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 persuade 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 not only the largest Baptist denomination in the U.S., but is also the biggest Protestant group in the country.
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.
But he has since tried to reconcile with its leaders, none of whom attended the meeting.
Detractors said it was merely a showcase for Baptist Democrats. Along with Carter, former Vice President Al Gore gave a presentation on global warming and former President Clinton was the final speaker Friday night. Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa spoke, but other GOP leaders who had been invited didn't attend.
Clinton cautioned that all sides in the Baptist debate think that their view of Scripture is the correct one. He asked the assembly to consider that "we might all be wrong" and remain humble as they start what he said would be a long and difficult journey toward reconciliation.
"We must approach those who disagree with an outstretched hand, not a clenched fist," Clinton said. "No matter what condemnation is leveled at this movement, you must respond in a spirit of love. You must find something to do, surely there is something we can do together. We must say to them we respect your view."
Many participants said the best part of the event was the chance for white and black Baptists to meet. Sean Smith of Atlanta, who is the pastor of an inner-city church, said it was "high time" it happened.
Northern and Southern Baptists split in 1845, when Northerners said they wouldn't support missionaries who were slaveholders. Black Baptists generally formed their own denominations, which produced some of the most prominent civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They have faced their own splits over civil rights strategies and other issues.
"There's history that's involved," said Smith, a student at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University. "What is beneficial for everyone is that you can learn to transcend that history."
The meeting took place at a time when denominational ties have lost significance for all churches and many younger Christians are more focused on healing social ills than feuding over verses in Scripture. The Internet has dramatically increased communication across denominational boundaries, making cooperation easier.
"There is a breakthrough," said the Rev. Jimmy Allen, who served as a Southern Baptist Convention president before the conservative takeover. He said Christians are "cohesing around causes in ways they haven't done in generations."
Still, leaders of the event acknowledged that they had an enormous task ahead to convert the energy from the meeting into something concrete. They do not want to start a new denomination, but hope to develop common mission projects on the environment, immigration and religious freedom or other issues that can build ties among Baptists.
Carter and other organizers plan to meet next month at The Carter Center in Atlanta to chart their next steps.