When the world’s best known Baptist was named the recipient of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, Southern Baptist media and opinion-shapers uttered hardly a word.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s news service, Baptist Press, did not even carry a news article about a former U.S. president—and Baptist—winning the world’s foremost award for peacemaking.
BP’s shameful, albeit expected, failure was accompanied by a disturbing silence across the editorial pages of Baptist state papers. Paper after paper missed an opportunity to acknowledge a faithful Baptist who walks the talk.
Carter exemplifies the best of what being a Baptist means. He studies the Bible. He shares his faith. He teaches Sunday School. He does missions—building houses with the poor and working to end “river blindness” in Africa. He values democracy enough to work tirelessly for fair elections. He works for peace, a practice that Jesus said guaranteed one the title “sons of God.”
How can a carpenter with a full heart for the world be so comfortably rejected in his own home faith?
Of course the biblical witness reminds us of a carpenter’s son filled with compassion who was also rebuffed in his hometown. Jesus said, “A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country and his own house.”
Indeed, Carter is a prophet without honor among the Southern Baptist spiritual and genetic offspring of those who refused to honor another Baptist Nobel Peace laureate.
When Martin Luther King became the youngest recipient and the first Georgia Baptist to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he, too, was met with icy silence from the leadership of the segregated Southern Baptist Convention.
Twice Baptists have been honored with the Nobel Peace Prize; twice silence has ruled the day.
What explains this repetition of history?
One answer is that King and Carter took Jesus too literally. Despite a theological perspective that claims to read literally the Bible, the dominant tradition in white Baptist life always waters down Jesus’ teachings on equal rights for women, reconciliation among adversaries and justice for the oppressed. Embodying these principles is a surefire way to be labeled a dissenter.
Another answer is that both men shared family secrets. Carter told the nation that the fundamentalist-controlled Southern Baptist Convention had become too extreme. King told the country how segregated and wrong the white Baptist church was. Telling secrets always disturbs the rut of tradition and engenders a blowback of opposition.
In the fullness of time, sociologists of religion and church historians will give more complete answers why Southern Baptists reacted negatively toward both laureates.
For now, for me and my household, we are proud of Carter and King, Baptist drum majors for righteousness. And we know that one day, Carter, like King, will be recognized and honored by a distant generation of white Southern Baptists.
Robert Parham is the executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.