Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The New Baptist Covenant: Positive Promise and Potential Problems

The New Baptist Covenant (NBC), as I understand it, is an effort to bring about increased unity among Baptists who desire to rally behind the Great Commission in all of its implications for ministry, be they spiritual, physical, emotional, or social. This effort grew out of a meeting held at the Carter Center in Atlanta on April 10, 2006 which was attended by the leaders of several Baptist groups and institutions, including the American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA), the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), several predominantly African-American bodies, Mercer University, and Baylor University, among others.

The participants in that meeting decided to plan a convocation in which historic Baptist principles would be celebrated and opportunities for further partnerships could be explored. That meeting will take place in Atlanta January 30-February 1, 2008. The groups involved in that meeting are for the most part members of the North American Baptist Fellowship (NABF) which is a regional body relating to the Baptist World Alliance (BWA).

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I am a member of the Communications Committee for the NBC, although honesty compels me to report that I have been asked to do nothing and thus far have fulfilled my responsibilities successfully!

I have previously written hopefully and positively about the upcoming meeting. I remain hopeful and positive for the following reasons.

First, the Baptist world is a big world filled with varied constituents and we need to get to know each other better so that we can work together in common cause. I am an admitted “big tent” Baptist who believes that we can celebrate what unites us doctrinally, accept what divides us with love and grace, and find our meaning and purpose in Christ’s great call to missions and ministry.

Second, given all the negative publicity generated by so many in Christian and Baptist leadership, it will be good if we can offer a gracious, gentle, kind, proactive, and positive witness to our nation and to the world. They’ll know we are Christians by our love. I shudder to think what they think they know when they see our family squabbles and divisions.

Third, many special interest sessions will be offered on subjects such as prophetic preaching, engaging the criminal justice system, breaking the cycles of poverty, finding common ground with other faiths, youth at a crossroads, evangelism, reaching out to the sick, peacemaking, welcoming a stranger, faith and public policy, spirituality, sexual exploitation, race as a continuing challenge, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, religious liberty and separation of church and state, and responding to natural disasters. You could skip the plenary sessions and just attend all the special interest sessions you can fit in and I dare say it would be worth the trip. The facilitators of those sessions come from across the Baptist spectrum in terms of race, gender, and region.

Fourth, in an era when the largest Baptist body in the world, the Southern Baptist Convention, seems intent on isolating itself more and more from the larger Baptist family, anything we can do that will engender stronger intra-Baptist “ecumenical” relations is a good thing. I have always said and I anticipate that I will always say that the SBC’s decision to withdraw from the BWA was a mistake and will always be a mistake. The NBC may create a context within which the BWA can further grow and prosper. I hope so.

Fifth, the NBC Celebration will offer an opportunity for Baptists to demonstrate how diverse we are in ethnicity, gender, region, and politics. I dare say that there has never been a national Baptist gathering that will feature such diversity both on the platform and in the audience. Think about it: red and yellow, black and white not only being precious in God’s sight but also spending precious time together in worship and in discipleship. It may just be a foretaste of glory divine, except that we would need much more representation from the Church at large for that to be the case. Maybe we can work on that in the future.

That is a partial list of some of the reasons that I have seen and continue to see much promise for positive developments to emerge from this gathering of Baptists from all over the United States and Canada. It is for those reasons that I continue to support and to look forward to attending the Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant.

But I do see some potential problems as well. Again, I express these thoughts as someone who is supportive of the Celebration and who will, God willing, be present for every minute of it.

The main potential problem that I see has to do with politics.

Now, let’s tell the truth: many Baptists have been very troubled by the perception that has developed since the Reagan years that GOP stands not only for the “Grand Old Party” but also for “God’s Only Party.” That is, the Christian evangelical movement in general and the SBC’s leadership in particular have been very closely aligned with the Republican Party. I am among those who have been very uncomfortable with that alignment. There are many evangelical Christians who really cannot fathom how a Christian could possibly vote for a Democratic candidate. Such thinking is of course narrow-minded. A couple of years ago I said in a sermon that if our church was not big enough for Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and Greens then it was not big enough. I believe that about the Baptist movement in general.

During the years that many evangelicals and the GOP have been in bed together, I have said that such a situation was wrong and that if Baptist churches and leaders allied themselves with the Democrats that would be just as wrong. Therefore, I want to say that I fear that the NBC runs the risk of appearing to be too Democratic in its orientation.

