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New Baptist Covenant Celebration Must Avoid Appearance of Partisanship

I am a supporter of the Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant. I hope the meeting will enhance Baptist relationships and Baptist witness. Still, I see a potential problem with the political image it may present.

Many Baptists have been troubled by the perception that GOP stands not only for the “Grand Old Party” but also for “God’s Only Party.” During the years that many evangelicals and the GOP have been bedfellows, I have said that situation was wrong. I also have said it would be just as wrong for Baptist churches and leaders to ally themselves with the Democrats.

Therefore, I must say that the NBC now runs the risk of appearing to be too Democratic in its orientation.

Former President Jimmy Carter is one of the organizers and spokespersons for the NBC, which is good. Many Baptists don’t like him for various reasons, but Carter undeniably has a Christian heart and Baptist ecclesiological values.

While most ex-presidents tend to sit on boards, play golf and make small speeches for big money, Carter has tried to broker peace where there is war, ensure free and fair elections around the world, build houses with Habitat for Humanity and address significant health issues in the under-developed world.

He has spoken eloquently about the Baptist principles that are dear to the hearts of all Baptists who have a good perspective on our history and heritage.

It makes sense for President Carter to play a leading role in the NBC. The fact that he is a Democratic politician is incidental. Besides, having him involved gives the whole thing publicity, prestige and press that it might not otherwise gain.

I cannot, however, say the same for former President Bill Clinton.

Now, Clinton is a Baptist, and therefore has every right to be involved in this event. But I think that it is a mistake to have President Clinton as a plenary speaker while his wife is running for president.

The Celebration will occur just days before the primary season begins in earnest. I hope that President Clinton’s address does not provide fodder for those who are claiming that the celebration is designed to help Democratic candidates. The cause of Christ is what matters here, not the cause of Hillary.

The moderate/progressive Baptist movement will not be well served by footage being shown on FOX News or CNN of thousands of Baptists standing and applauding what is essentially a campaign speech for Sen. Clinton.

I might feel differently had Gov. Mike Huckabee not withdrawn from the event. His withdrawal hurt the NBC Celebration.

One of my hopes for this event from the beginning has been that it will show it is possible for a group of Christians–Baptists in this case–to come together with a willingness to hear from all perspectives and to do so politely and even gladly. With his withdrawal, Huckabee lessened the chances of our showing the world that.

Think of the press coverage that would have been given to an event in which Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee both spoke, and both were received warmly. I really wish that he would reconsider.

I am grateful that Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Charles Grassley have thus far stuck to their commitments to speak. It is so vital that, insofar as politicians are allowed to speak at all, that the event be as non-partisan as possible.

I recognize how difficult such non-partisanship really is. Democrats articulate strong arguments on many of the ethical concerns important to Baptists who will be attending this event–the environment, social and health issues in developing countries, civil rights and concern for the poor, for example. It is also true, however, that Republicans speak to other issues that are of concern to many Baptists on which the Democrats are silent.

Here’s my position: Our speakers should address the issues of our time from a biblical and Christian perspective–whether that makes them sounds like Democrats or Republicans.

The Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant is important. How important it turns out to be in the long run will depend on how careful and intentional we are about proclaiming Christ, ministering to a hurting world in light of the implications of the good news for all areas of life and magnifying our unity in Christ.

We must refuse to get bogged down in theological minutiae, and we must not to swing too far the opposite direction in our zeal to make our point that Baptists are not all radical right-wingers.

I don’t mind being associated with radicals. But I want to be associated with radical followers of Christ, radical proclaimers of the gospel, radical healers of hurt and radical meeters of need. And radical adherents to the historic principles that have long made Baptists Baptists.

Michael Ruffin is pastor of The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga.