Two Baptists Make Global Headlines, Suggest Different Paths

Both are Baptists of the South. Both are members of the builder generation. Both breathed the same cultural air of race and religion. Both could not be more different.

One was recognized for practicing the gospel of love. The other was seen as preaching the gospel of hate.


One was praised around the world for his untiring work for conflict resolution, justice for the poor and fair elections. The other was criticized for besmirching Christianity and demonizing Islam.


One won the Noble Peace Prize. The other was blamed for inciting a riot in India in which five people were killed.


One fought for integration in the racist South when it was risky business. The other sought segregation and slowly changed his position when the risk was gone.


One ran for president, talking about a moral component in politics. The other chunked stones at the presidential contender, criticizing the candidate's faith and then creating the Moral Majority.


One was president of the United States. The other wanted to run the country from behind his pulpit. 


One advanced human rights as a central aspect of U.S. foreign policy. The other opposed human rights, advocating a vigorous anti-communism even when U.S. allies acted as badly as communist nations.


One lost the White House. The other was eagerly invited into the White House.


One left the Southern Baptist Convention because of fundamentalism. The other joined the SBC because of fundamentalism.


One teaches Sunday School with an open Bible, open hands to guests from around the world and open discussion. The other preaches on Sunday and brooks no discussion about his dogmatism.


Both are Baptists of the South. Both are members of the builder generation. Both breathed the same cultural air of race and religion. Both could not be more different.


Indeed, what made Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell so different?


Was it family? Both had strong mothers. Both had siblings. Both attribute their success to their wives.


Was it education? One went to Annapolis, the other to Lynchburg College before transferring to Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo.


Was it faith? Both share their born-again experience, have a high view of the Bible, support mission efforts and associate with other Christians.


Was it vocation? Both ended up in business and politics, although from different entry points.


What makes these men such polar opposites?


Could it be that Carter had life encounters which put him in touch with more racial, religious and economic diversity, experiences which opened his worldview and encouraged the acceptance of others? Could it be that Falwell's ministerial trajectory carried him into an environment where change was feared, differences were opposed and tradition was paramount?  


Could it be that politicians in a democratic society must be more tolerant than clergy are capable of being in a theocratic culture?


Decoding their differences will help determine much of the future of Baptists. Will we be a people who proactively engage the postmodern world, or will we retreat forever into a 19th century cultural castle?


Two men. Two paths.


Robert Parham is BCE's executive director.

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