Baptists are much more than Southern Baptists, who are more southern than Baptist, more exclusive than inclusive, more theocratic than democratic and more negative than positive.
Former president Bill Clinton speaks at Baptist gathering in Atlanta. (Deborah Hakes/The Carter Center)
The perception of Baptists as the anti-everything people is one reason that good-will Baptist leaders met this week in Atlanta. They wanted the world to know about a different kind of Baptist, who is neither a conservative Baptist nor a liberal Baptist. They wanted folk to know about the Golden Rule Baptists.
The Golden Rule Baptists are planning a celebratory gathering in January 2008 to reclaim the best of the Baptist tradition from fundamentalists--like Jerry Falwell and Fred Phelps--and to reshape public perception about Baptists with a show of unity through a common commitment to the agenda that Jesus spelled out in his first sermon found in Luke 4:18-19.
In that text, Jesus gave his mission statement. He said his focus was on lifting up the impoverished, freeing captives, restoring to health the ill, liberating the oppressed and announcing the year of economic restoration.
While culture-affirming Baptist clergy water down Jesus' agenda by spiritualizing it, these Baptists didn't back away from his prophetic witness to social transformation.
One would have expected that getting leaders, who represent of over 20 million Baptists in North America, to agree with the politics of Jesus would have been like herding cats, an impossibility. That wasn't the case.
Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, two of the best-known Baptists, got us heading in a common direction with a concrete program agenda that prioritizes racism, climate change, poverty, AIDS, the separation of church and state, peace with justice and sexual exploitation.
Keeping all of us moving for a whole year in the same direction will require the same kind of effort.
One of the first challenges is the appearance of partisanship. The effort is led by two former Democratic presidents and has confirmed on the program a media personality who worked for a third Democratic president.
Add to the program leadership the prioritized issues--issues upon which the Republican Party is often on the wrong moral side of the prophetic witness.
The tension between the partisan and the prophetic makes a few of the denominational participants anxious. They want to avoid the appearance of partisanship. They want the 2008 meeting to be nonpartisan.
Yet adding a Republican speaker will not transform the event from one perceived as partisan to one embraced as nonpartisan.
What is needed is some clarity about nonpartisanship and partisanship.
Nonpartisanship is not always morally pure. Nonpartisanship may be a way to avoid conflict and to evade the Bible's call to do justice.
Partisanship isn't always an enemy of the prophetic witness. It can be an ally in the moral pursuit of social justice.
Yet any effort to offer a moral witness to power assures being accused of partisan politics.
Take the Baptist Center for Ethics' early and persistent editorials opposed to the war in Iraq based on the rules of a just war. Every editorial generated accusations of partisanship, that BCE was anti-Republican. As public opinion shifted against the war, negative e-mails dropped sharply. Was BCE partisan then but moral now? Has BCE become partisan now that so many Democratic leaders have changed their positions in opposition to the war?
Or take the Terri Schiavo case, in which the Christian Right and the Republican Party wed to keep a woman with irreversible brain damage tethered to a feeding tube. President Bush cut short his vacation in Texas and rushed back to sign the measure passed in an emergency session of Congress. Was it prophetic to critique the misuse of power? Or was that partisan?
Or take the Republican Party's domestic policy that favors the rich but opposes a living wage for the poor and affordable, accessible health care to all. Is it partisan to critique the prioritization of the rich over the poor? Or does the prophetic witness demand that the church cry out in concrete terms at the risk of alienating Republican parishioners?
America's greatest moral theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote, "The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world."
Niebuhr might say that seeking justice in a sinful world sometimes sadly requires partisanship.
But there is a qualitative difference between the partisanship about which I write and that which I have witnessed among fundamentalist Baptists.
From my vantage point, I don't hear Golden Rule Baptists speak of the Democratic Party as the Divine Party. I have heard fundamentalist Baptists speaks for 25 years as if the GOP stands for God's Only Party.
Golden Rule Baptists recognize that neither party is thoroughly moral nor completely immoral; that God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat.
Golden Rule Baptists favor democracy as a way to advance a moral agenda, not the theocracy embedded in fundamentalism.
Golden Rule Baptists know the need to speak with humility about applied Christianity, instead of dogmatic absolutism about the will of God in the fine print of legislation.
If I'm right about Golden Rule Baptists, who see the limits of and value to faith in politics, then we let the bullets of partisanship fly by and charge forward with the clear conscience in a commitment to the prophetic witness.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.