When Jimmy Carter Left the Southern Baptists

Greg Markley


As former President Jimmy Carter remains in hospice and in people’s prayers, a lesser-known episode of his life is worth a relook. In October 2000, he left the Southern Baptist Convention because of an ideological split. Carter had several differences with the organization; it was the church’s stance on equality for women that was his main concern.

Be mindful that splits can happen in any congregation, not just the Southern Baptists, which had nearly 13.7 million members as of 2021. In Lee County, even large mainstream Protestant groups in the countryside and in downtown Auburn struggle with ideological divisions. A lot relates to “wokeness,” which originally meant “alertness to racial prejudice and discrimination.” Since 2010, it also relates to identity politics, gender and social justice concerns.

“I have been disappointed and feel excluded by the adoption of policies and an increasingly rigid Southern Baptist Convention creed,” Carter wrote, noting biblical inerrancy and the exclusion of women from becoming pastors in the October 2000 letter he sent to 75,000 Southern Baptists nationwide. “Some of those policies violate the basic premises of my Christian faith.”

In 2007, Carter created a coalition made up of pastors that he called the New Baptist Covenant. According to “Jimmy Carter Makes One Final Push to End Racism,” a 2016 article in The Atlantic by Emma Green, “Many progressives, even those who share Carter’s faith, have long been uneasy with overt religious influence on policy. This is partly why progressive Christians in the U.S. have not had as prominent a public voice as their conservative counterparts.”

Baptist support for Carter in the 1976 election was solid. But the new Moral Majority by 1980 helped Ronald Reagan win, with two-thirds of Baptist pastor the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s backers voting Reagan over Carter. Here in May 2023, in Carter’s final days, I submit ideas about why his Sunday sermons at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, have been so popular.

Did Baptists who voted for him in 1976 but deserted him in 1980, being less “traditional,” feel guilty so they went to hear him talk? How about liberals who voted for Independent John Anderson or did not vote in 1980 — was it penance at a Carter sermon after Reagan was elected? Maybe Sunday sermon visitors wanted to meet a U.S. president, hear an inspiring sermon or stroll in a small Southern town? I say the latter was the main reason they went to Plains — to see Carter himself.

“I’m familiar with the verses they have quoted about wives being subjugated to their husbands,” Carter told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when he left the Southern Baptists. “In my opinion, this is a distortion of the meaning of Scripture. … I personally feel the Bible says all people are equal in the eyes of God. Women should play an absolutely equal role in the service of Christ in the church.”

Carter’s October 2000 split from the Convention followed its June vote that women should no longer serve as pastors. The SBC also voted to condemn racism, homosexuality, abortion, pornography and adultery. Carter’s letter was mostly symbolic, as he has not been a player in the national group. But he could affect things by using his “moral suasion” as a true-blue, prominent Baptist.

“He made talking about Jesus Christ a part of our discourse in politics,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian then working at the University of New Orleans. “In Southern Baptist history, this is a very big moment. The born-again Southern Baptist president broke with the hierarchy of the church because of their rigidity and dictatorial posturing. I think turmoil will result in the Southern Baptist Convention because of this.”

Just as Carter grew up and lived most of his life as a member of one church, a good portion of people in our area and in Alabama have similar deep roots in a particular church and in their church’s ideology. Others like myself, who have lived in many states and countries, must adjust to other churches and even other doctrines, wherever we move. It can be disconcerting.

The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself” — meaning, when dealing with chances, we should not think too grandly about what we can achieve. But being human, we default to comfort and stability to stay where we are in life. Many churches are deciding to disaffiliate or not. I wish you all the best in finding a new church home or harmonizing your current place of worship.

Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has master’s degrees in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to The Observer for 12 years. gm.markley@charter.net


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