By John D. Pierce
President Jimmy Carter’s 75th birthday in October 1999 coincided with the completed restoration of the beautiful Rylander Theater in downtown Americus, Ga. So Sumter County residents rolled the grand opening of the revived historic theater and the milestone birthday of their favorite son into one big celebration.
Primarily this was a local event, but the former president invited seasoned singers Pat Boone (with his white shoes and clean reputation) and Lynn Anderson (of “Rose Garden” fame) to perform. To balance the act, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter asked the Indigo Girls to sing — and they agreed.
Just before the event, President Carter met with the handful of media present that included former ABC News anchor Sam Donaldson and UPI correspondent Helen Thomas — who had covered the Carter campaigns and presidency and seemed delighted to be back in Southwest Georgia.
Donaldson asked if the Carters stilled jogged as he remembered from years ago. President Carter said they did not, but enjoyed riding bikes around their small hometown of Plains — and visiting a neighborhood where several African-American families live.
Intrigued, Thomas asked: “What do they do when a former President of the United States comes riding up on a bicycle?”
Carter shrugged and said: “They just say, ‘Hi Mr. Jimmy.’”
Then he paused for a moment, beamed his trademark smile and added: “But Helen, if they are Baptists, they might say, ‘Hi Brother Jimmy.’”
The first reason I remain among the Baptists is because they have been and are family to me. Throughout my life I have gathered sisters and brothers (and fathers and mothers) who have taught, nurtured and supported me.
Week in and week out, and through two-week Vacation Bible Schools each summer, the Baptist congregation of my childhood and youth taught the Bible to me (though some — OK, numerous — interpretations have been replaced along the way). They taught me to give priority attention to worship, stewardship and personal devotion.
They paid for me to go to church camp and on college mission trips, and to attend seminary. They have celebrated my joys and grieved in my losses. They — despite any and all shortcomings — are my family.
The love of God was more than a biblical topic to be studied. I was shown great love by those who invested their lives in mine.
There are at least three books with the title, Why I Am a Baptist. Two were published shortly after the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, revealing the strong differences held by the two opposing sides.
Another was published in 1957 by Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of a series on different denominations. The Baptist volume was edited by legendary pastor, editor and religious liberty advocate Louie D. Newton of Atlanta.
Contributors focused heavily on some key principles that are deeply rooted in the 400-year Baptist experience: Soul competency (or freedom of conscience, emphasizing an individual’s God-given freedom to know and respond to God’s will), the related Priesthood of the Believer (affirming equal access to God with no human intermediary), religious liberty (for all persons of every and no belief), and congregational polity.
The latter, of course, has its downsides. When church government resides within individual congregations, all kinds of persons — with limited qualifications and even fraudulent credentials — can become ministers. Yet, on the other hand, individual congregations are free to call out ministerial leadership as they choose without denominational authorities erecting roadblocks over gender or any other factor.
While many modern Baptists have contradicted these historic principles, I am unwilling to give the Baptist banner over to them. So my second reason for remaining a Baptist is that I affirm those principles.
It still seems right to me that every believer has equal access to God and is responsible for her or his own spiritual decisions; that Christian baptism (preferably the thoroughly-wet kind) should follow one’s personal affirmation of faith (and, in fact, be a public profession of faith); that the Bible is the authoritative guide for our lives (and best understood and applied in light of Jesus Christ, the fullest revelation); that enforcing doctrinal conformity on other Baptists (or other Christians, for that matter) is divisive, arrogant, disrespectful and unproductive in advancing the Kingdom of God; and that religious liberty must be guarded for all persons (a deep conviction that drove then-Baptist Roger Williams to found Rhode Island as a refuge for Baptists, Quaker, Jews, atheists and other religious suspects).
Baptist minister John Leland greatly influenced Madison and Jefferson on the inclusion of religious liberty guarantees in our nation’s constitution. Baptists are widely and rightly credited for the contribution of full religious liberty to our national identity.
The Baptist way of faith is so deeply woven with the threads of freedom — balanced by a sense of individual responsibility — that even the most tragic misrepresentations by some who claim the Baptist name cannot prevent individual Baptists and autonomous congregations from being true to their roots and faith.
Admittedly, such radical and widespread freedom can have its downsides: often messy and slow decision-making, inadequately trained clergy, and too-easy congregational and denominational division. Yet it avoids the some of the challenges of hierarchal and connected church traditions with their own issues of centering power in a few and granting little room for dissent (something Baptists highly cherish).
After exploring other denominations years ago — and finding much to be appreciated in them — my decision was confirmed to stick with the one whose strengths and weaknesses are familiar and whose historic principles are still worthy of my embrace.
Freedom — more than anything else — has defined the Baptist movement for four centuries. And for every embarrassing Baptist fundamentalist TV preacher there is a Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — who uses the freedom of a Baptist pulpit or pew to proclaim liberty for all.