New Baptists are Politicians, Too

I confess to being a bit confused by the goals of last week’s widely discussed New Baptist Covenant Celebration. You … Continued

I confess to being a bit confused by the goals of last week’s widely discussed New Baptist Covenant Celebration.

You know the one. It took place in Atlanta. Its most prominent impresario was President Carter. Something like 15,000 delegates from 30 organizations representing 20 million Baptists came to witness. It seems to have been a happy, soul-affirming and diverse affair. The New York Times describes the uplifted participants as “blacks and whites, old and young, Northerners and Southerners, Democrats and Republicans.”

Although I have never personally experienced anything soul-affirming–that’s because I do not possess a soul–none of this confuses me (Though for reasons that will become clear, I think the presence of Republicans may have been overstated). What confuses me is the dogged insistence of the conference organizers that this was not in any way, shape, or form a political gathering.

Jimmy Carter described its objective as fostering a “spirit of unity” among Christians who have “different political and theological orientations.” Another organizer, Bill Underwood, challenged the contention that Bill Clinton’s presence at the event had anything to do with the upcoming election. A participant told the Times that it was nice to be part of a group where one’s political “leanings are not an issue.” In his closing remarks Carter opined: “we have deliberately avoided any identification by politics.”

Journalistic dispatches from the event, however, do not give the impression that the assembled delegates spent their time scrutinizing the finer points of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. On the contrary, all accounts point to the intensive discussion of issues that most in this country would refer to as blatantly political in nature.

Al Gore spoke on the importance of the environment. Ministerial students, according to the Associated Baptist Press,“gathered email addresses of participants” interested in “poverty, racial equality, peacemaking, homelessness and other policy issues.” Other participants stressed oppression and universal health coverage—in short, policy concerns which interest liberals, Democrats and Left Evangelicals.

Although I don’t often agree with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land, his reference to the event as an “overtly political activity” seems warranted. In all truth, I prefer his group’s more or less open acknowledgment that it is “doing” politics, than the endeavor of Carter and others to cloak policy prescriptions in some sort of vague affirmation of Christian unity and reconciliation.

This having been said, the conference–which was by all accounts a success that will fast develop into a movement–raises interesting possibilities and problems for secular Americans. The New Baptist Covenant could conceivably play a quasi-messianic role for a presently moribund liberal secular political culture. If the initiative grew into a coherent electoral juggernaut then it would offer nonbelievers and Church/State separatists a formidable ally by which to check the power of Conservative Christendom.

On the other hand, the rise of a corporate-religious voting block, twenty-million strong could further imperil the Wall of Separation. Getting even more citizens to vote along religious lines does not appear to strengthen the hand of those who want to keep faith-based concerns out of American politics. Too, nothing prevents the New Baptist Covenant and conservative Evangelicals from actually achieving Christian unity on one issue: De-secularizing the public sphere.

(For more information about religion and the candidates check out Faith 2008 by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs).

By Jacques Berlinerblau | 
February 5, 2008; 12:59 AM ET


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  • Tom Weaver

    I feel a bit confused that you think that conservative Christians aren’t concerned with interested in “poverty, racial equality, peacemaking, homelessness and other policy issues.” As familiar with the bible as you are, surely you know that these are things that the founder of the faith directly addressed?I also have to chuckle a bit about your line, “Getting even more citizens to vote along religious lines”. Since church-goers (even in the same congregation) stand on all sides of these political issues, your statement is actually completely meaningless.

  • mark duncan

    always good to question motives, however one might stop and think that an out of the ordinary event on Christianity is not so different from the broadcasts and mega-church services. As this great country has become so polarized since 1994, we all need to back up and take a breath. While we will all never agree on everything, we can agree to disagree, and have a civil discourse. Many think it is time to start solving the many problems facing us today, rather than to continue to foster the division that currently is the accepted route. People in this great country do think, and are capable of finding answers to poverty, the sick, war and all the failed policies we have in place currently. Think,WWJD?

