Al Gore became the third Baptist to win the Nobel Peace Prize, joining Jimmy Carter in 2002 and Martin Luther King in 1964.
How is it that three sons of the Bible belt have each won the world’s most prestigious award for their advancement of human rights, peacemaking and now earth care?
The Bible is surely part of the answer, the role Scripture has played in shaping their moral vision and values.
In a June 2006 interview before the Nashville premier of the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” Gore told me that his Christian faith shaped his moral convictions about the environment.
“I was taught in Sunday school about the purpose of life,” he said. “I didn’t ever get a single lesson about the purpose of life at Harvard University or prep school I went to. But I learned about the purpose of life in Sunday school. And I was taught that the purpose of life is to glorify God.
“How can you glorify God while heaping contempt and destruction on God’s creation? The answer is that you cannot, you cannot.
“If you believe in the teaching ‘Whatever you do to the least of these you do unto me,’ the least of these include those who are powerless to defend themselves against harmful actions at our hands motivated by careless greed,” he said.
Within the Baptist tradition, Sunday school takes place before the main morning worship service. From preschoolers to senior adults, members gather every Sunday in small groups to read a pre-selected passage of Scripture, interpreting it freely one to another and exploring what it means for their lives. Dissent of interpretation is common, but reverence for the Bible’s authority is unchallenged.
No one is better known worldwide as a Sunday school teacher than Jimmy Carter. His home church, Maranatha Baptist Church, in Plains, Ga., even posts Carter’s Bible study schedule and gives instructions about when visitors should arrive.
King, the son of a Baptist preacher, no doubt attended Sunday school every week. And as a preacher, himself, the Bible was central to his message.
Baptists hold the Bible with such high regard that they often say, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.”
Yet the simplicity of that statement covers the complexity of disagreement among Baptists over the Bible and how the Bible shapes their moral agenda.
Drum majors for justice too often share a common biblical score with those in the church band, even though band members refuse to play it. And few moral leaders have faced the rejection of their own moral communities more than King, Carter and Gore.
King’s Nobel Peace Prize came a year after his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” addressed to eight, white Birmingham clergymen who said his actions for civil rights were “unwise and untimely.” One of the signing clergymen was the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Birmingham, a congregation that later split over integration.
The history of that church is a metaphor for the Baptist split over the Bible with some reading a progressive moral vision and others hearing a conservative, reactionary message in a changing culture. First Baptist became a bastion of fundamentalism and fled to the suburbs. The Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham became a progressive downtown congregation.
While a few Southern Baptist fundamentalists will now quote King respectfully, when it counted their spiritual ancestors damned him as a troublemaker, a race mixer, a liberal. Most white Baptist leaders refused to honor him for his prestigious award and offered little lament at his assassination.
Ironically, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service, Baptist Press, did not even carry a news article about Carter winning the Nobel Prize. That failure was accompanied by a thundering silence across the editorial pages of Baptist state newspapers. Since then, SBC leaders and their news service never pass up an opportunity to criticize Carter.
Gore, too, has experienced his share of rejection from his fellow white Baptists. One SBC agency head called Gore’s global warming documentary a “crocumentary.”
In a none too veiled resolution, the SBC slapped Gore and his campaign against climate change. The resolution urged caution about accepting the idea of “human-induced global warming debate in light of conflicting scientific research” and opposed government-mandated reductions in greenhouse gasses.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee, on the other hand, gave the award to Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a prestigious body of worldwide scientists who “has created an ever-broader informed consensus about the connection between human activities and global warming.”
News stories in prominent newspapers today about the Nobel Peace Prize have omitted references to the moral foundation for Gore’s commitment, focusing instead on his 2000 presidential loss to George Bush, speculation about another presidential race in 2008 and the science related to global warming.
That picture is an incomplete one about the man, the text that shaped his moral trajectory and the context of rejection to a progressive moral vision within his own faith community.
As the Good Book says, “No prophet is accepted in his own country.” Indeed, three Baptists of the south have received greater honor in their time from others than their own.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville.