Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell, Jr.: Seeking some common ground at Liberty U

Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell, Jr.: Seeking some common ground at Liberty U

It's hard for anyone -- let alone a former president -- to visit Liberty University these days without mentioning President Donald Trump.

Sure enough, former President Jimmy Carter opened his recent Liberty commencement address with a quip linked to Trump's claims that his inauguration crowd was as large, or larger, than that of President Barack Obama.

The set-up: Trump addressed the school's 2017 graduates.

"This is a wonderful crowd," said Carter, after being introduced by Liberty President Jerry Falwell, Jr. "Jerry told me … that it's even bigger -- I hate to say this -- than it was last year." With a slight grin, he added: "I don't know if President Trump would admit that or not."

The crowd laughed, and some people cheered. Carter avoided any further Trump references -- at least by name.

The key to this day was that Carter and Falwell treated each other with respect, and even affection, setting the tone for an encounter between the evangelical left and right. In 2015, Falwell also made headlines by inviting Sen. Bernie Sanders to speak on campus.

Calling the 93-year-old Carter the "world's most famous Sunday school teacher," Falwell praised his declaration of born-again Christian faith while in public life and his legacy, as an ex-president, of serving others. Liberty's leader stressed that Carter showed political courage, and paid a high price among Democrats, when he signed the Hyde Amendment banning the use of federal funds to pay for most abortions.

"The longer I live, the more I want to know about a person, and to give my political support to a person," said Falwell. "Policies are important. But candidates lie about their policies all the time in order to get elected. The same elite establishment that Jesus condemned remains the real enemy today."

Carter's visit, he added, was an example of Christians "uniting … on issues where they agree, rather than fighting about issues where they disagree."

Volume is rising in closed-door LGBTQ debates among Baptists on the left

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."

Word according to Bill Clinton

As Bill Clinton tells the story, it wasn't your typical Baptist prayer breakfast.

The guest of honor at the White House was the Rev. Ed Young, the Southern Baptist Convention's new president. The two men went jogging near the National Mall and had breakfast on the Truman Balcony with Vice President Al Gore. The three Southern Baptists didn't agree on everything, but the atmosphere was friendly -- in large part because the president admired Young's preaching so much.

But the crucial exchange in that 1993 meeting centered on a question about the Bible, said Clinton, speaking to last week's New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta. This unprecedented summit drew about 10,000 Anglo, African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic Baptists from 30 North American conventions and organizations linked to the Baptist World Alliance.

Continuing a lengthy story that he turned into a parable, Clinton claimed that Young "looked at me and he said, 'I want to ask you a question, a simple question, and I just want a yes or no answer. I don't want one of those slick political answers. ... Do you believe the Bible is literally true? Yes or no.'

"I said, 'Reverend Young, I think that it is completely true, but I do not believe that you, or I, or any other living person, is wise enough to understand it completely.' He said, 'That's a political answer.' I said, 'No, it's not. You asked a political question.' "

The audience in the Georgia World Congress Center cheered, which isn't surprising since the New Covenant gathering served as a rally for Clinton and other Baptists anxious to build a progressive network to stand opposite the conservative Southern Baptist Convention.

Also, it isn't surprising to learn that Young has a radically different take on what happened that morning. He agrees it was a friendly meeting, but doesn't remember eating breakfast. However, the preacher said the logistical details are beside the point.

"The main thing is that I have never asked anyone on this earth that question," said Young, who continues to lead Second Baptist Church in Houston, which draws about 25,000 worshippers to services each week on five campuses throughout that giant metroplex. "I have no doubt that someone, somewhere has asked Bill Clinton if he thinks the Bible is literally true, but it wasn't me.

"That isn't a question I ask. I mean, Jesus says, 'I am a door.' ... How do you claim something like that is literally true?"

In fact, Young doesn't remember mentioning "biblical inerrancy" during that White House meeting, the theological term at the heart of 30 years of conflict in the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest non-Catholic flock.

However, the men did discuss the divisions in their church, Young added, and Clinton offered an articulate defense of his more liberal approach to the Christian faith. They also talked about specific moral and political issues, the kind of hot-button issues that are causing splits in many mainstream churches these days.

"I agreed not to make any public statements after that meeting," said Young. "So what we talked about was off the record then and I'll keep it that way today."

