The former president wants his fellow Christians to lead the country to reconciliation. But churches are in a period of profound uncertainty.
Jimmy Carter, 91, has a wish for his fellow Baptists: end racism. “Our country is waking up now to the fact that we still have a long way to go in winning a battle that we thought was over in the 1970s or ’60s,” he said in an interview. The longtime Sunday school teacher and former United States president wants to start this change within his own faith: He’s pushing churches to organize around social-justice issues, including racial discrimination.
But the future of progressive Christianity in the U.S. is fragile. Congregations are shrinking; young people who organize politically largely do so outside of the church. Carter is hoping for a new generation of institutional Christian leadership precisely at a time when Christian institutions are becoming weaker.
Nine years ago, Carter brought together Baptist leaders to form a coalition called the New Baptist Covenant. Roughly 15,000 people gathered in Atlanta in 2008 to kick off a new era of unity in the fractured denomination, which has split a number of times, including over the issue of slavery. Since then, the group has worked in fits and starts—it held some regional meetings and other conventions, along with efforts to convene online that “didn’t work very well at all,” said Bill Leonard, a preacher and Wake Forest professor who is involved in the organization.
The New Baptist Covenant does not identify with any particular ideology, McMahan said. But Carter and Bill Clinton, both Democrats, were involved in the founding; it seems largely oriented toward progressive causes and political action, even if its leaders wouldn’t say that outright. Many progressives, even those who share Carter’s faith, have long been uneasy with overt religious influence on policy. This is partly why progressive Christians in the U.S. have not had as prominent a public voice as their conservative counterparts. Carter, the first self-described “born-again Christian” to take the White House, worked hard to disentangle his religion from his politics. As a result, the “era when I was president was when some of the white Christians formed an alliance with the Republican Party,” he said. In some ways, the New Baptist Covenant is an attempt to correct that imbalance, giving a unified voice to more progressive and moderate Baptist congregations.
A lot of factors work against them, though. The conservative Southern Baptist Convention is the single largest Protestant group in the country, and even though not all Baptists are part of it, the group has largely come to represent Baptists in American public life. This is partly because “the smaller Baptist groups are much less uniform and much less agreed on strategies,” said Leonard. “They do not have a consensus on who speaks for them. Their diversity makes it more difficult for them to speak collectively.”
No leaders from the conservative Southern Baptist Convention are involved, even though the invitation has been extended, said Carter, who left the SBC in 2000 because of its opposition to female pastors. Fred Luter, who served as the first African American president of the SBC until 2014, said he’d never heard of the New Baptist Covenant—if they had reached out during his time in office, he said, “I definitely would have been aware of it.” He said Baptists should not let politics divide them, “and if it, does, shame on us,” he added. “The world may divide on things. The Body of Christ should come together regardless of what our political parties are because of our relationship through Jesus Christ.” While Carter said he hopes SBC leaders will eventually participate, Leonard was skeptical. “I think it’s really wasted energy to try to make the New Baptist Covenant a source of reconciliation between Southern Baptists and the so-called old-guard moderates,” he said. “I think we’re way past that generationally and organizationally.”
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