ATLANTA (AP) - With the help of former President Carter, Baptists who have distanced themselves from the conservative Southern Baptist Convention announced plans Tuesday for a major meeting that aims to improve the Baptist image and broaden its agenda.
Carter, who left the Southern Baptists in 2000 after the denomination came under conservative control, and former President Bill Clinton, also a Baptist, joined leaders of about 40 Baptist groups in making the announcement at The Carter Center.
"Our goal is to have a major demonstration of harmony and a common commitment to personifying and to accomplish the goals that Jesus Christ expressed," Carter said.
Bill Underwood, president of Mercer University, a Georgia school with Baptist ties, stressed that the assembly was not a partisan effort, despite the support of the Democratic ex-presidents. Underwood predicted that Republican public officials would also participate in the meeting, scheduled tentatively for Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 2008, in Atlanta.
But Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptists' public policy arm, noted that the gathering will be held during a presidential election year. Land said organizers will have to work hard to ensure the event is not viewed as "overly political."
Organizers say the event could draw more than 20,000 Baptists. Among the groups supporting the effort are several historically black Baptist denominations. Carter stressed that Southern Baptists are invited to the gathering.
The announcement Tuesday is the latest chapter in fierce Baptist battles over how to interpret Scripture. Starting in 1979, Southern Baptists who believe the Bible is without error took leadership of the convention, which now claims 16.4 million members. The denomination became a leading voice opposing gay marriage and abortion, and took stands on many other public policy issues.
Southern Baptists with a more liberal outlook responded by forming their own groups, including the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, an organizer of next year's assembly.
Lance Wallace, a spokesman for the fellowship, said the goal of the meeting was "to give Baptists a more accurate depiction in the public mind-set."
The meeting's focus will be on healing social ills including poverty, pollution, lack of health care and global religious and racial conflict, organizers said.
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