Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

A Tale of Two Baptists: Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell

Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

A Tale of Two Baptists: Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell

Article excerpt

At first glance they seemed to have so much in common. Both President Jimmy Carter and evangelist Jerry Falwell were products of the early twentieth-century American rural South, both born to devout mothers who stressed strict adherence to their common Baptist faith. Both stressed the value of family.

"I had a very developed sense of family that centered around church activities," Carter recalled. The family, Falwell concurred, "is God's basic unit in society." (1)

While both professed to be "born again" evangelicals, Carter and Falwell emerged bitter political enemies, their similarities paling as their policy differences fueled increasingly public disputes. The devolution in the relationship of these two men, sharing so much in common, tells much about how the libertine culture of the post-World War II age exacerbated tensions within the American Baptist community, proving a wedge to divide further a faith already known for its divisions. Feminism, legal abortion, and demands for gay and lesbian civil rights--among other issues--appeared a direct challenge to the traditional nuclear family and, as such, fueled a more doctrinaire, rigid, and politically active cohort of Baptists.

De-emphasizing the autonomy of individual conscience so crucial historically to Baptists, these new activists made the Carter years an important period of transformation. The actions of Jimmy Carter and the manner in which Jerry Falwell reacted proved pivotal in this transformation. Helping to bring tensions within the Baptist community to a boil while adding publicity to the divisive issue of the nature of family, the two were at the vanguard of a new chapter in the long and fractious history of Baptists in America.

Contention was nothing new to Baptists, of course, their traditional anti-creedal sentiment and aversion to hierarchy ensuring not only an emphasis on religious freedom--separation of church and state--but also a history of denominational dispute. In 1845 with the Triennial Convention split over slavery, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) formed. After the Civil War, African Americans departed to form their own congregations while, in more recent years, Baptists frequently disagreed on issues such as the social gospel, evolution, Catholic immigration, and temperance. Scholars have noted the role Baptists played in early manifestations of the modern Religious Right, often led by grassroots activists and disagreeing on the wisdom of political involvement. (2)

Throughout the years Baptists organized affiliations, such as the Baptist Bible Fellowship International (BBFI) in 1950, to promote particular theological interpretations. Adopting a statement of faith that suggested a more doctrinal approach and greater emphasis on the inerrancy of scripture than the SBC, the BBFI operated as a more conservative organization even if its roots and theology strongly overlapped. In short, the SBC and the BBFI maintained separate affiliations but shared a common heritage and, at least in regard to the more fundamentalist elements within the SBC, friendly relations. Key both emphasized scripture, adult baptism, family, and missionary work, assuming as their primary goal the salvation of individual souls more than any collective redemption of society.

It was into this relatively stable amalgam that Carter and Falwell entered, Carter a member of the SBC and Falwell the BBFI. Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church occasionally worked with conservative SBC-affiliated congregations while Falwell sometimes coordinated education and missionary outreach with like-minded SBC leaders. (3) If nothing else, the associations with which Carter and Falwell aligned were distinct but still part of a collective whole, their shared traditions of independence and evangelism still providing a theological umbrella that defined and united them. (4) By the end of the Carter presidency, however, all this had changed. …

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