At last week's New Baptist Unity Conference in Atlanta, an estimated 20,000 Baptists spanning the moderate to progressive spectrum gathered for three days of worship, fellowship, and training. Even though Southern Baptists were conspicuously missing, the conference united members of denominations from the American Baptist Convention, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, National Baptist Convention USA, and the Progressive National Baptist Convention, among others, to collectively represent over 17 million U.S. Christians.
As the core convener and patron of the event, the longstanding Baptist Bible study leader and former President Jimmy Carter opened the conference with a challenge that strikes at the heart of division within the Baptist and Christian church at large. Carter named the wedge issues that have fragmented the church - from the ordination of women to homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment, etc. - and then asked the participants whether a shared belief in the saving grace of God through Jesus Christ and a commitment to spreading the gospel was more important than all these divisions combined. Carter compared these divisions to the ones that Paul addressed in his letters to the early church in Corinth. According to Carter, "these animosities have become a cancer that is metastasizing in the body of Christ."
The conference provided ample testimony to the ways in which Baptists are uniting across theology, ideology, geography, and race. It placed a particular emphasis on the themes of diversity, good news to the poor, and welcoming the stranger. Speakers included Rev.Tony Campolo, Marian Wright Edelman, Dr. William Shaw, Senator Charles Grassley, and Bill Clinton. While many in the media and conservative circles cynically accused the conference as an attempt to baptize the Democratic Party, the event upheld a staunch commitment to nonpartisanship and offered a prophetic challenge to both Democrats and Republicans. As an associate minister at a church that's a member of both the American Baptist Church and the Progressive National Baptist Convention, I straddle the historic black and predominantly white Baptist worlds. It was significant that this gathering took place in the seat of the South and demonstrated a genuine commitment to uniting across the racial divide. An entire worship service focused on the theme of welcoming the stranger and dealt head-on with the polemical issue of immigration - emphasizing the need for a biblically-based response characterized by compassion, mercy, and justice.
Historically, Baptists have been reluctant to engage in politics, due in part to an abiding belief in the separation between church and state. It was a Baptist minister that played an instrumental role in convincing the founding fathers that this separation represented the best way to protect religion from the interference of the state and the best way to safeguard the state from the interference of religion. Throughout the plenary sessions and workshops, I sensed a growing recognition that this separation should not lead to a fast from politics. Baptists' voices are expressing a growing desire to address the great moral issues of our time, including poverty, climate change, religious freedom, and HIV/AIDS. While real disagreements still exist, particularly around the differences between charity and justice or systemic change and personal transformation, momentum is growing favoring deeper and broader political engagement. Perhaps one of the greatest and most hopeful signs of this nascent tidal wave was on display at a luncheon featuring former Vice President Al Gore. In contrast to the Southern Baptists, who spurned Gore's advocacy to open eyes around the intensifying crisis of global warming, thousands of conference participants gave a rousing standing ovation to his now famous hour-long Power Point presentation, as Baptist leaders listened to ways in which we have shown contempt for God's creation.
The conference recognized the difficulties that lie ahead in sustaining this movement. Organizers seem committed to avoiding the creation of a new organization or reinventing the wheel. I have been struck by the degree to which Baptist denominations lack a substantial staff presence in Washington, D.C., working to influence public policy and advocate around Baptist concerns. While most mainline churches have full-time policy staff and Washington-based offices, Baptists are often under-represented. This is not to equate a presence in Washington with policy change, yet a more mobilized constituency of 17 million Baptists would have a profound degree of influence. One concrete outcome of this New Covenant Baptist movement would be to combine efforts and resources across these Baptist denominations to establish a joint advocacy presence to better represent the voices of progressive and moderate Baptists across the country. A Baptist constituency united around shared biblical values and a focused agenda on common ground issues like ending poverty would represent good news for the church and our nation.
Adam Taylor is director of campaigns and organizing for Sojourners.