Carter-Clinton Baptist Clambake

Former presidents Carter and Clinton have joined forces in an effort to improve the "negative" image of Baptists in North America and to unite the majority of Baptists into a loose-knit network to address social ills, according to the Associated Baptist Press, based in Jacksonville, Fla., with bureaus in Washington and Dallas. They’re spearheading an effort aimed at a consortium of Baptist groups numbering about 20 million congregants. A convention of sorts to bring these people together is planned for Jan. 30 – Feb. 1 of 2008 in Atlanta.

According to the APB, some 80 Baptist leaders met recently at the Carter Presidential Center, so the projected meeting was apparently an outgrowth of that meeting. Also according to the APB, the organizations represented by meeting participants comprise about 20 million Baptists in North America, the event's organizers noted. That's more than the 16 million members claimed by the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Baptist group in the world, whose leaders have moved sharply to the political and theological right in the last 25 years. Obviously, Southern Baptists, who financially support more than 10,000 missionaries about evenly divided between foreign and North American countries are considered the “enemy” with respect to the perceived negativity, assuming such negativity is actually an issue.

One wonders at the propriety of both the denominations and the leaders involved, especially since church-state separation is a First Amendment consideration. Both Carter and Clinton are political animals and have been at the top of the Democrat Party for many years. What is the motivation of either the pew-people or the politicians? Certainly, no Baptist denomination poses a threat to national security or governance, and one wonders why Carter and Clinton should be concerned about what non-Baptists think of Baptists…a purely religious matter.

Perhaps the APB put its finger on the matter, whether intentionally or not, in mentioning the political and theological right, thus making of the two entities a single consideration, each impacting the other and each impacted by the First Amendment. Millions of southerners – not just Southern Baptists – have left the traditional democrat fold in recent years, notwithstanding their overwhelmingly democrat registration, opting for republican leadership. Many southerners are members of Southern Baptist Churches, ergo, they have been code-named the Religious Right, or at least considered part of what many call a movement perceived to be radical in its conservative leaning.

In a meeting last April, according to APB, Carter said, “The most common opinion about Baptists is we cannot get along. … I have been grieved by the divisions of my own convention.” He obviously referred to the Southern Baptist Convention, though the APB categorized him as a “former Southern Baptist.” What neither Carter nor the APB mentioned is the fact that Baptists frequently disagree on everything from church polity to theology, and, in this case, Carter’s view has not prevailed in his denomination, ergo, his denomination is excoriated as negative. Cheap shot, in other words.

But why should 284,000,000 Americans (all but the Southern Baptists) care about what Southern Baptists or any Baptists are quarreling about, or whether or not they present a negative image – or any kind of image? Simple answer: they don’t care. So, what should one think about the Carter/Clinton “healing” effort? Well…the actual 2008-campaign season begins, coincidentally, next January, though some of the usual suspects are always in campaign mode, and a whole gaggle have already announced. Two caucuses and two primaries will take place that month, a critical one in South Carolina the day before the Carter/Clinton clambake.

What better time to “heal” the Baptists – translated, make a push against the “religious right,” perceived to be peopled largely by Southern Baptists – than at the beginning of an election cycle? If religion pros had attempted to make this effort credible, particularly as an in-house effort, they might have been successful. But with Clinton and Carter, both proclaiming to be Baptists, pushing the buttons, gaining the lions’ share of the attention, and, coincidentally, being democrats, one has to wonder about motives, judgment, manipulation of sincere people of the cloth, and all the rest. For instance, Hillary Clinton is profoundly unpopular in the South. Could the Atlanta conclave conjured up by hubby Baptist Bill do her some good?

Many have claimed that Southern Baptists have been manipulated by the republicans. Is it fair now to say that Baptists of all stripes are being manipulated by the democrats, just as they’ve manipulated African Americans for decades? It would seem so…unfortunately.