Religious Left Finds a Home

One of the newest interest groups at work in the nation now is called the New Baptist Covenant, but it should be labeled the New Religious Left. Its innovative progenitors are former presidents/current politicians Carter and Clinton, not theologians or ministers as might be expected in an organization with such a name. The NBC was hatched earlier this year, with Mercer University President Bill Underwood as its "religious" partner, by some 80 or so representatives of Baptist denominations throughout the nation, and boasts 31 affiliated groups, along with five Baptist media outlets, with a total membership estimated at about 20 million congregants. Interestingly, the largest Baptist denomination by far, the Southern Baptist Convention with 16.3 million members, was not invited.

The NBC is reminiscent of something called the Clergy Leadership Network, brought on line about a year before the elections of 2004 in Washington, D.C., with its stated objective being the defeat of George Bush. It was registered not as a tax-exempt organization – though made up of clergy representing tax-exempt churches – but as a PAC, just like MoveOn.org, a convenient dodge in case anyone should make a huge outcry concerning its obvious deviousness and violation (at least in spirit) of church-and-state connections. Its head honcho was former National Council of Churches official Albert Pennybacker, with Jesse Jackson and James Dunn among the members of its governing board, the latter a total puzzlement in that he had served as the head of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, a tax-exempt organization, for 18 years.

For all practical purposes, the Clergy Leadership Network had as its only goal the defeat of Bush, another way of remarking the defeat of the so-called religious right, considered by the CLN as one of his main bases. The NBC is a reincarnation of the CLN, except that it is made up of only Baptist organizations, at least at this point, with its main objective to be political, as in the case of the CLN, regardless of the objectives it has announced as themes for its first convocation next January, to wit, "Unity in Seeking Peace with Justice; Unity in Bringing Good News to the Poor; Unity in Respecting Diversity; Unity in Welcoming the Stranger; Unity in Setting the Captive Free."

The first three of the themes are the usual boilerplate pronouncements that accrue to political correctness. Peace, justice, care for the poor, and especially diversity are terms that have become hackneyed in this country, since the citizenry does pretty well by all the folks involved in the appropriate, allegedly disadvantaged groups through the auspices of both church and state and recognizing that many of the ills addressed are self-inflicted and that many of the resulting self-victims don't welcome help. The last two themes are puzzling, but perhaps further NBC information will describe the identities of the stranger to be welcomed and the captive to be set free in the freest and most generous nation in the world.

The keyword in the themes is "unity." As reported recently by Associated Baptist Press, Bill Leonard, a Baptist historian who is dean of the Wake Forest Divinity School, said, "Probably not since 1845 has this kind of effort [NBC] been made to bring together Baptists black and white … and of diverse theological and regional backgrounds, and that means it is terribly historic." Race, of course, is also at the center of the effort, at least as far as the well-intentioned participating religionists are concerned, as they continue to try to apologize for a slavery for which they were/are not responsible.

Leonard, a highly respected historian and an excellent speaker, knows quite well that Baptists have never agreed on many issues – certainly the theological and social ones – from time immemorial, much less just since 1845. Carter knows this up close and personal, having left the Southern Baptist Convention a few years ago because he DISAGREED with those in SBC leadership on theological issues. For instance, the SBC is absolutely intolerant of same-sex unions, but Van Gower, writing for Southern Voice in December 2004 said this: "Former President Jimmy Carter confirmed this week that he supports state-sanctioned civil unions for gay couples, in response to a letter from two veteran Atlanta gay rights activists and questions from Southern Voice." As NBC participants learn more about Carter, they may have second thoughts, since Baptists – virtually all of them – view homosexual marriage and behavior as abominations.

Cooperation among Baptist groups can happen any time they desire (and they don't actually fire m-16s at each other anyway)…but they happily go their own ways most of the time, and the NBC won't change a thing, as Carter and Leonard certainly know. The race question is a red herring. The SBC passed a resolution apologizing for slavery in 1995, and the appropriate black Baptist leaders scorned it out of hand. Carter and Leonard, of course, were/are well aware of this. So, assuming Carter knows the "themes" are blatantly boilerplate, that race is not an issue and certainly understands that his views have not prevailed in the SBC, exactly what is the NBC all about?

Remark this quote from the National Catholic Reporter of 10 March 2004 regarding the "527 PACs": "So, rather than international financier George Soros or Progressive Insurance president Peter Lewis pouring their fortunes directly into the Democratic Party's coffers, they provide funding to such nobly named groups as Americans Coming Together (which received $10 million from Soros and $10 million from Lewis). … The Clergy Leadership Network, an interfaith 527 launched late last year, makes no apologies for its efforts. To get started, the group received nearly $50,000 from Americans Coming Together."

Despite the infusion of cash by high-profile atheist George Soros to the brethren, the CLN seems to have fizzled, so there is the need to begin a new Religious Left, ergo, the Carter/Clinton New Baptist Covenant and its unwitting though well-intentioned partners. For Carter, the NBC also represents an opportunity to "get even" with the Southern Baptists, who obviously did not recognize his sagacity in theological matters. That he could harbor such a malicious intent is not hard to imagine, considering the description of Tony Blair, outgoing British prime Minister, he recently furnished while in England, to wit, "Abominable. Loyal. Blind. Apparently subservient."

He brought personal animus and vitriol to a new, low level in those remarks about Blair, such attributes easily applied to the Southern Baptists, whom many claim to form the paradigm for the "religious right." In a meeting in April 2006, according to Associated Baptist Press, 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.” In other words: Sour-grapes!

For Clinton, whose conduct has brought disgrace to both the presidency and the church, the political ramifications are transparent. His wife wants her turn at the Oval Office but is anathema to southerners in general and conservative, southern Christians in particular in both political parties. The NBC is staging its first convocation of Baptists next January at the same time three black Baptist denominations are having their conventions…in Atlanta. What a coincidence, especially since this is the time the presidential primaries are off and winging it!

Make no mistake. Notwithstanding the high-flown rhetoric and big names attached to the NBC, it is a political animal. Former republican Arkansas governor and ordained Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, also a president wannabe, had agreed a while back to participate in the NBC January clambake, but not long afterward said this, "While I continue to have great respect for President Carter as a fellow Christian believer and Baptist, I’m deeply disappointed by the unusually harsh comments made in my state this past weekend regarding President Bush, and feel that it represents an unprecedented personal attack on a sitting president by a former president which is unbecoming the office as well as unbecoming to one whose conference [New Baptist Covenant] is supposed to be about civility and bringing people together. … I feel it would be best for me to decline the invitation and to not appear to be giving approval to what could be a political, rather than spiritual agenda." That pretty well sums it up.