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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