Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are part of an initiative to create a new Baptist voice and improve the negative image of Baptists in North America.
An annual North American Baptist Fellowship meeting in Atlanta, Ga., was scheduled to conclude Tuesday morning at the Carter Center with the announcement of a historic 2008 convocation.
The convocation, part of Carter's new Baptist voice initiative, is expected to draw more than 20,000 Baptist participants from throughout the United States and Canada in an effort to counter the negative and judgmental image of Baptists, according to the Associated Baptist Press.
"North America desperately needs a true Baptist witness," Bill Underwood, president of Mercer University in Atlanta, told Baptist leaders at an April summit last year.
Underwood said the current image of Baptists is largely painted by conservative leaders who frequently appear on television news shows or other media. Such leaders represent some of the most conservative political views and fundamentalist theology among Baptist denominations.
According to Carter, the most common opinion about Baptists is that they cannot get along. Carter alluded to the schism the Southern Baptist Convention experienced two decades ago.
In a former interview with Mother Jones, Carter said there has been an evolution within the SBC, the largest Protestant denomination in the states, "toward a more and more rigid and strict creed that embodies the fundamentalist principles" that he mentioned in his book Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis.
The negative image of Baptists has pushed some congregations to drop their denominational label.
"People tend to think of Baptists as very narrow-minded, sometimes mean-spirited and self-righteous," said the Rev. David Spencer, who changed his church name from First Baptist Church to Centerpoint Church in December.
"That's not who we are at all," he added, according to the Associated Press.
Spencer made the change to distance the church from some of the negative connotations of the word "Baptist."
In the meantime, Underwood said Baptists need to be known for feeding the hungry, healing the sick and working for justice. SBCs North American Mission Board is one of the largest disaster relief organizations in the nation and it had provided sizable aid and contributions to the relief and recovery work in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina hit.
Southern Baptist representatives have not been involved in the Carter initiative so far, the Associated Baptist Press reported, but organizers say they hope the 2008 convocation can include SBC leaders and other conservatives who are open to working with a diverse array of Baptists.
Carter, member of Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., and Clinton, member of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., are slated to speak at the convocation. Both identify with more progressive Baptist groups.
Last April, Baptist leaders signed the North American Baptist Covenant in a commitment to "work together to create an authentic and genuine prophetic Baptist voice in these complex times."
The convocation is scheduled for Jan. 30 - Feb. 1, 2008.