A parting of the ways that just won’t end

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and current Mercer University President Bill Underwood have a dream. They recently announced a convocation set for next year in Atlanta to begin “mobilizing 20 millions Baptists to find a unified voice” in addressing critical issues such as AIDS, poverty, the environment, health care, racism, religious liberty, and religious diversity. I’ve left out a few but you can go to a copy of the Democratic Party’s platform document to fill in the rest. Lest you think that harsh, Bill Underwood expressed some anticipation that some Baptists who “happen to be Republicans” might one day participate in the movement.

The announcement was made at the Carter Center after 80 leaders from various Baptist denominations, state conventions, and institutions met with the former presidents. Their assumption seems to be that Baptists are racially fragmented, scorning the poor, and theologically picky. Some Southern Baptists were present but our convention was not invited.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the key players. The meeting last Tuesday (January 9) was led by Mr. Underwood and Mr. Carter with former President Bill Clinton in attendance as a “cheerleader” for the effort.

William Underwood is a former Baylor law professor who served for a short time as interim president of the school after Robert Sloan resigned as president. He previously made headlines for his support of Planned Parenthood. When a group of “progressive” theologians wrote a manifesto affirming the role of community in biblical interpretation Mr. Underwood responded that this was too great a limitation on individual freedom.

He has also taken this stance in relation to academic freedom. Upon his election as president of Mercer he said, “if our pursuit of truth leads us to question our existing view of God, it may just be that God is trying to tell us something.”

We all know something of Jimmy Carter. He has questioned the integrity of Scripture on several occasions. When speaking of women as senior pastors he plays Paul off Jesus, as though Jesus spoke through the gospels in a way he didn’t though the epistles. Jimmy Carter consistently takes theological, moral, and political stands that are on the liberal side of moderate.

When speaking of the convergence Mr. Carter said that it might be “one of the most historic events, at least in the history of Baptists, and perhaps Christianity.” Wow. The council of Nicea, the Protestant Reformation, the Great Awakening, and a group of leftist Baptists getting together to criticize conservatives. Yes, I guess I can see his point.

Let’s just give Mr. Clinton a pass. Anyone reading this could write the paragraph for me.

Clearly, as a theologian, Bill Underwood is a highly qualified (I suppose) law professor. As a biblical interpreter, Jimmy Carter is a fine, uh, peanut farmer. The efforts of these men to form a cabal of left-leaning and, let’s face it, Democrat Baptists is not that earth shaking.

Reform is a Baptist instinct. There is always some movement within the SBC to tweak or reexamine how we express our beliefs and conduct our ministry. Amen, it should always be so even when it might lead along the occasional side street. This effort on the part of moderate and liberal Baptists is not an example of renewal. It is more nostalgic than reforming. Southern Baptists have already been what these Baptists aspire to be. In fact a good number of the people in attendance at the Carter Center were part of Southern Baptists in those days?some as employees of the convention.

Southern Baptists will remain one of the most ethnically diverse, compassionate, evangelistically focused and forward thinking Christian groups in the world. We are big enough and diverse enough so that it’s easy to cherry pick our faults or blind spots. That’s OK too, I suppose. We are large enough, though, that we have plenty of critics who truly love us. It’s not necessary for outsiders to help with that.

Even so, I offer moderate Baptists best wishes as they move a little further toward the mushy majority of American Christianity. Mainstream Christianity will be a bit more orthodox and evangelistic because of the Baptist influence, at least for a while.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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