February 2, 2008 in Nation/World

Carter reaches out to Southern Baptists

Rachel Zoll Associated Press

ATLANTA – Former President Jimmy Carter, leading a meeting of thousands of Baptists across racial and theological lines, said Friday he hopes the gathering will help convince conservative Southern Baptists and other Christians to end divisions over the Bible and politics.

“We can disagree on the death penalty, we can disagree on homosexuality, we can disagree on the status of women and still bind our hearts together in a common, united, generous, friendly, loving commitment,” Carter said as the assembly ended.

More than 14,000 people attended the “Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant,” organizers said. The three-day gathering was the first to unite major black and white Baptist groups and aimed to show that their tradition goes beyond conservative Southern Baptist beliefs.

Among the preachers attending was a woman – the Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell of First Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga. Author John Grisham, a Baptist, condemned the literal interpretation of Scripture, saying it led to exclusionary practices that weakened churches. Speakers exhorted Baptists to respect church-state separation when advocating for public policies.

Many participants in the meeting belong to churches that distanced themselves or split from the Southern Baptist Convention after conservatives consolidated control in the 1970s and 1980s. With 16.3 million members, the SBC is the biggest Protestant group in the United States.

An emotional Carter called the gathering “the most momentous event in my religious life.” The former president, a longtime Bible teacher at his Plains, Ga., church, severed ties with the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000 over what he called its “increasingly rigid” beliefs.

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