  • norman birnbaum

    My esteemed colleague makes some good points, but leaves me perplexed. Marx, somewhere,

  • norman birnbaum

    My esteemed colleague makes some good points, but leaves me perplexed. Marx, somewhere,

  • Rey Gonz

    The problem with faith-based concerns and American politics is religion itself. As a former Christian myself I know that all they say about and do for other religions is “lip service”, for only Christians worship God in the correct fashion. The way I see it is, “If God wanted religion in politics, he would have made sure Jimmy Carter won a second term as President.”

  • George Mitrovich

    Dear Sir,A faith that does not inform one’s politics is a faith not worth having – as one’s faith should inform every aspect of a person’s life.The issue is not one’s faith but the expression thereof. A faith that is expressed with respect for the beliefs of other, which is expressed with tolerance for the rights of others, is a faith worthy of the regard of others.As a person of liberal politics it is disquieting that so many of my liberal brethren are so intolerant of the religious beliefs of others. It is from that intolerance, from that arrogance – and yes, from that ignorance – that many people of faith feel dismissed for their beliefs, and, understandably, resent it.It is not necessary to compromise one’s faith while respecting the faith, or the absence thereof, of others.Baptists coming together is a good thing (I’m not a Baptist), especially when the message from Atlanta was a Christian’s duty to be accepting of others.Sincerely,George Mitrovich

  • Pete Kusnick

    Carter was the preeminent anti-Semite. He is the voice in the desert which no one hears. He is the tree which falls but no one knows. He was an average man who had like so many others before and I suppose to come after him the fortune to have a fortune but without the benefit of brains to become a president. He couldn’t even give a tax credit for a wood burning stove. He didn’t know trees can grow again. If one were to side with the Palestinians who shouted with glee extolling the virtues of the Tower bombings on 9/11 than one should not have been a president. He was a disgrace to this country. A peanut farmer. Pitiful. Keep your religion and politics separate. If you can’t get to the church often enough maybe a silent prayer will do. There is no need to invoke the will of the few on the many. Carter is now and forever more will be remembered as the president with a good heart but a cowards spine. He was no Andrew Jackson. He let Ahmadinejad hold this country up for ransom and should be exiled for that.

  • Norrie Hoyt

    “…a presently moribund liberal secular political culture.”So those throngs of vibrant citizens at Obama’s rallies are really zombies, dead men (and women) walking, reenacting scenes from “Night of the Living Dead”?Ya think?

  • ISSA

    There is a big difference in how the religious right has forced RELIGION as a POLITICAL toolVSJimmy Carter using it as a Spiritual Tool.His intent was sincere and physically and mentally involved himself in causes that helped people. Nobody advertised his actions. But there is a whole bunch of people who know what Jimmy Carter did as his INTENT is shown by his RESULTS.I am too familiar with Southern Baptist religion. AND there are very deep prejudice still practiced That half seperated the Southern Baptist conference in the early 80’s when the so called conservatives took over the politics of the religion. Stealing and jailing the spiritual soul that the rest wanted to maintain.Then people like Oliver North were invited to preach at the churches and collecting campaign money. The ignorance of church goers were mesmerized by the Celebrities completely unaware of his illegal actions and yet donated and praised Oliver North as such a good man.I like what Jimmy Carter is doing. He is uniting the good side of Southern Baptist religion. Their actions will be felt becaseu they will do positive things. UNLIKE the dark side of the Southern Baptist of Fallwell and Robertson and the rest of the horrible Religious Right. All talk and no action. Ask no question and fill the Basket.ISSA

  • Silence Dogood

    Followed the news reports on the “conference.”Like Jim Wallis’ Sojourners Organization, everything reported appears to focus on the 2nd Greatest Commandment.Carter, Clinton, Gore and others know personally about the First and Greatest Commandment, yet they appear to have been silent in proclaiming it.According to Moses and Jesus, loving God with all of one’s heart, soul, strength and mind is more important than the topics raised at this gathering.

