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 event—scheduled for an election year, right before Super Tuesday—raised eyebrows among observers, as did the speakers. Former Vice President Al Gore joined Carter and ...

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