If the liberal wing of Baptist life down South started naming saints, one of the first nominees would be former President Jimmy Carter.
But it's crucial to note that the man who put "born again" into the American political dictionary is Baptist, but no longer Southern Baptist. His theological views have evolved, leading to his 2000 exit from the Southern Baptist Convention. Take marriage and sex, for example.
"I think Jesus would encourage any love affair if it was honest and sincere and was not damaging to anyone else, and I don't see that gay marriage damages anyone else," Carter told The Huffington Post last year.
Plenty of Baptists agree, but have not felt free to be that candid, according to Don Durham, a former leader in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. For 25 years the "CBF" has served as a network for Baptists on the losing side of the great Southern Baptist wars of the 1980s. Now, Durham said, the "volume has been turned up" in behind-closed-doors CBF debates about sexuality.
"It's time to have substantive and open conversations about the genuinely difficult disagreements we have over how to organize the institutional expressions of how we will relate to sisters and brothers who happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or who
understand themselves as queer," wrote Durham, in an essay circulated by Baptist News Global, an independent website at the heart of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship life.
"I'm not naive. I know we will never have uniform responses to the many questions such conversations will hold -- and we don't have to. However, let's not be institutionally naive either. … There are now too many for whom our institutional expressions around LGBTQ topics are no longer tenable for us to pretend any longer that we can distract one another from that topic by focusing on all of the other things on which we agree."
It's crucial to understand that membership in the CBF is incredibly flexible and allows great freedom for individual Baptists and congregations that, to one degree or another, support its work, said Durham, reached by telephone. Many congregations in the network openly support gay marriage, in word and deed. Many others do not.
The issue is a CBF "homosexual behavior" policy. This institutional policy -- no longer linked to its website -- states in part: "As Baptist Christians, we believe that the foundation of a Christian sexual ethic is faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman and celibacy in singleness. … Because of this organizational value, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship does not allow for the expenditure of funds for organizations or causes that condone, advocate or affirm homosexual practice. Neither does this CBF organizational value allow for the purposeful hiring of a staff person or the sending of a missionary who is a practicing homosexual."
It's hard to have an "honest, open dialogue" with LGBTQ people, "while we're stiff-arming them with this policy that just keeps pushing them away," said Durham. His essay noted that he left a key CBF job after being shouted down in a staff meeting, when he suggested that the network apologize for its stance on gay issues.
This Cooperative Baptist Fellowship struggle is similar to challenges facing many religious flocks in an era of rapid change, including the rising number of Americans who reject all denominational ties, said Baptist historian Nathan Finn, dean of the Union University School of Theology and Missions.
The CBF network, he added, is especially interesting since it links many who embrace the post-denominational age, others whose beliefs would be "right at home in liberal mainline Protestantism" and "progressive evangelicals" who continue to stress evangelism and missions.
"The era of safe, generic Protestantism is gone," said Finn, a theological conservative. "Small-o Christian orthodoxy is now considered weird and offensive in America. … At this point you have to decide what you believe and take a stand. That's the moment of truth the CBF is facing."
Indeed, many people are convinced, stressed Durham, that changes on LGBTQ issues will "scare lots of people and they'll leave," taking their checkbooks with them.
"Well, people are already leaving," he said. "This issue is so important to many young Baptists that are still in the CBF, as well as to many who have left. We will not be able to avoid this conversation forever."