Observations on Life, Faith, Media & Technology

Friends in Both Places

The story is told that at a social gathering author Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) walked up on a lively conversation about heaven and hell.  When the participants asked Clemens to weigh in on the matter, the quick-witted writer said he would rather not comment because he had friends in both places.

Jimmy Carter sings with Gov. Sonny Pardue and William Shaw at the New Baptist Covenant meeting

That anecdote summed up how I felt about weighing in on the meeting this past week dubbed the “New Baptist Covenant.” I have friends in both camps, both conservative and moderate Baptists.  Many Southern Baptists dismissed the gathering outright, pointing to both the high-profile participants (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore) and the timing (the same week as Super Tuesday) as evidence it was nothing more than a partisan political event.

Another reason for my reticence is that saying anything positive about moderate Baptists can get you in as much trouble with some conservative Baptists as Barack Obama got in with the Democrats for saying something vaguely positive about Ronald Reagan.

I am a theological conservative, but I have a passionate desire to see evangelicals end the rancor, bickering and fighting that has seriously damaged our credibility with the people we desire to reach with the Gospel. I earnestly long to see the Body of Christ united, but I am also deeply concerned when Baptists publicly deny that salvation is found in Christ alone and deny that John 14:6 means what it says (“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No man comes to the Father but through me.”)

A little background for those who were unaware – former President Jimmy Carter and Mercer University President Bill Underwood planned and organized a gathering of Baptists, admittedly mostly high profile, theologically moderate Democrats, seeking to counteract the negative image that most people have of Baptists.  Southern Baptists were invited to participate.  Carter personally reached out to many SBC leaders, some of whom are friends of mine, inviting them to attend.  Of those, some politely declined the invitation after praying about it, but wished them well in their efforts.  Some, like SBC President Frank Page initially had unkind things to say about the event, but softened their rhetoric after receiving personal assurances from Carter that his motives were not political.

Others chose to stay away and criticize the event – some in a decidedly sarcastic and mean-spirited way – via the media.  In essence, those folks chose to make political hay with their constituency by accusing Carter and his friends of making political hay with their constituency.  Funny how being “political,” like gossiping, is always someone else does.

Last year, SBC President Frank Page reacted to the planned meeting by saying he would not take part in a “smokescreen left wing liberal agenda.”  In recent weeks, Page stated Carter had “expressed his deep desire that this meeting be nonpolitical and Christ-honoring.” He added, “I always affirm bodies of believers who gather for that reason. My promise of prayer support continues to be that this meeting will exalt the name of Christ, will point human beings toward the need for a personal relationship with Christ who alone can bring salvation.”

By contrast, Dr. Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission sarcastically called the meeting “The Democratic Party at Prayer.” In January of last year, Land was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “I’m not going to question their motives,” and then proceeded to do exactly that for the last 12 months.  He implied those who didn’t see the event as blatantly political in its timing (the week of Super Tuesday) and choice of speakers (mostly Democrats) were ignorant, naive, or both.  “Anyone who thinks all of that amounts to coincidence, I’ve got beachfront property in Arizona I’d like for you to look at,” said Land.  (Actually, Dr. Land, the event was timed to coincide with the Atlanta gatherings of two groups of black Baptists who have been estranged from their white Baptist brethren since before the Civil War – NOT Super Tuesday.)

There was one prominent Southern Baptist on the platform – Georgia Governor Sonny Pardue, a member and Sunday School teacher at First Baptist Woodstock and a staunch conservative.  Welcoming the group to Georgia, Pardue proclaimed to the audience his “joy to stand up in front of you as a Baptist.”

As for the meeting itself, it was a mixed bag. Several speakers – mostly in breakout sessions – got about as political and negative as you could get.  But for the most part, the plenary speakers – including Bill Clinton, perhaps the most partisan politician on the planet – sounded a conciliatory tone, calling for moderates and conservatives to work together with kindness, graciousness, respect and love.  Here is a sampling:

Jimmy Carter: “Among the unsaved people on earth, what is the prevailing image of Christians today? It’s not the dedicated and inspired work of our missionaries. It’s not the great preaching of Billy Graham or others who inspire people. It’s the image of divisions among brothers and sisters in Christ as we struggle for authority or argue about the interpretation of individual verses in the Holy Scriptures.”

Bill Clinton: “The reason we have to love each other is because we all might be wrong… we did not come here to ratify each other’s good deeds. We came here to seek a Covenant of reconciliation… We should not let our response to the people who disagree with us be dictated by what they say about us or even how they treat people that we care for. If there is any chance, any chance, that this Covenant can become an embracing one, that there could once again be a whole community then there has to be the chance of Love, the chance that we might not give up our differences but find that our common humanity matters more.”

It remains to be seen what if anything in terms of real change will come out of this meeting, but it is a positive thing that moderate Baptists gathered in Atlanta and spoke words of love, respect and reconciliation toward their brothers and sisters in the SBC.  Hopefully, the SBC response will be gracious like Frank Page’s assurance of prayer support, not Richard Land’s sarcastic and demeaning zingers.

Duke Divinity School’s Curtis Freeman had an interesting take on the future impact of this event: 

“If this meeting is about shaking a fist at evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention, it will have a very short shelf life. Then it becomes about anger and pride. It becomes the negative motivation of trying to say what we are not. What I like about this particular meeting is there are positive steps we as Baptists can take together.”

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