Headlined by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, the New Baptist Covenant meeting in January attracted about 15,000 Baptists to Atlanta. Although speeches throughout the event called for nonpartisan cooperation on social issues like poverty and racism, critics saw the covenant's launch as politically motivated.
An informal alliance of Baptist organizations brought together by Carter, the covenant includes 30 partner churches and organizations, four of which are historically African American. All told, it represents up to 20 million Baptists. By comparison, the more conservative Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which was invited to the conference but did not officially attend, has 16 million members.
The New Baptist Covenant does not yet have an agreed-upon agenda, said Bill Underwood, president of Baptist-affiliated Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, and co-chair of the convention's steering committee. But the convention is already proving useful to its members, he said.
"People have established relationships that didn't previously exist and identified opportunities to work together on endeavors that wouldn't have come about but for getting to know one another," Underwood said.
However, SBC president Frank Page said that the covenant seemed intended to unify only one wing of Baptists.
"I have concerns when it seems this is organized and promoted by only those who are from a more moderate theological perspective," Page said. "One has to wonder if there is a true openness to a dialogue and an inclusion of conservatives."
The timing of the eventscheduled for an election year, right before Super Tuesdayraised eyebrows among observers, as did the speakers. Former Vice President Al Gore joined Carter and Clinton, while Mike Huckabee withdrew from the event last May, citing the left-leaning speakers and his disapproval of Carter's public criticism of President Bush.
"It suggests there was some political motivation," said John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Clinton's presence in particular signaled a political agenda, Green said, because Clinton is generally not seen as seriously religious and because he has been actively campaigning for his wife's presidential bid.
The convention's social-justice emphasis and avoidance of issues like abortion, homosexuality, and women's ordination were also markedly different from the traditional concerns of conservative Baptists, Green said.
"It may operate as something of a counterweight to the SBC, no matter the intentions of the organizers," Green said, noting that the 20-million-strong New Covenant is already capturing news attention.
But Underwood said the coalition doesn't want to counteract other Baptists. "If this group begins politicking," he said, "it will very quickly fall apart."
While the covenant may address issues that political leaders also address, like climate change, world hunger, and HIV/AIDS, Underwood said he anticipates that their perspective and approach would be different.
Leaders of the New Baptist Covenant met in March at the Carter Center to discuss future actions.
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Our other coverage of U.S. Baptists includes:
TULIP Blooming | Southern Baptist seminaries re-introduce Calvinism to a wary denomination. (January 17, 2008)
Immersed in a Baptism Brouhaha | Changes of heart renew centuries-old divisions. (September 28, 2007)
Reasonable Cause | Southern Baptists debate the role of their Message in hiring, firing. (July 23, 2007)
Brewing Battle | Missouri Baptists frown on beer as evangelistic hook. (June 29, 2007)
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