Let's Use a New Modifier in a New Century to Describe Baptists

Goodwill is an energetic, positive word. It's a proactively muscular word. It contains enough self-definition that further commentary is unnecessary in casual conversation.

Let's start describing ourselves as the goodwill Baptists.

Let's drop the milquetoast modifier "moderate" to describe Southern Baptists who distance themselves from fundamentalism.

The phrase "moderate" was used during the last few decades of the 20th century to contrast one group of Baptists against another group of Baptists--those who were theological fundamentalists with their claim of an inerrant Bible, assertion of biblical literalness, declaration of theological purity and pronouncement of a truncated moral agenda.

If you disagreed with the veracity, method and secular political loyalty of the fundamentalists in their takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention and conquest of the public square, then you called yourself a moderate.

Of course, a moderate was not a liberal. Moderates stiff-armed zealots at both ends of the spectrum, clinging to the yellow stripe in the middle of the theological and political road.

Some Baptists rightfully understood the pusillanimous nature of the word moderate and the unwanted symbolism of the yellow stripe. Over time these folk started using the term "mainstream."

That modifier didn't catch on much better than another modifier that some of us used erratically. We described ourselves as "centrists."

The moderate, mainstream and centrist modifiers always required a lot more words that explained why we were not them (Southern Baptist fundamentalists). In other words, we defined ourselves negatively, because to describe the SBC was to use negative terms.

Now granted, some moderates have denied for a long time that they even care about the fundamentalists. They claim disinterest, while watching the SBC with eagle eyes and funding it through their churches and state conventions. Such is the situation of the Baptist deniers.

As non-fundamentalist Baptists go forward in the 21st century, we need a simple, positive, proactive, powerful, descriptive term.

Renaming is certainly not a unique issue for Baptists of the South. Some Southern Baptists have tried to drop the "southern" modifier, an effort that failed several years ago when the majority decided that keeping southern was a good thing, never mind that the term tied them to slavery, segregation and southern culture.

Of course, several SBC agencies have renamed themselves and a growing number of churches are dropping the name Baptists from their signposts. Bob Jones, president of Bob Jones University, suggested dropping the modifier "fundamentalist" after 9/11, offering the modifier "preservationist."

The Baptist Center for Ethics has used the modifier "goodwill" to describe the kind of Baptists we hope our readers are or should be.

An early use of the term came after tapes were released by the National Archives, in which Billy Graham was heard making anti-Semitic remarks to Richard Nixon in the White House. Graham said Jews had a "stranglehold" on the media and that it "has got to be broken or the country's going down the drain."

We responded in a March 2002 column that "Baptists of goodwill simply must engage constructively in interfaith dialogue."

We used the term at our June 2004 Baptist-Jewish luncheon: "Our luncheon is a step toward members of the Baptist and Jewish communities finding ways to fashion good will for the common good. Like Esau and Jacob, we meet today. We need to bless one another. We need to foster good will for the common good."

When BCE released its global poverty DVD in the summer of 2006, we highlighted what goodwill Baptists were doing around the world to address hunger and poverty specifically through Baptist World Aid and its partners.

We repeated the concept in October 2006, expressing support for public education: "What is needed is for public school teachers to get their clergy on record and for goodwill Baptist clergy to speak up for great public schools."

We also said, "All across the country goodwill Baptist clergy are working to support public education."

Following the press conference announcing the new Baptist covenant gathering, we said in January 2007 that "the perception of Baptists as the anti-everything people is one reason that good-will Baptist leaders met this week in Atlanta. They wanted the world to know about a different kind of Baptist, who is neither a conservative Baptist nor a liberal Baptist. They wanted folk to know about the Golden Rule Baptists."

Two weeks later, we said that the greatest challenge facing supporters of the gathering was the biblical passage, Luke 4:18-19: "Now is the time for goodwill Baptists to concentrate on the text, discerning how we live out the Jesus agenda."

We think that the modifier "goodwill" works a lot more accurately and constructively than some of the old terms.

Let's start describing ourselves as "goodwill Baptists." Let's see if that modifier works better in defining who we are to ourselves and to others.

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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