Jimmy Carter’s flamboyant departure from the Southern Baptist Convention drew the headlines away from the presidential election—if just for a moment. George Bush and Al Gore took a temporary back seat to America’s most hyperactive ex-president as Carter railed against the SBC and announced that he is no longer identifying with America’s largest evangelical denomination.
“I have finally decided that, after 65 years, I can no longer be associated with the Southern Baptist Convention,” Carter explained. His announcement came in the form of a letter to be mailed to over 75,000 fellow Baptists on the mailing list of “Texas Baptists Committed,” an activist group opposed to the conservative leadership of the SBC. Mr. Carter further explained that he feels “excluded by the adoption of policies and an increasingly rigid SBC creed.”
Given the attention drawn by the announcement, one might be forgiven for assuming that the former president has been deeply involved in the SBC in recent years. The fact is, however, that Mr. Carter has been estranged from the SBC for two decades.
The smiling Georgia governor was elected President of the United States in 1976 with the overwhelming support of American evangelicals. Mr. Carter singlehandedly made “born again” a part of the nation’s popular language, and he became the nation’s most famous Sunday School teacher.
Nevertheless, evangelicals in general, and Southern Baptists in particular, abandoned Mr. Carter in his re-election bid just four years later. Once in office, President Carter proved to be a liberal on social issues such as abortion, appointing Sarah Weddington, the lead attorney from the infamous Roe v Wade case, as assistant to the president.
Evangelicals were baffled by the Carter presidency, and Southern Baptists were embarrassed. How could a man who claimed to be a “born again Christian” and who set a model for active churchmanship associate himself with the social revolutionaries advocating the redefinition of the family, abortion on demand, liberal sex education, and the Equal Rights Amendment?
The breaking point came with the 1979 White House Conference on Families, a landmark in the developing culture war. For evangelicals and other social conservatives, the conference, dominated by a liberal agenda, became a flash point of outrage.
Now, Mr. Carter is taking his aim at the Southern Baptist Convention. Over the past twenty years, the convention has experienced a transformation under conservative leadership. Grassroots Southern Baptists expressed their outrage at the increasing liberalism within the denomination by purging its moderate leadership and putting conservatives solidly in charge.
Eventually, Mr. Carter’s liberal allies in the SBC joined him out of office. The former president blamed the SBC’s conservative leadership, in part, for his election defeat. Over the past two decades, the SBC has taken clear stands in opposition to abortion, in support of the nuclear family, and against the homosexual agenda. For Mr. Carter, this is too much.
In a sense, Mr. Carter’s recent statements concerning the SBC should be seen as a pay-back for the 1980 election. Though the media gave his attack front-page priority, the announcement was not even news. President Carter’s estrangement from the SBC is over two decades old, and his departure from the SBC was announced seven years ago, when Mr. Carter appeared before the 1993 meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship—a liberal group of churches disaffected from the SBC. “In the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship my wife and I found a home,” Carter announced. “I pray that as Rosalynn and I cast our lot with this fellowship for the rest of our lives, we can be part of a transcendent movement.” Mr. Carter’s most recent statement will surprise only those who have not been paying attention.
The former president claims that his decision to break with the SBC came after the convention’s adoption of a newly-revised statement of faith, the “Baptist Faith and Message,” this past June. Messengers to the convention enthusiastically adopted the revisions, which put the cherished principles of the conservative resurgence right in the confession of faith.
For Mr. Carter, this was the last straw. In his letter, he stated that some of the provisions “violate the basic premises of my Christian faith.” He drew particular attention to the fact that the statement limits the office of pastor to men “as qualified by Scripture.” In limiting the office of pastor to men, the convention was doing nothing more than identifying with the vast majority of Christians around the world. Carter, whose pastor is a man, rejects this limitation.
In fact, he blames the biblical restriction on the human authors of Scripture, who were “fallible human beings who shared the knowledge and beliefs of their times.” In this statement, Mr. Carter draws attention to the theological chasm that separates him from the SBC. The issue that brought the conservative movement to leadership in the SBC was biblical inerrancy. Arguments like those offered by Mr. Carter were precisely those rejected by the convention.
Mr. Carter’s curious blend of liberal theology and liberal positions on moral issues sets him far apart from the SBC–and this is no recent development. The former president has supported the cause of gay rights, and co-chaired a Human Rights Campaign effort in Georgia. The Southern Baptist Convention refuses to compromise the Bible’s clear teaching that homosexuality is sinful. The SBC champions biblical inerrancy, affirming that Scripture is truth “without any mixture of error.” Mr. Carter has recently admitted to doubting the validity of some biblical miracles. “But I now believe that, even if some of the more dramatic miracles recounted in the Gospels could be untrue, my faith in [Christ] would still be equally precious and unshaken.”
Unshaken? Southern Baptists have spoken clearly. Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. Severed from that confidence, it is a short step to discounting the Bible’s teaching in favor of a relativistic consensus based in modern thinking. We can simply dispense with awkward teachings as the unfortunate legacy of “fallible human beings.”
When citing theologians, Mr. Carter likes to mention Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich—hardly evangelicals. Indeed, Tillich, one of the most notorious figures in 20th century theology, did not even believe in a personal God.
Mr. Carter has also moved toward some form of inclusivism in salvation. In a 1996 interview with The New York Times, he said “I cannot imagine an innocent person being deprived of God’s eternal blessing because they don’t have a chance to accept Christ.” Mr. Carter has been critical of Southern Baptist witnessing efforts to Jews and Mormons and is seemingly open to salvation through other religions. Once again, he is in direct conflict with the convictions of Southern Baptists.
The timing of the Carter announcement was no accident. Mr. Carter has acknowledged his hope that his letter will have maximum impact on behalf of those seeking to lead churches out of the SBC, and into the CBF. He has taken aim at the plans of the Georgia Baptist Convention to adopt the 2000 “Baptist Faith and Message” as their own confession of faith.
Looming behind this effort is the Baptist General Convention of Texas. The leadership of the Texas convention is opposed to the SBC and is seeking to sever its historic relationship with the national convention in its meeting later this month. The BGCT will attempt to break the Cooperative Program and defund the SBC’s six seminaries, executive co
mmittee, and ethics agency.
Carter’s letter is being mailed by the Texas Baptists Committed group, along with a tape by Charles Wade, the BGCT executive director. The effort puts Mr. Carter, out of office now for almost twenty years, back in campaign mode.
In the end, Mr. Carter’s theatrical denunciation of the SBC makes a powerful symbolic statement. He places himself squarely with those who champion the very positions the SBC has rejected, and dares to call these “the traditional beliefs that, for generations, have sustained our ancestors and us in a spirit of unity and cooperation.”
In the years of his forced retirement from the presidency, Mr. and Mrs. Carter have done much good. They have built houses for the poor, helped to eradicate disease in Africa, and worked for peace. It is no small tragedy that he should end his life in opposition to the Southern Baptist Convention. Those who would champion the former president as a model of moderate hostility to the SBC do him—and themselves—no service.