill.

While it was originally used as a generic description of Baptists who seek to be proactive and positive, rather than anti-everything, it also acquired another purpose. It referred inclusively to those Baptists who were working together.

The term allowed us to get beyond language based on geography, race and denomination. Rather than always identify folk by the labels of American Baptist Churches-USA, Baptist General Association of Virginia, Baptist General Convention of Texas, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, National Baptist Convention in the USA, Southern Baptist Convention and many others, the phrase goodwill Baptists became shorthand.

Being a goodwill Baptist, then, is a descriptive and inclusive term for those who seek to engage culture constructively and to frame issues positively. It is evidence of neither political correctness nor mushy moral reflection. It should not be confused with a live-and-let-live attitude.

It should be understood as a way to address issues in an unpredictable way – at least from what is expected of Baptists.

For example, speaking about how the lottery is a predatory tax on the poor is a more substantive and engaging way to speak about gambling than being anti-gambling from a stance of private morality.

Albeit imperfectly, has striven toward what it means to be a goodwill Baptist organization. And certainly the diverse group of Baptists at the White House presented perhaps an unexpected face.

Redeeming the Baptist name and getting Baptists to think differently about their cultural engagement is a journey worth taking. I hope our readers and their churches will join us.

RobertParham is executive editor of and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1.

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