But Clinton and other New Covenant speakers -- including Gore and former President Jimmy Carter -- talked openly about the SBC's fault lines, including abortion, gay rights, the ordination of women, clashing accounts of creation, global warming, the death penalty and the separation of church and state.

For Baptist conservatives, Clinton insisted, the theological foundation for their public activism was the "proposition that the Bible was literally true and that, once you understood its literal meaning, it was possible to know what God intended us to do about every conceivable political question alive in this day. And, that knowing God's will, if we did not do it, we had committed not just a political error, but a religious heresy."

But when it comes to politics, the former president said Baptists should focus on the verse in the Apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians in which he stresses that it's impossible to understand everything about God's will because, in this life, "we see through a glass, darkly."

Therefore, Clinton stressed, "it almost doesn't matter whether the Bible is literally true, because we know in part, we see through a glass darkly. Humility is the order of the day. The reason we have to love each other is because all of us might be wrong."

'Progressives' in the pews

When the Rev. Robert Maddox went to work as Jimmy Carter's White House faith liaison, one of his main jobs was helping Beltway politicos lose their fear of born-again Christians.

The landscape has changed radically in the past three decades. What infuriates Maddox now is that Americans now automatically assume that religious believers are right-wing Republicans.

"People on the progressive side of things have not been doing a good job getting our message out," he said, during a break in a Washington, D.C., conference for the religious left. "We rolled over and let the Ronald Reagans and the fundamentalists grab hold of the media and define what faith means -- down at the level of bumper stickers and real life."

The gathering was called "Faith and Progressive Policy: Proud Past, Promising Future" and drew nearly 400 activists. Staffers for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops huddled with mainstream Jewish leaders and Muslim progressives. "Moderate" evangelicals talked shop with officials from the National Council of Churches. It was both reunion and pep rally.

Speaker after speaker said the key was finding unity in their creeds -- not strife. This worked in the civil rights era, the labor campaigns of Cesar Chavez and campaigns against apartheid in South Africa. They prayed that it could happen again.

The leader of the Center for American Progress, which sponsored the event, said exploring his Catholic faith has only made him more committed to liberal politics, said John D. Podesta, White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton. His faith has also helped him identify the forces that he believes must be defeated.

"In the past 20 years we've seen the emergence of religious leaders who tried to dictate legislation and public policy from their particular set of religious beliefs," he said. "The religious leaders who attracted the widest attention were often those with the narrowest minds. Rather than use their faith in God to bring Americans together, they chose to use it to drive us apart."

Truth is, faith has become the boldest dividing line in American politics.

A wave of surveys indicate that the best way to predict what voters will do on Election Day is to study what they do on the Lord's Day. Voters who worship more than once a week vote Republican by a ratio of 2-1 or more. A Time poll says the "very religious" support Bush over Sen. John Kerry, 59 percent to 35 percent. Those who call themselves "not religious" back Kerry, 69 percent to 22 percent.

The problem, said Maddox, is that conservatives used U.S. Supreme Court decisions on hot-button moral issues to drive a wedge between Democrats and voters in many Catholic and evangelical pews. The Baptist pastor gets red in the face when describing the founding fathers of the religious right, using vivid, rodent-related vocabulary that can't be printed in a family newspaper.

"Take Reagan," said Maddox. "He started talking about abortion and, all of a sudden, he was this great Christian candidate. ... Now we're in another election year and the right is still obsessed with sex. We have to tell the American people that this isn't about abortion and it's not about gay marriage. It's about the budget, health care and the war. At least, that's what we believe."

But the moral divisions are real, said Maddox. He estimated that 90 percent of those attending this conference are pro-abortion rights and the same percentage backs gay rights. Almost all of the Christians present would clash with traditional believers on other biblical issues.

Take, for example, the familiar verse in the Gospel of John in which Jesus says: "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me."

"Sooner or later," said Maddox, " the church crowd is going to wake up and realize that there are going to be a lot of people in heaven other than us Christians. I still believe Jesus is the way and the truth -- for me. But it's that last part that troubles me, the part that says 'no man comes to the father, except by me.'

"I don't think we can get away with saying that anymore. That might have worked in the '50s, but it's not going to work in the 21st century."