Baptists are one of the largest, and oldest Christian denominations in the country. The 36-million member church dates back to the 1600's. Baptist tradition holds that authority in matters of religion and faith rests first with the individual baptized believer and that all churches should make decisions independently. And historically, Baptists supported a strong separation between the church and government.
In recent years, however, that 'wall' seemed to shrink, as leaders of the largest Baptist faction known as the Southern Baptists began promoting political issues. They lobbied for conservative social policies, such as prayer in schools, and an end to legal abortion. They also became a powerful force in the Republican Party. But now, another group of Baptists has launched a campaign to create a new, more moderate voice for their Church. The so-called New Baptist Covenant is a charter designed to help Baptists confront modern issues like global warming and the AIDS pandemic from a Christian perspective.
At a January news conference to announce the initiative, former president Bill Clinton, perhaps the nation's best-known Baptist, explained the reason for the gathering. "This is an attempt to bring people together and say, 'what would our Christian witness require of us in the 21st century?'"
Mr. Clinton, former President Jimmy Carter and the dozens of pastors behind the meeting say the Covenant is meant to unite Baptists, but that's a formidable task. It's no secret that there has been a history of tension between moderate Baptists and the Southern Baptists. According to Chris White, an American Religious History professor at Georgia State University, these clergymen often felt marginalized by the conservative group.
"All of a sudden you have moderate Baptists saying,' is this really my group?'" he explains, pointing out that many don't share certain beliefs espoused by Southern Baptists, such as that women should be ruled by their husbands. "And some of them also said, you know, 'wait a minute, the Baptist tradition emphasizes the power of the individual conscience; why is this overarching body, the Southern Baptist Convention, telling me what to believe?'"
For some Baptists, the Covenant offers a chance to partner with other churches, something that isn't always easily done. At the Wednesday night prayer meeting at Atlanta's Peachtree Baptist Church, most members seem enthusiastic about the new set of Baptist goals. Grady Strom says the Covenant will allow the Church to reach out to the world more, making them a more positive group. "I think what maybe we see in the press about Baptists is they seem to always be against things," he notes. "And what struck me about this was that this was an attempt to get together a lot of different Baptists from different backgrounds, different perspectives, but all Baptists who had a common goal and were going to try to work together to achieve that goal."
Fellow church member Bobbi Litchfield agrees. "I think that the Southern Baptist Convention is very harsh and a lot of people are looking forward to an alternative." While she isn't sure that ending racism and addressing global warming are issues for the Church, she does like the idea that so many churches will be working together.
But not everyone at the prayer meeting is as supportive of the new charter. C.L. Adams says although he often disagrees with the Southern Baptists, he is suspicious of the fact that two powerful Democratic politicians (former Presidents Carter and Clinton) are involved in the movement. "I am not a Jimmy Carter friend," he says. "Now as far as him being a Christian, I'm sure he is. But I do not like some of his ideas; knowing how he feels about the Baptist faith, I'm sure it had some political bearings in that."
Will Hall, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, agrees. He says those behind the New Baptist Covenant have compromised the spiritual aspect of the Baptist church, making activism more important than religious belief. As he puts it, "I think that there was a false dichotomy presented [at the news conference] about whether you minister to the body or minister to the soul, and I think that Southern Baptists say, you know, we do both."
But Covenant supporters insist that the problems they're working on can't wait until Baptists agree on all the issues. Right now, they're meeting with church leaders and congregations around the country to explain their agenda, and this time next year, they hope to have 20,000 supporters in Atlanta to turn their manifesto into a movement… with or without the Southern Baptists.