Published: February 19, 2008
NEW YORK (ABP) -- Although organizers hailed a recent pan-Baptist gathering as a success, a handful of critics have leveled a wide array of charges against the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant.
The critics of the event, held in Atlanta in late January and early February, include conservatives who continue to accuse it of having a thinly veiled liberal political agenda. But they also include moderates and liberals who say the gathering was not inclusive enough of ethnic and sexual minorities.
The Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant drew an estimated 15,000 Baptists to discuss working together despite denominational, ethnic, political and economic differences. Its headline organizers were the two living Baptists who have held the presidency: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Many observers praised the event as a momentous occasion that generated new unity, energy and focus for Baptists across North America. It earned rave reviews from secular and religious media outlets alike as a crucial first step in the walk toward racial reconciliation in the Baptist faith.
Covenant leaders like Leo Thorne, associate general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA, even said the diversity of political opinion actually adds quality to the discussion.
“It doesn’t make any difference what decision you make or action you take, there are always
people who use their freedoms to express disagreement,” Thorne said. “That’s rich. That’s energizing. That’s wonderful that we can have a diversity of opinions of issues.... If there are those who disagree, that is okay with me.”
But Carter and Clinton’s involvement in the event and the lack of official participation by the Southern Baptist Convention on a denominational level led many conservatives to criticize the celebration soon after it was announced in 2007. Although organizers made an effort to include prominent Baptist Republicans in the program, some conservatives have continued to criticize it.
Paul Proctor, in a Feb. 11 column for the Nashville Tennessean, said the celebration achieved only an “image of unity,” which validated conservatives’ critique that liberals tend to promote “symbolism over substance.”
“As far as I'm concerned, outgoing SBC president Frank Page, who incidentally declined the invitation to attend, was right on calling the meeting a ‘smoke-screen left-wing liberal agenda,’” Proctor wrote. “Carter can preach Christian unity all he wants, but he was the one who spurned the Southern Baptist Convention back in 2000. If anyone is guilty of promoting division among Baptists, it is the presidential peanut farmer from Georgia.”
More progressive Baptists also criticized the event for insufficiently displaying unity amid diversity.
Laura Cadena, a graduate of George W. Truett Theological Seminary and a member of Peachtree Baptist Church in Atlanta, said the meeting’s rhetoric of Baptist unity appealed to her, and she attended to observe it as well as see friends from her Texas seminary days. But, she added in a Feb. 7 opinion column for EthicsDaily.com, the meeting proved to be a letdown when it came to representing all Baptist groups.
“I think that we could have done better, but it’s a beginning,” Cadena, 33, said. “I think that if the planning committee could have been more diverse -- and by that I mean including more women, more young people, more Asian Baptists, maybe more Ghanaian Baptists -- that would have been good.”
On the other hand, in a Feb. 8 Wall Street Journal column, Naomi Schaefer Riley described the event as a “liberal answer to the Southern Baptist Convention.” She said it showed how difficult it is for progressive evangelicals “to unite, let alone get under the same tent with secular liberals and become a political force….
“The New Baptist Covenant is supposed to be more ‘inclusive’ than the SBC. It's OK to rail against abortion, as long as you mention the problem of uninsured children in the same breath,” she said. “The group also wanted to distinguish itself from the SBC on the issue of homosexuality. But to get all of these church groups to sign on, the language of the agreement had to be chosen very carefully.”
Todd Thomason, pastor of Baptist Temple Church in Alexandria, Va., wrote in a column to be published by Associated Baptist Press that he’s not convinced there is much new about the covenant celebrated at the meeting, especially when it comes to the issue of homosexuality.
Organizers decided not to allow the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists or the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America -- two pro-gay groups -- to participate in the event in an official manner. That decision, Thomason said, smacks of the “top-down exclusionary action” used by Southern Baptist leaders during the narrowing of the group’s policies in the last 20 years.
Champions of the New Baptist Covenant “cried foul when the leaders of the so-called ‘conservative resurgence’ seized the reins of power within the SBC and then circled the wagons, forcing out all who wouldn’t accept their narrow ideology or who dared to ask questions,” he wrote. “For these same Baptists to turn around now and disenfranchise other Baptists in much the same way (if not on the same scale) is the height of biblical hypocrisy.”
Covenant leaders “didn't think they could hold together the large coalition of Baptists needed to create a new Baptist voice in North America while addressing the issue of sexual orientation at the same time,” wrote Ken Pennings, director of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Event organizers have said homosexuality is to be “tolerated,” though not necessarily “affirmed.” While the pro-gay groups were not involved on an official level, many of their members attended, and they used exhibit-booth space provided by the Alliance of Baptists -- another pro-gay group -- to display materials at the meeting.
Cadena -- a fifth-generation Texan of Hispanic background – also wondered why participants from her ethnic group were not better represented at the meeting. She asked whether there is “room in the family photo for Latino Baptists?”
“Where do we fit? Here in the South, Latinos are relatively new … there are not enough people that speak Spanish, there are not enough doctors that speak Spanish, there are not enough teachers that speak Spanish,” she said. “So what does a Hispanic church look like? I don’t know.”
Cadena said the meeting should have included specified time for networking between people from the same region or affinity group. That way, Latinos could have seen more clearly whether they should wait to be included in leadership of the larger Baptist family or create their own group.
Schaefer Riley, for her part, pointed out that one thing attendees did have in common was their age, which skewed to the older end of the spectrum. And that doesn’t bode well for the movement, she said.
“The reason for the overrepresentation of seniors may be that young people have increasingly been moving to non-denominational churches or because they are often more conservative than their parents on issues like abortion,” she wrote. “Either way, it doesn't bode well for the Covenant. Or for the left.”
Thorne said Covenant leaders will continue to address such concerns, especially through the efforts of the North American Baptist Fellowship, which played a large role in organizing the meeting. The body is the umbrella group for all North American Baptist bodies that belong to the Baptist World Alliance.
Leaders at NABF “are serous about continuing to strengthen relationships and efforts in networking for missions,” Thorne said. “They are committed to that. So this event … is not going to be a program that is a be-all and end-all.”