The new push by former president Jimmy Carter to unite Baptists from around the North American continent has added three prominent Republicans to its list of participants.
After allegations that "The Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant" – an initiative to counter the "negative" Baptist image and demonstrate Baptist unity through compassion works – was a political move considering a January 2008 convocation date and the enlisting of former president Bill Clinton, Carter announced Thursday the inclusion of Republican Baptists in the speaker line-up.
Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham and Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley have been invited to the Jan. 30 - Feb. 1 convocation and are expected to attend.
Also invited to take part are some of the Southern Baptist Convention's well-known bloggers. While the new initiative mainly involves Baptists from the North American Baptist Fellowship, Carter has also left the door open to Southern Baptists to join the effort. Although Southern Baptist leaders were not formally invited, Carter said he wants to bring together "as many Baptists as possible" to accomplish the mission of Jesus, the Associated Baptist Press reported.
"It was reiterated to us time and time again that the meeting was about the gospel – not politics – and Baptists from every political background and ethnicity were being invited," wrote Southern Baptist pastor Wade Burleson of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla., on his blog.
Burleson was invited to a meeting with Carter on Thursday along with other Southern Baptist pastors – Marty Duren of New Bethany Baptist Church in Buford, Ga., Benjamin Cole of Parkview Baptist Church of Arlington, Texas, and C.B. Scott of Westmont Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. The meeting was an attempt to involve as many Southern Baptists in the 2008 gathering as possible, according to Dan Malone, an attorney from El Paso, Texas, who helped facilitate the meeting.
The SBC pastors and Carter along with other event organizers discussed plans and preparations for the New Baptist Covenant and the pastors were asked to assist in informing other Southern Baptists "that the goal of the convocation is to focus on what we have in common (Luke 4:17-20) rather than that which divides us," according to Burleson.
A major part of the initiative is to promote a compassion agenda to address social justice and human rights.
Still, not all Southern Baptists are convinced that the new covenant is an effort to advance the Gospel. Many are at odds with Carter, a former Southern Baptist, who wrote in his book Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis that the SBC is moving toward a "more rigid and strict creed that embodies the fundamentalist principles."
Many also do not agree with Carter's take on the Gospel. They allege Carter believes there is salvation outside of faith in Christ.
"And I have been asked often, you know, in my Sunday School classes, which are kind of a give and take debate with people from many nations and many faiths – what about those that don't publicly accept Christ, are they condemned? And I remember that Christ said, 'Judge not that ye be not judged.' And so, my own personal belief is one of God's forgiveness and God's grace. That's the best answer I can give," said Carter in an earlier interview with Beliefnet.com.
Burleson is aware that some Southern Baptists may criticize him for him meeting with Carter, he acknowledged on his blog, but said it was his desire "to help Southern Baptists see that fellow Baptists are not the enemy."
While the Oklahoma pastor indicated his support for the new covenant and urged Southern Baptists to focus on what unites them, Duren – perhaps the most well-known SBC blogger – has not confirmed his participation and is not encouraging other Southern Baptists to join.
"As far as a seat at the table, it was never a part of my going. I truly had no expectations from the meeting [with Carter], yet left with an invitation to attend the planning meetings. Personally, I'll have a more in depth feel for it when I meet others who are already committed," he wrote on sbcoutpost.com.
But he still expressed hope.
"Ultimately, if the Southern Baptist Convention does not have a presence, it does not mean that Southern Baptists cannot have a presence. I'll keep a close eye on the proceedings, but I want to be hopeful rather than doubtful. I don't have to agree with everyone who is there to find commonality with some and that might be worth the effort after all."
Carter clarified that the new covenant is not an effort to form another Baptist convention or entity.
"We have enough conventions already," he said, according to ABP.
Rather, as Burleson noted, the initiative is to dialogue and build relationships and encourage one another in the fulfillment of the Great Commission.
The upcoming New Baptist Covenant is billed as the broadest Baptist meeting in America since Baptists divided over slavery before the Civil War, according to ABP. Duren noted that every major African American Baptist denomination and Baptists from Canada and Mexico have been invited. Organizers anticipate some 20,000 people at next year's convocation.