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Carter Opens Baptist Meeting in Georgia

Thursday, January 31, 2008

ATLANTA —  Former President Carter called divisions among Christians a "cancer" in the church, as he opened a meeting meant to unite moderate Baptists across racial and theological lines and show their tradition goes beyond conservative Southern Baptist beliefs.

The assembly, "Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant," included four major black denominations, Baptists from throughout North America and former members of the Southern Baptist Convention upset by its rightward shift. Carter was a lead organizer of the event.

Thousands of participants prayed and held hands across a massive exhibit hall at the first session Wednesday night. Carter, a longtime Bible teacher at his Plains, Ga., church, called the three-day gathering "the most momentous event in my religious life."

He repeatedly cautioned the audience not to criticize others during the meeting.

"What is the prevailing image of Christians today?" Carter said. "It's the image of divisions among brothers and sisters of Christ as we struggle for authority or argue about the interpretation of individual verses in the Holy Scripture."

He called animosity among Christians "a cancer metastasizing in the body of Christ."

The former president insisted the meeting was strictly religious, not political. It is being held just days before Feb. 5, when 24 states will hold presidential primaries or caucuses.

Former Vice President Al Gore and former President Bill Clinton are among the major speakers. Earlier in the day, at a separate meeting of the black Baptist groups, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke about their presidential candidacies.

Critics have dismissed the event as little more than a Democratic rally.

The meeting involves 30 Baptist groups that represent millions of people and span a range of theological and political beliefs. Many oppose abortion and same-sex marriage and ordain only men.

However, they all heavily emphasize Scripture on social justice.

"The New Baptist Covenant is a public witness of our common commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ," said the Rev. David Goatley, president of the North American Baptist Fellowship. "We will gather daily for prayer, we will gather daily for praise, we will gather daily for the prophetic word."

Carter and many other Baptists severed ties with the Southern Baptist Convention when conservatives took control of the denomination in the 1970s and 1980s, waging a bitter fight over interpreting the Bible. With 16.3 million members, Southern Baptists are not only the largest U.S. Baptist group, but also the largest Protestant denomination in the country.

Carter said Wednesday that he has been communicating with the current Southern Baptist president, the Rev. Frank Page, who has said that he "assured President Carter of my prayers" for the meeting despite some doubts about its purpose.

Northern and Southern Baptists split in 1845, when Northerners said they wouldn't support missionaries who were slaveholders. Black Baptists generally formed their own denominations and had their own splits over civil rights strategies and other issues.

Several speakers Wednesday invoked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to explain why the gathering was so important. Bill Underwood, president of Mercer University in Macon, a sponsor of the event, said, "I think we are taking a step today on the long and difficult journey to one day achieving Dr. King's Dream."


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