It was little remarked upon, but Jimmy Carter's otherwise moving eulogy to Gerald Ford included a fairly gratuitous reference to the Episcopal Church's debates over homosexuality.
"It is true that Jerry and I shared a common commitment to our religious faith, not just in worshipping the same savior, but in attempting, in our own personal way, to achieve reconciliation within our respective denominations," Carter related in his speech at Grace Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "We took to heart the admonition of the Apostle Paul that Christians should not be divided over seemingly important, but tangential issues, including sexual preferences and the role of women in the church, things like that."
Ford was a lifelong Episcopalian, and his denomination is now fracturing over the Episcopal Church's election of its first openly, practicing homosexual bishop in 2003. Carter, of course, is a lifelong Baptist who officially departed the Southern Baptist Convention several years ago to protest his church's conservative stances, which include firm disapproval of homosexual practice.
"We both felt that Episcopalians, Baptists and others should live together in harmony, within the adequate and common belief that we are saved by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ," Carter shared.
It is not entirely clear what the aging, late president thought about his Episcopal denomination's leftward direction, but probably he approved. Certainly, Ford's views on social issues were left of center. The priest of Ford's St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert spoke at the National Cathedral service for Ford, and the priest, like Carter felt obliged to reference Ford's stance on Episcopal sex controversies.
"Early this past summer, as I prepared to leave for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, President Ford's concern was for the church he loved," reported the Rev. Dr. Robert Certain. "He asked me if we would face schism. After we discussed the various issues we would consider, particularly concerns about human sexuality and the leadership of women, he said he did not think they should be divisive for anyone who lived by the Great Commandments to love God and neighbor. He then asked me to work for reconciliation within the Church. I assured him I would, just as he had worked for reconciliation within the nation thirty years ago."
Although a self-described "moderate," the Rev. Certain appears to be quite comfortable with the Episcopal Church's current direction, if his church website's encouraging stance towards "gay and lesbian" members is any reflection. Ford seems to have supported government benefits for same sex couples if not outright same-sex "marriage."
Carter is about on the same page with Ford. In his recent religious polemic, Our Endangered Values, Carter claimed that Christian conservatives are holding up homosexuals to "public condemnation and ridicule" in pursuit of their narrow political agenda." A "few shrewd political demagogues" are even promoting a marriage amendment to the Constitution, he observed ominously. Tongue in cheek, Carter suggested an alternative amendment that would ban adultery. More seriously, he endorsed "civil unions" for same-sex couples and letting churches define "holy matrimony." He did not reveal how he would prefer his own church to define marriage. But we can probably guess.
Carter is so exasperated over how this and other issues are handled within the Southern Baptist Convention that that he is taking direct ecclesial action. Last month, Carter joined with fellow Baptist Bill Clinton to announce their formation of a new group for "moderate" (i.e., liberal) Baptists. "We want to be all-inclusive, and we call on all Baptists to share those goals and join us," Carter announced at the press conference.
This new kind of Baptist entity will de-emphasize traditional Baptist taboos and instead will focus on liberal preferred themes for the church such as poverty, global warming and war. In early 2008, Carter will help host a kick-off event in Atlanta that hopes to attract 20,000 non-conservative Baptists. This new group will be less "negative and judgmental" than the 16 million member Southern Baptist Convention, Carter & Clinton have promised.
In essence, Carter is hoping that Baptists become more like Episcopalians, whose denomination, unlike the Southern Baptist Convention, has been shriveling for decades. Both Carter and Ford, undoubtedly sincerely devout Christians, both belonged to a different era in politics and religion. Both perhaps felt overshadowed and left behind by the revival of conservative religion in America, and the sidelining of the old liberal mainline denominations, of which the Episcopal Church was the most elite.
That the two elderly ex-presidents found common ground in a liberal religious perspective, particularly on the issue of homosexuality, is perhaps merely a historical footnote, but noteworthy nonetheless.
Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.