  • Erin

    Is “liberal secular culture” really moribund? I don’t know Dr. Berlinerlau, I just can’t see that the touchy-feely Unitarian and Kabbalah progressive religious rhetoric of love, acceptance and organic produce is as threatening to rational secularism as the angst-ridden, right-wing variety. Most importantly, religious liberal rhetoric embraces pluralism and the inclusion of secularist and/or scientific viewpoints. To be sure, there have been plenty left-wing critiques of strict rationalism, but you’ll never hear the same fidelity to dogma-over-pragmatism as you do among the hierarchy-obsessed conservatives. Jimmy Carter, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama may be god-fearing, but they haven’t shown the same paranoid secretiveness and fear of opposing (often empirically justified) viewpoints as our current administration. As an atheist and a lesbian, I just can’t bring myself to fear the religiosity of the left. It’s not my cup of tea, but nobody is taking away my rights and liberties over it.

  • Terry

    I must agree that for all his perceived failures as president, Carter far exceeded his successor, Ronald Reagan, in every respect. Although Reagan was without clue during his entire presidential reign, he has been mythologized by the neocons into virtual sainthood, when nothing could be further from the truth….Carter’s IQ was probably double that of Reagan’s and triple that of our present GOP failure, George Walker Bush. Carter’s alleged anti-semitism is yet another cooked up crock of BS engendered by the do-nothing right wingers. Even now the GOP has been promising yet another resurrection of the good old Reagan days…..should there be a God, then God forbid!! In fact, McCain is ultimately more Barry Goldwater than Ronald Reagan (and very likely with the same strong libertarian streak). I’m surely not a republican, but McCain is their best shot at the presidency and this was finally recognized – you won’t hear much religius yapping coming out of McCain’s mouth, so of course the born-again evangelicals & their neocon surrogates and Limbaugh-style mouthpieces castigate him for not being ‘right-wing’ enough. But back to Carter, who has done nothing but good since leaving office and serving as an outstanding international diplomat and global/local role model since leaving office, thus generating a well-earned Nobel Peace prize for his efforts.It will be a cold day in hell before we can say the same for any republican, Baptist or otherwise.

  • pepeberenjena

    Religion the popy of the peoples

  • Caesar Gott

    “Faith” demands the suspension of logic. Any person of “Faith” will tell you that. How many millions have been killed, mutilated, enslaved by the faithful, in the name of “Faith”. Please don’t throw the spotlight on Carter. Why detract from his having been the least effective President, ever. His post white house journey as a charlatan is in a long tradition of Elmer Gantrys. The faith industry, preachers, mullahs, gurus, should be taxed, along with heroin & prostitution. They are no more mindless than, say, video games, rap “music”, nose rings,or, MacDonalds. Just level the playing field and TAX them. TAX them , and let them have at it.

  • Tom Weaver

    And again I see someone saying, “Just level the playing field and TAX them. TAX them , and let them have at it.”The playing field is inherently level. Churches are non-profit organizations. Non-profits are not taxed. Therefore, churches are not taxed. If you feel that all non-profits should be taxed on cash received, then that’s another thing – but the tax situation is balanced, as it should be in any society that neither favors nor restricts free religious choice.

  • Arminius

    Terry,Well said about Carter, well said. I live in Georgia, voted for him both times. He is, despite a mostly failed presidency, an incredible example of how we can do good in this world. I know conservative republicans here who feel the same.In answer to the person who complained about the Baptist conference not emphasizing the First Great Commandment enough: Carter LIVES that commandment, serving as a quiet example for us all, instead of howling about it on the street corners and on television. And he is out there, all over the world, doing the work of the Second Great Commandment.And yes, the BS about Carter being anti-Semitic is just that – utter BS. The title of his book was, I admit, a bit harsh though.Arminius

  • William D Miller

    Separation of church and state originally meant not forcing a state authorized Christian religion.Whatever the U.S. is, right or wrong, good or bad are somewhere in between we originated from Christians beliefs. How we go forward as a nation is not served well by being in denial about our Christian heritage.The Republican Party’s playing of the religious card has been devastating to the political process in the U.S. but being in denial about our heritage is also devastating.