As is well known, former President Jimmy Carter is one of the organizers and spokespersons for the NBC. I think that is a good thing. I know that I am naïve, but I cannot for the life of me understand why so many Baptist people are so negative in their attitude toward President Carter. Frankly, I myself have felt that he has been too outspoken in his criticisms of the present administration, mainly because such criticisms seem to be a breech of the etiquette expected of a former President, but those criticisms have just occurred in the past few years and many folks have despised—and I don’t think that’s too strong a word—him for a lot longer than that.

Why? Is it because he so publicly announced a few years ago that he was no longer a Southern Baptist? Is it because they don’t like some of the things that he did or didn’t do while he was President? I really don’t understand. I can name many things that every former President did that I liked and that I did not like. I was a teenager during the Watergate years and I came to have a bitter distaste for President Nixon, but I certainly recognize that he accomplished many good things while he was in office.

Here’s the thing about Carter, though: you would have to be totally unreasonable to deny that the man’s heart is a Christian heart and that his ecclesiological values are Baptist to the core. As has been said many times by folks much wiser than I, he is the finest ex-President we have ever had. While most ex-Presidents tend to sit on boards, play golf, and make small speeches for big money, President Carter has, through the Carter Center, tried to broker peace where there is war, insure free and fair elections around the world, build houses with Habitat for Humanity, and address significant health issues in the under-developed world. Twenty years ago I asked someone who worked in close proximity on a daily basis with President Carter if he was as Christian a man as he seemed. My friend thought for a moment and replied, “You know, I don’t agree with a lot of his politics, but yeah, his faith and the way he lives it out are completely sincere.” I have also heard President Carter speak eloquently about the same Baptist principles that are dear to the hearts of all Baptists who have a good perspective on our history and heritage.

In short, it makes perfect sense for President Carter to play a leading role in the NBC. As far as I am concerned, the fact that he is a Democratic politician is incidental. Besides, having him involved gives the whole thing publicity, prestige, and press that it never would have gotten without the involvement of him or someone like him—and I would submit that he is the only one really suited for the role. Perhaps he came to the kingdom for such a time as this.

I can’t say the same for former President Clinton, though. Now, President Clinton is a Baptist; therefore, he has every right to be involved in this or any other Baptist event in which he chooses to participate. I also believe that, while it is not our role to forgive him, we of his family of faith should not unreasonably hold his moral failings against him. (As an aside, I would note the willingness of some Baptist and other Christian leaders to look the other way when it comes to the moral failings of politicians with whose policies they agree.) Still, a case can be made that the moral baggage that Clinton brings with him makes him a bad choice to represent this event.

To be fair, Clinton has described himself as a “cheerleader” for the event. But the promotional materials say that he is scheduled as a plenary speaker along with President Carter. I think that is a mistake. Why? Because his wife is running for President. While I do not believe (and again, I may be naïve) that, as some have claimed, the NBC Celebration was set up with the intention of having an impact on the 2008 presidential election process, it is nonetheless a fact that the Celebration will take place just days before the primary season begins in earnest. I hope and pray that President Clinton’s address will not provide fodder for those who are claiming that the Celebration is designed to help Democratic candidates. Again, I do not think that he should speak at all but if he is going to I hope he will be very, very, very careful in his choice of words. The cause of Christ is what matters here, not the cause of Hillary. From my perspective, if Sen. Hillary Clinton, faithful Methodist that she is notwithstanding, speaks, which so far as I know has not even been suggested, that will be a huge mistake.

The moderate/progressive Baptist movement will not be well served by footage being shown on FOX News or CNN or MSNBC of thousands of Baptists standing and applauding a speech by President Clinton that is a campaign speech for Sen. Clinton. Having said that, though, let’s be fair: were certain conservative Republican candidates, even those who are not Baptists (which covers them all except for Governor Mike Huckabee), to appear before an SBC meeting, certain sound bites from them would elicit thunderous applause and cheers. But that doesn’t make it right if it happens at the NBC Celebration. I am not much in favor of standing and cheering politicians—or preachers, for that matter, so I anticipate keeping my seat. I would advise others to do the same. Polite applause will suffice.

