It has been a slow and sad process, one still in motion. The Southern Baptist Convention, representing the multimillion-member denomination characterizing the spiritual soul of the South, has lost its diversity. In the past 25 years, fundamentalist conservatives, voting as a majority bloc, albeit a slim one, have taken over the SBC.
The denomination's seminaries were purged of so-called liberals, and to their and the moderates' chagrin, the SBC incorporated a right-wing agenda that made Jerry Falwell proud.
"The Southern Baptists, to a large degree, proscribed the definition of Baptist for America today," said Tony Campolo, a leading voice among progressive Baptists. "And it comes across as being anti-gay, anti-women, pro-war, anti-environment, pro-gun. There are a lot of us saying that's not who we are. We need an alternative [Baptist] voice, and this could be it."
Last month, moderate Baptists from throughout the nation, many from the South, gathered in Atlanta to embrace a "New Baptist Covenant," one that includes a deep commitment to evangelism, while also incorporating a strong social justice component.
The brainchild of former President Jimmy Carter, the conference stuck closely to the Democratic Party line. Former President Bill Clinton attended, as did former Vice President Al Gore; U.S. Sen. Barack Obama sent a videotaped message.
Yet while there were several positive signs as this new group tries to form its identity, for those hoping to see a loving hand extended to gays and lesbians, or to hear a stronger rebuke of U.S. imperialism, the gathering was disappointing.
Opposition to the Iraq War received some airtime, but the U.S. Army was allowed to set up a booth to recruit Baptist chaplains. Race was a hot topic, but abortion and capital punishment were not. Most notably, the gathering did not offer an official embrace to the LGBT community.
Campolo joined others at the gathering who wore rainbow-colored stoles as a sign of solidarity with gays and lesbians. Campolo said he wanted to let them know "we were aware that they were there, and we loved them and accept them as brothers and sisters in Christ."
The Rev. Nancy Petty, co-pastor of Raleigh's Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, an open and affirming congregation that includes many gays and lesbians among its membership, said she attended the New Baptist Covenant gathering as a representative of Pullen, but did so at "a high cost, emotionally."
Petty, who is lesbian, said it was a "slap in the face" that gays and lesbians were denied an opportunity to be part of the planning for the Atlanta event.
"There seems to me to be a real incongruency between what they were preaching and what they were practicing," Petty said. "No one was asking them to endorse gays and lesbians. All that we were asking was to have a place at the table."
The gathering did break new racial ground. The nation's four traditional black Baptist denominations joined their more liberal, white counterparts for the first-ever, large interracial gathering of Baptists.
Duke Divinity School professor Curtis Freeman said that for many in Atlanta, the gathering was less about theology and more about "healing the wounds of racial divisions" that have a 200-year history in Baptist life.
Religion can fuel conflict
Religion can inflame political conflict: That's the opinion of professor Jill Carroll, a Middle East scholar and author of the new book A Dialogue of Civilizations: Gulen's Islamic Ideals and Humanistic Discourse.
"Whenever a conflict begins to involve religion, it becomes ever more intractable," said Carroll, who spoke last month at the Divan Cultural Center in Cary. Citing the examples of Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Kosovo and Northern Ireland, Carroll said once religion becomes the basis for discord, opposed parties dig in.
Disagreements over land, power sharing and resources are "negotiable" in a secular context, Carroll said in an interview with the Indy. "But the minute you throw God into it, the minute religion comes in, that's not negotiable. Religion deals in capital letters, capital-letter absolutes."
Many Jews were opposed to Israel becoming a state, Carroll said, and as years have passed, the disagreements between Jews and Arabs have intensified as religious differences have intensified.
"The conversation has shifted from a largely secular conversation to a religious one," said Carroll, who also is associate director of Rice University's Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance. "The religious overlay has become stronger and stronger, and the more that happens the more intractable that conflict becomes."
While she supports Israel's right to exist and defend itself, Carroll suggests the United States "withdraw uncritical support" of Israel.
"Israel doesn't have to play well with its neighbors because the United States is its daddy, and we will financially support that country no matter what they do. No matter what they do, we continue to write them checks" without ultimatums, she said. "If we stop that, Israel would have to live with the consequences of their actions more than they do now, and I think that would shift some things."
Death row inmates in limbo
Executions have been on hold for 18 months in North Carolina, while the 165 inmates on Central Prison's death row must wait, their appeals running out, not knowing their fates. On a recent visit to Durham, Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, said she doubts the U.S. Supreme Court will outlaw executions when it rules whether lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
In her book, Prejean recounts her friendship with Louisiana death row inmate Patrick Sonnier, whom she eventually accompanied to the execution chamber for electrocution.
"When we came to the last hours, he said, 'Sister Helen, you can't be there at the end because it could scare you to see this.' And all I knew was he was going to die, and all these witnesses wanted to see him die, and there was a strength in me like a rock, and I said, 'Pat, you are not going to die alone without a loving face to see, and I'm going to be the face of Christ for you. You look at my face when they do this.'"
Prejean still visits death row prisoners as part of her work to abolish capital punishment.
"It's the hub of the wheel," she told a breakfast audience at First Presbyterian Church. "I build everything around being able to visit and accompany people on death row ... the tremendous privilege that is to be with human beings in that journey."
For information about writing or visiting a North Carolina death row inmate, contact Amanda Lattanzio, community organizer for People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 933-7567.
Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace
The annual Holy Week Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace will be in Burlington today, with stops in Durham on Holy Thursday and in Garner and Raleigh on Good Friday. The pilgrimage ends with a Way of the Cross service at the State Capitol Good Friday at noon.
This year's themes include fair trade, labor rights, immigration reform and family unity.