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Moderate Baptists to meet in Atlanta on 21st century issues

ATLANTA — In a historic meeting that brought two of the country’s three remaining former presidents together, former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton met Tuesday with leaders from 40 moderate Baptist groups who pledged to work on 21st century social and environmental issues.
    The groups — all members of the North American Baptist Fellowship — are planning a national Baptist celebration in January 2008 with President Carter as the keynote speaker.
    Mercer University President Bill Underwood said the Tuesday announcement was ‘‘a historic demonstration of Baptist unity.’’ But officials from the conservative Southern Baptist Convention said they already are working on the issues that the North American Baptist Fellowship is trying to address.
    Carter says large-scale meetings among all Baptists were common in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He said Baptists in the United States, Mexico and Canada are participating.
    In 2000, Carter renounced membership in the Southern Baptist Convention, citing what he called its ‘‘increasingly rigid’’ theology. He is a Sunday School teacher at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., his hometown.
    ‘‘This may turn out to be one of the most historic events, at least in terms of the Baptists in this country,’’ Carter said. ‘‘We hope to bring all Baptists together.’’
    Clinton, also a Baptist, said the announcement is an effort to bring worshippers together to work on issues including alleviating poverty, conserving natural resources, assisting with health care challenges and eliminating religious and racial conflict around the world.
    ‘‘This is an attempt to bring people together and say, ’What would our Christian witness require of us in the 21st century?’’’ said Clinton. He said his purpose in the group is to be a ‘‘cheerleader.’’
    ‘‘I’m going to try to help, try to do what I can,’’ Clinton said. ‘‘We should try to find ways people can hold onto their religious beliefs and not have to kill each other over their differences. This is the biggest challenge facing the larger world.’’
    The 20-million-member North American Baptist Fellowship is part of the 102-year-old Baptist World Alliance. The more conservative Southern Baptist Convention decided in 2004 to pull out of the Baptist World Alliance.
    ‘‘We might be able to speak to America with a collective voice and even speak to the world,’’ said T. Dewitt Smith, president of the Washington-based Progressive National Baptist Convention.
    Lance Wallace, spokesman for the Atlanta-based Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said elected members from the Nashville, Tenn.-based Southern Baptist Convention did not attend the meeting, although Southern Baptists were present.
    Richard Land, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics and religious liberty commission, said he was not invited. Within the 16.4-million member Southern Baptist Convention, Land’s commission addresses ‘‘moral, social, public policy and religious liberty issues.’’
    He said even before the 2004 split, moderates and liberals lost their bid for control of the Southern Baptist Convention for more than 20 years, and the ‘‘vast majority’’ of the convention’s members believe in the convention’s pro-life, pro-Israel, non-gay marriage direction.
    Land cautioned that the North American Baptist Fellowship will have to work hard to make its January 2008 meeting not be seen as ‘‘overly political’’ during a presidential election year.
    ‘‘Had I been invited I could have come but I couldn’t come to this meeting because I was meeting with Jews and Muslims and Christians searching for common ground,’’ Land said. ‘‘It’s easy to write a covenant and sign it and easy to hold a meeting. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating thereof. We’ll see who represents Baptist views. I know I represent the views of overwhelming numbers of Southern Baptists.’’

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