  • William D Miller

    Separation of church and state originally meant not forcing a state authorized Christian religion.Whatever the U.S. is, right or wrong, good or bad are somewhere in between we originated from Christians beliefs. How we go forward as a nation is not served well by being in denial about our Christian heritage.The Republican Party’s playing of the religious card has been devastating to the political process in the U.S. but being in denial about our heritage is also devastating.

  • Dave

    “The playing field is inherently level. Churches are non-profit organizations. Non-profits are not taxed. Therefore, churches are not taxed. If you feel that all non-profits should be taxed on cash received, then that’s another thing – but the tax situation is balanced, as it should be in any society that neither favors nor restricts free religious choice.”And the fact that “evalgelists” like Falwell and his organization is, technically, non-profit is a glaring example of the giant loophole in that system. I used to work for Exxon’s research and engineering division, which was also non-profit, and at the end of every fiscal year there was always a scramble to buy all sorts of things of dubious usefulness, just to maintain that final zero on the profit and loss statements. It’s the abusers that are at issue, and need to be reclassified and taxed, not the reasonable non-profit community churches and similar, secular organizations (i.e. Big Brothers, Big Sisters or Habitat for Humanity). Why should a “church” be able to buy it’s “pastor” a huge yacht, so that it can avoid showing a profit and thus avoid paying taxes?

  • DZ

    Tom Weaver:What are you talking about? Only churches are exempt from property taxes – all other non-profits have to pay property taxes. Since most police and fire protection and other local services are financed by property taxes, then churches are receiving public services for free. What that means is that secular Americans have to subsidize superstitious claptrap. The playing field is inherently skewed.

  • Jed Rothwell

    You wrote:”Too, nothing prevents the New Baptist Covenant and conservative Evangelicals from actually achieving Christian unity on one issue: De-secularizing the public sphere.”People like Carter and Gore do not want to do that. I am sure they favor the separation of church and state. I am an atheist, but I am not the least bit worried that such people pose a threat to our secular institutions. They are as benign as the Civil Rights preachers in the 1960s, or Wallis today.For that matter, most right-wing Republican religious people support the separation of church and state. I think a minority oppose “secularism,” albeit a noisy minority that gets a lot of press. I guess they would include supporters of Huckabee and Romney. But Romney only jumped on that bandwagon the other day, and he changes his policies and positions from day to day. Perhaps his supporters are dismayed. Anyway, this kind of extremist posturing seldom lasts long in American politics.As everyone knows, a few years ago, it was fashionable for politicians to demand that we put a copy of the 10 Commandments in courthouses, schools and so on. This fad has subsided I think. The absurdity of it was revealed when a loading politician who supported the movement was asked: “What are the 10 Commandments? Can you list them?” and it turned out he didn’t know what they were. These people do not think deeply about their positions. Anyone who looks at the Commandments will see that #1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 10 have never been part of U.S. law or traditions. #10 is our national pastime, right up there with baseball.

  • Tom Weaver

    Property tax and churches has shifted back and forth over the years, between a property tax forcing churches to support a government, and the lack of a tax being essentially a subsidy of a church. Both views are correct in some sense, and reveal a tension between constitutional directives.Even with this difference, the playing field is still pretty balanced, and it’s not unlikely that in the near future, churches will start paying property taxes, as it seems that a number of legal authorities are leaning towards the latter viewpoint.

  • Robert B.

    To Jed Rothwell re: commandments.I would also say that #6 is also something of a national pastime, especially with the rise of Internet porn… :)Of course, when was the last time someone in this country was criminally prosecuted for adultery?

  • Tom Weaver

    One other thing;Yes, that is true, for those states and municipalities whose primary source of income is the property tax. Of course many use income tax as a source of revenue, too – and in those states and municipalities, every non-profit is getting a “free ride”, whether you agree with the interest they support or not.If it’s that big a deal to you, then push for getting all non-profits under the “tax” gun. I would recommend against it, though – because then churches, with their advantage of being mentioned directly in the first Amendment, might actually end up being the only untaxed “non-profit”. Bad solution.

