The "Moderate" New Baptist Covenant, Led by Jimmy Carter

Religion reporter Neela Banerjee followed up last week's storyabout the New Baptist Covenant, a left-liberal consortium of Baptist groups who held a gathering in Atlanta.

Banerjee's January 27 story had the misleading headline "A Baptist Coalition Aims for Moderate Image," and the headline to Saturday's follow-up, "30 Baptist Groups Build A Bridge Toward Unity," also hid the true nature of the gathering, which called for universal health coverage and for fighting "global warming. Among the leaders and attendees were left-wing Democrats Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, and Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman. Yet Banerjee did not characterize the group as liberal.

The Rev. Bill Shoulta called himself a renegade.

The pastor of Melbourne Heights Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., Mr. Shoulta attended a meeting here this week of Baptists that leaders of his denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, had criticized.

Mr. Shoulta said he was drawn by the promise of diversity and the commitment to humanitarian goals offered by the meeting, the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant. And as he stood in a cavernous meeting hall, around him swirled blacks and whites, old and young, Northerners and Southerners, Democrats and Republicans - as unlikely a religious convocation as any in the country, but especially among Baptists, who have been fractured for generations.

"It is so nice to be part of a group where your theological and political leanings are not an issue," said Mr. Shoulta, 54. "And that has been the whole issue plaguing our denomination: that your beliefs become a measure of fellowship."

Instead, almost 15,000 people from about 30 Baptist associations gathered here for the last three days and said they were putting aside theological and political differences to commit themselves to Jesus' call to help the poor. They say they see strength in their numbers. And they are pressing the leaders of the New Baptist Covenant, which include former President Jimmy Carter, to move quickly to build a movement out of the moment.

How nonpartisan could a group led by Jimmy Carter be? Not much, though you have to read between the lines to figure it out from Banerjee's story. She did manage to find "conservative" opposition, however.

For more than 150 years, Baptists have split along racial, theological and political lines. But the four major black Baptist conventions gathered on their own earlier in the week, and they stayed on for this meeting, which they had helped organize. Other groups here included those that split with the Southern Baptist Convention over slavery in the 1800s and those that departed more recently because of the increasingly conservative slant of that denomination.

Democrats including former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore showed up. But efforts to draw big-name Republicans largely sputtered: Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa came, but Mike Huckabee and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina pulled out.


Those gathered largely criticized themselves, for not reaching out to those different from them and for not doing more to fight social ills. While many already do charitable work, Baptists at the meeting hoped they could pool their resources and voices to push for universal health coverage, or to fight global warming.