I would feel a little differently about President Clinton speaking had Governor Mike Huckabee not withdrawn from the event. He originally accepted but then withdrew, citing his concern about some remarks that President Carter had made about President George W. Bush’s policies. Gov. Huckabee, himself a Baptist, made a huge mistake in withdrawing. I believe he hurt himself. He had an opportunity to address a multi-racial and multi-regional gathering of people who belong to his own faith tradition. He had an opportunity to make his case for conservative social and family values, which he does very well, to a diverse audience that will come from all over the country. I think that a presidential candidate should be willing to go anywhere and to address anybody. I furthermore think that many of us are looking for a candidate who will show us that he or she has the courage, the willingness and the humility to try to bring the various constituencies of our nation together to work hand-in-hand to deal with the very serious issues facing our nation. What does it say that he will not take advantage of this opportunity to speak face-to-face to a diverse audience that is, I must say again, made up of people from his own faith tradition?

I also believe that Gov. Huckabee hurt the NBC Celebration by backing out of his initial commitment. One of my hopes for this event from the beginning has been that it will show that it is possible for a group of Christians—Baptists in this case—to come together with a willingness to hear from all perspectives and to do so politely and even gladly. I continue to hope that we will show the world how big-hearted and how mature and how noble and how respectful we can be when it comes to hearing and valuing varying perspectives. Gov. Huckabee by his withdrawal lessened the chances of our showing the world that. Why? Think of the press coverage that would have been given to an event in which Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee both spoke and both were received warmly. Why, they might have been treated as nicely as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was at the 2006 SBC meeting. She’s a good Presbyterian, by the way. Anyway, the secular press and many non-Christian viewers would have been amazed. Huckabee cost us that and I think he did wrong. I really wish that he would reconsider.

I am grateful that Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Charles Grassley have thus far stuck to their commitments to speak. They provide some healthy balance. It is so vital that, insofar as politicians are allowed to speak at all, that the event be as non-partisan as possible.

I recognize how difficult that really is. After all, it is likely that many of the broader ethical concerns—the environment, social and health issues in developing countries, civil rights, and concern for the poor, for example—in which many of those attending the event are interested are articulated by Democrats better than by Republicans. Still, it is also likely that Republicans voice the concerns of many Baptists on many issues more than do Democrats. Here’s my position: we need for our speakers to address the issues of our time from a biblical and Christian perspective. If that makes somebody say the kinds of things that Republicans like to hear, fine. If it causes someone to say the kinds of things that Democrats like to hear, fine. What I would like to hear is a Democrat sound like a Republican on an issue or a Republican sound like a Democrat, if that is where their Christian convictions lead them. Now that would be news!

The Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant is important. How important it turns out to be in the long run will depend on how careful and intentional we are about proclaiming Christ, ministering to a hurting world in light of the implications of the good news for all areas of life, magnifying our unity in Christ, refusing to get bogged down in theological minutiae, and, as I have stressed in this article, refusing to swing too far the other direction in our zeal to show that Baptists are not all radical right-wingers.

I don’t mind being associated with radicals. But I want to be associated with radical followers of Christ, radical proclaimers of the Gospel, radical healers of hurt, radical meters of need, and radical adherents to the historic principles that have long made Baptists Baptists.

3 comments:

Kaylor said...

Wise words; very well put. I have high hopes that the Celebration will be a historic moment to help propel the Baptist witness.

Chuck said...

Mike,

The firestorm around President Carter's theological--even more than his political--opinions makes his prominence in the New Baptist Covenant a real problem.

Carter sounds just like a pluralist in reported conversations with Newsweek magazine and progressive rabbi Michael Lerner. He seems to legitimize Mormonism and Judaism as additional paths to God. Reports can be erroneous, false, or out of context--certainly Rabbi Lerner's could. But Carter's silence in refuting these reports and reporters lends to their credibility.

The exclusivity of Christ to save is at the core of "traditional Baptist values," an "authentic Baptist witness," and the message of a "new prophetic voice"--all of which the NBC purports to offer. Therefore, Carter needs to shed the pluralist perception, or the movement needs to shed itself of him.

I don't object to the New Baptist Covenant being political, but it does need to present a clear message of the gospel--including its exclusivity--if it wants to be called Baptist. Or, is Carter's soteriology that of a new breed of Baptists aptly called "New Baptists?"

The Beast said...

Chuck-

I agree with you that inclusivism is a problem, but my feeling is that the NBC as a whole will be much more a inclusivist camp than exclusive. I say that simply in response to your concern about Carter. Ridding the Covenant of his presence would not, I don't think, rid it of inclusive tendencies. The world of inclusivism is broader than most think, including respected theologicans such as C.S. Lewis and even the beloved evangelist Billy Graham.