  • Robert B.

    To Hewitt:You wrote: “William D Miller is flat dead wrong in his history and his legal understanding on the origin of the concept of separation of church and state (start with John Locke and work forward)…”Though I agree that the separation of church and state as we understand it begins with Locke, that separation begins with a much older concept: that religion and politics are distinct entities. Western civilization doesn’t get that from the Greeks or the Romans (both of whom had civic religions and priesthoods), but from the words of Christ: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)It’s a shame that the theocrats among us always seem to skip this very basic truth about Christianity…

  • Lewis

    As a confirmed and unrepentant atheist, I have always been concerned with “poverty, racial equality, peacemaking, homelessness and other policy issues.” I see no inherent contradiction in persons of a religious faith; whether they be Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, or Al Gore; also being interested in these issues. These issues have, in my opinion, relevance to all humans.As in the old joke about the fellow’s responses to the ink-blot projective test, you seem to be telling us that ‘it’s not me’, it’s the ‘New Baptists’ that have been “blatantly political in nature”. Sad, so very sad!

  • John

    This was a decent article, but too speculative. If you are going to report on something, report on something you know a little more about.I was at the conference, and I can tell you that those topics (poverty, environment, health care) were issues because they are important issues in the Bible that Evangelical Christians have glossed over for too long. As far as the perceived danger to the separation of church and state, moderate Baptists are FOR the separation of church and state. There were several seminars offered that indicated that, as well as the presence of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. BTW, video from all of the speakers from the General Sessions are available on the New Baptist Covenant Website if anybody is interested. Maybe you could watch that and then report on it.

  • Enemy Of The State

    I long for the days when politicians (and others) saw their religion as a private affair, to be practiced in the sanctuary of the church or synagogue. If there was any public display of their faith, it usually took the form of charity or other good works.Now all I see are braying asses, each louder than the next, proclaiming their special relationship to god and, of course, preaching to the rest of us how we should live.

  • BGone

    Tom Weaver:>>I feel a bit confused that you think that conservative Christians aren’t concerned with interested in “poverty, racial equality, peacemaking, homelessness and other policy issues.” As familiar with the bible as you are, surely you know that these are things that the founder of the faith directly addressed?~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Tom Weaver, did the founder of the faith address this, How many of the tax dollars Bush has handed to those evangelicals in violation of his oath of office to uphold the constitution on the grounds they are apolitical charitable organizations actually got spent on poverty, racial equality, peacemaking, homelessness and how much on other policy issues?” 4+ billion of Katrina relief money to religions for what, rebuilding churches? Unconstitutional!!!!What percentage of the Sunday collection actually goes to charity? Do you know? Why not?Unaccounted, tax free, tax deductible money collected at tax exempt facilities from people who don’t know the difference between God and Devil pretty much sums up religion.When is the pope going to return the gold robbed from Latin America? How about the church of England? Other churches? Stolen tax dollars -payback for political support? Is it moral to receive and keep known to be stolen property? Lies that cause people to believe are moral of course.The Devil Lucifer is the God of all three great faiths. Sacred scripture says so. By their actions you will know them -a pack of money grubbing con men, thieves. The Devil makes them do that.

  • Jed Rothwell

    Also, with regard to George Mitrovich’s comments, it is not possible to honestly respect ALL religious beliefs, because many of them are mutually incompatible. Also, many religions demand that you denigrate the other religions. See Commandment #2. You can’t honor that and at the same time “respect” any other religion.Some Christians pay lip service to “respecting” the Muslim religion, but they cannot possibly respect the whole religion to the extent that most mainstream Muslims themselves demand, because they would have to convert to do that.In other words, you cannot be tolerant of intolerant people — even if you want to. You can’t bend over backwards far enough for them. They demand you join them. Anything short of that they consider disrespect. Some people end up tying themselves in knots trying to resolve this contradiction. They end up praising any form of religion, no matter how destructive it is, not unlike the British people during WWI who condemned conscientious objectors so much they even opposed German conscientious objectors! That’s called losing track of your goal.Of course many religions and religious people are quite tolerant. Many Muslims are too. Plus they often do good works, which is commendable and deserves respect. Their ideas strike me as a little odd, but harmless. After all, everyone has mistaken beliefs and weird notions.

