The Rise of the Nice Baptists

My friend John Wilson, editor of Books and Culture, wrote an excellent guest column in the Saturday edition of the Wall Street Journal (February 3, 2007). John is not a Southern Baptist but he demonstrated a keen insight into their recent history and the ongoing debates among the various camps of Baptists that now splinter the old SBC into new factions almost every passing day.

Wilson notes that certain “hardliners” control several of the official seminaries, referring particularly Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. Wilson correctly calls Southwestern’s president, Paige Patterson, a “hyper-conservative.” It was under Patterson’s leadership, for example, that a woman professor was asked to leave her job (as reported by the Associated Press) because Patterson believes women should not teach men theology. (This argument stands on slim, shaky and non-existent grounds if you pay careful attention to the Scripture itself!) This kind of action drives even more moderately conservative people away from the leadership of the SBC. It has even led others to leave the SBC altogether. Enter former president Jimmy Carter, who left the SBC in protest over the conservative political movement a few years ago.

Wilson notes in his column that Carter has now gone one step further, announcing the formation of a new coalition of “moderate” Baptists to counter the SBC and change the perception of Christians, and especially Baptists, in public life. This prompts Wilson to a memorable description of this new group as the “Nice Baptists.” This new coalition, Carter suggests, will include several African-American groups and some smaller Baptist fellowships which would result in a new grouping of more than 20 million people if the advocates right. (I know Baptists and I don’t believe this figure will come about for one moment!) Anyway, Carter is quoted in the Washington Post as saying: “We hope . . . to emphasize the common commitments that bind us together rather than the concentrate on the divisive issues that separate us.” So what’s wrong with that vision you say? Along with former president Bill Clinton, also a Baptist, these leaders have proposed a “New Baptist Covenant” to be promoted through a national convention to be held in early 2008. Wilson aptly notes, “No doubt politics—the SBC is a Republican stronghold, so the Nice Baptists can be a free Democratic counterweight—is part of the picture.” Yes, a part for sure.

Wilson sees even more here and I totally agree with him. Underlying Carter’s rhetoric and this new Baptist proposal is a “persistent fiction in public discourse, a phony account of our common experience. First comes an exaggerated emphasis on discord, then the promise that—at last!—someone is proposing to transcend division, to work for the good of us all.” This is where the Nice Baptist vision comes to the fore. This same vision can be seen in the very liberal Bill Moyers’ recent public stance. Moyers, a graduate of Southwestern Seminary in a much earlier day, has huge sympathy for this agenda of healing. His manifesto, Wilson notes, appears in the Nation magazine (January 22) and is aptly titled: “A New Story for America.” Moyers point is that we could be the first generation since the New Deal to give power back to the people. Somehow this Nice Baptist theology sounds much more like Carter and Clinton than about Paul and Jesus. As surely as the Republican Party is linked with the more conservative SBC, the Democratic Party will surely appeal to the Nice Baptists.

Wilson concludes that any simple observation of the news will remind sensible folk that we haven’t “reached the Promised Land. Nevertheless, Americans of every stripe routinely work together for a dazzling array of common goods. And while Christians all too often fall short of the example set by the one whose life is supposed to be their model, still, every day and in every city Southern Baptists and Methodists and Willow Creekers and Pentecostals join hands with fellow-believers—and with those who don’t share their faith—to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless and to provide disaster relief all over the globe.”

American Christians don’t agree on many political issues, some trivial and some important. But Carter’s idea that these new Nice Baptists will lead their fellow Baptists (and Wilson suggests “by implication the rest of us”) out of our present wilderness is patently ridiculous.

Many Christians, including many Southern Baptists and even so-called moderate Baptists, are addressing a host of real problems in the world. So are many Catholics and Orthodox believers too. These liberal Nice Baptists might begin their earnest efforts to bring about peace and harmony with a greater measure of humility. John Wilson concluded his excellent Wall Street Journal article, “Jimmy Carter’s Siren Song,” by asking Carter and company to “spare us the trumpets.” Exactly!