Beliefnet News

By Adelle M. Banks
2008 Religion News Service

ATLANTA — Former President Bill Clinton closed out an historic meeting of Baptists Friday (Feb. 1) with a call to redouble efforts to help the poor and a renewed push to heal ideological splits with more conservative Baptists.
“We have to meet this schism with respectful disagreement,” said Clinton, who was raised Southern Baptist but differs with the denomination’s conservative bent. “We must approach those who disagree with an outstretched hand, not a clenched fist.”
The gathering, called a Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant, was spearheaded by former President Jimmy Carter, who left the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000 but has worked to bring together Baptists across racial and ideological lines.
Although Southern Baptists were invited and some attended, the denomination was not an official participant and top Southern Baptist leaders stayed away.
Southern Baptist president Frank Page had expressed concern that Carter’s meeting would be a platform for liberal politicians, including Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore. Republicans were invited but some, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, S.C., and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, withdrew.
Clinton, fresh off the campaign trail for his wife’s presidential bid, said the nearly 30-year breach with more conservative Southern Baptists would not be easily healed.
“I do not think the answer to this dilemma which developed over decades … can be resolved in a day or a week or a year,” said Clinton, who attends a small Methodist church in New York with his wife, Sen.
Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“I think it is a journey. If we want them to take the journey with us, we have to do two things: We have to find things we can do together and we have to treat them with respect and honor and believe that they think they’re right just as strongly as we do.”
The meeting drew about 15,000 Baptists for exuberant worship and sermons that brought them to their feet. The three-day meeting tried to help Baptists find common ground, as well as heal racial and ideological divisions reaching back a hundred years or more.
Carter said people have stopped him in the halls, urging him to keep up the momentum toward forging a new Baptist mission. He said organizers have collected 3,500 e-mail addresses and hundreds of letters with suggestions.
Together, the 20 million Baptists represented at the Atlanta meeting actually outnumber the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention.
“I think that where we go from here will be very important,” said Carter, recalling that people told him, “We don’t want this to be a wasted moment; we want this to be the initiation of a movement.”
Carter plans to reconvene key leaders after Easter to determine the next steps, which could include attempts to tackle the environment or immigration at both the local and national levels.
Jimmy Allen, a former Southern Baptist president who helped coordinate the meeting with Carter, said he initially wasn’t sure if this would be “a moment or a movement” but choked up when he told the Friday evening crowd that people seemed to want something long-lasting.
“We found out we’re moving on,” he said.
When Carter addressed the meeting on the first night, he made a point of asking rhetorical questions about Baptists’ views on homosexuality, the status of women, abortion, capital punishment and other hot-button issues.
“If I had had a show of hands, we would have had very widely varying answers to my questions,” Carter told reporters.
But the focus instead was on issues like salvation and unity.
“All of us, so far as I know, have been completely in unity here,” he said. “We’ve never had a meeting like this before.”
The Rev. William J. Shaw, president of the primarily black National Baptist Convention, USA, said he saw the hand of God at work in the meeting.
“I’d like to believe that this is a result of the move of the spirit of God,” said Shaw, a co-chair of the event. “If all of us congregations come together like this, it’s got to be the Spirit.”
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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