  • Jeff P

    You know the sainthood of Ronald Reagan has always baffled me, as well.His administration expanded the national debt astronomically (remember our beloved vice president Dick Cheney explaining that “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.”)Supply-side economics didn’t pan out, nobody particularly “trickled down” on the middle-class, and all of his tax policy decreased government revenues by about 1%.He and his wife consulted the astrologer for major meeting times, a little weird I’d say for a “Christian” example.He continued the partisan placement of justices into the Supreme Court, (think of Rehnquist and Scalia, and the effort for Bork.)He escalated the cold war, describing the USSR as the “evil empire” which has seemingly continued to be a Republican tendency to reduce all things to “right vs wrong,” or “evil” vs friend –ala George Bush and his “axis of evil..” The world isn’t simply black and white.What more can be said about the Iran-Contra scandal, noted by some historians to have been the ninth worst mistake by a US president.War on drugs? How many billions spent, and is the war still on or what? Again, Republicans seem pretty hip on “War On….” themes. The last I recall was the “War on Christmas.”Remember “Star Wars?” The outer-space weapons system that advisers suggested couldn’t be adequately tested and probably wouldn’t work? Never mind that, it was only abandoned after he left office–I wonder at what cost?I remember seeing an interview where Jimmy Carter explained how presidents pass on national VIP information to one another as they change office. Carter said that Reagan was simply dis-interested. He simply couldn’t understand how he couldn’t be interested.Sorry for the long political diatribe. But is it telling that seemingly every major Republican get-together is at the Reagan library? What am I missing? (I’m probably in trouble for asking.)

  • Jonathan

    If you put a ban on self-righteousness the conservative and evangelical ranks would be decimated.

  • Jeff P

    More Huckabee verbage, this time from Kenneth Copeland’s estate:”He [Huckabee] said, ‘Kenneth Copeland, I will stand with you.’ He said, ‘You’re trying to get prosperity to the people, and they’re trying to take it away from ’em.’ [Huckabee] said, ‘I will stand with you, any time, anywhere, on any issue.’ That settled that. I said, ‘Yeah, that’s my man. That’s my man, right there.’ ” Copeland also quoted Gov. Huckabee as saying: “Why should I stand with them [Senate] and not stand with you? They only got 11 percent approval rating.”Now THERE’s a man I think would represent America!!

  • Terry

    Jed Rothwell -Good series of posts! You’re right as rain regarding Reagan and the chronic right-wing efforts to mythologize Reagan as someone extraordinary, when in fact he was among the very worst of modern presidents as you clearly document….and only exceeded in his level of disinterest and incompetence by GWB himself. Neocon ideologs and their evangelical supporters on the right seem to be dead wrong on every issue, but somehow have vast support from the mainstream media – a rather disquieting development. Even today the media continues to be so enamored with McCain that one wonders if the eventual democratic nominee will ever get a fair shake in the press. How this backwoods lot of country bumpkins ever came to be running the show can only be explained by vast and covert corporate support, coupled with the enduring lack of public interest in and awareness of substantive issues. Instead, the distraction of religion continues to sell bigtime while corporate interests fill their pockets and bankrupt the nation. One more catholic on the Supreme Court and we’re toast. McCain is re-packaging himself as yet another reincarnation of Ronald Reagan – to imagine another low brow incompetent republican in the White House is really distressing, but is all too possible with an ever-fearful and mis-informed voting public. You can almost see Karl Rove somewhere in the bowels of Washington in a room filled with pie charts – plotting yet another democratic defeat.