By Cherilyn Crowe
He’s had substantive face-to-face meetings with four U.S. presidents.
He’s been called a “hypocritical Baptist minister” by Judge Roy Moore during a Congressional hearing because he opposed Moore’s government-sponsored Ten Commandments display.
He’s been in a Capitol Hill meeting with Bono, lead singer of the rock band U2.
And, at the end of this year, he’s retiring as executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
But, Brent Walker isn’t giving farewell speeches just yet. Instead, he thinks of this time as the “seventh inning stretch,” and he is casting a vision for the future of the organization.
Walker brought the crowd to its feet at the Religious Liberty Council Luncheon in Greensboro, North Carolina, on June 24 as he shared his passion for religious liberty and the tenants of his work throughout his 27-year career at the BJC.
Standing firm in Baptist heritage, Walker explained three underpinnings of the BJC’s focus.
“We think theologically,” he said, noting that “soul freedom” is a gift from God to all humankind.
“We act responsibly, embracing the ethical imperative of religious liberty for all, not just for ourselves individually, or even our own Baptist tribe, but for all of God’s children,” he continued.
“We reason constitutionally,” Walker said, pointing out that the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses require government to be neutral toward religion.
Walker explained the BJC’s work as a type of balancing act – ensuring that government accommodates religion without advancing it; protects religion without promoting it; and lifts substantial burdens on the exercise of religion without giving it an impermissible benefit.
“Over the past quarter century, we have sought to apply these principles in the give- and-take of real world experience,” he said, noting that the BJC seeks “both/and” solutions in the congested intersection of church and state.
“So, for example, the BJC says ‘yes’ to voluntary student prayer, but ‘no’ to prayers delivered in a public school classroom by a teacher. We say ‘yes’ to tax exemption for religious and other nonprofits, but ‘no’ to subsidies for churches to support their ministries,” Walker said.
Walker reaffirmed the BJC’s support for the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but he raised concerns about the dangers posed by statutes proposed in some states without the same carefully crafted language. The BJC chaired the coalition that pushed for the federal legislation in 1993.
While the BJC files briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court, pressures Congress and advises the White House, Walker pointed out the importance of education in the organization’s work. We teach “Baptists in the pews, teachers in academia, the national media and the culture at large about the proper understanding of religious liberty and the separation of church and state,” he said.
During Walker’s tenure, the BJC’s focus on education has included opening the Center for Religious Liberty on Capitol Hill to host groups for educational programs, hiring a full-time Education and Outreach Specialist, expanding the internship program, creating an essay contest for high school juniors and seniors, developing the BJC Fellows Program for young professionals, and continuing to find new ways to teach about the importance of religious liberty.
In looking toward the future, Walker discussed the BJC’s ambitious expansion targets, including addressing global religious liberty more often, responding in real time and mobilizing advocates.
He also took a moment to pay tribute to his predecessor, James Dunn, who told Walker not to be discouraged if the BJC doesn’t grow to be “much more than what we’ve got.” Walker said it was more of a pastoral word at the time than a negative view of the possibilities. “But, I think that James understood before he died last year that — with the doubling of our annual budget, the construction of our Center for Religious Liberty and a six-fold increase in our endowment that he started — that, while we are still a boutique in the sense of our singular focus and a relatively small staff and budget when compared to others with whom we compete, we are far, far healthier than ever, with the potential of soaring to much greater heights.”
He concluded with a charge to the crowd and his future successor. “Let’s all go forward together, to defend and extend God-given religious liberty for all God’s children.”
Also during the luncheon, BJC General Counsel and Associate Executive Director Holly Hollman gave an update on the BJC’s work and introduced Walker. She pointed out that the term “religious liberty” has been used in different contexts and with different connotations recently, but we have to speak up for religious liberty in the historic Baptist tradition. While it means individuals may have different views and we all have to find ways to accommodate people with a variety of religious beliefs, it “should not be code for anti-gay or anti-any other group,” she said.
Hollman also introduced a video looking at Walker’s contributions to religious liberty and Baptist life. It featured reflections from Central Baptist Theological Seminary President Molly T. Marshall, Baptist Women in Ministry Executive Director Pam Durso, American Baptist Home Mission Societies Executive Director Jeffrey Haggray and BJC Board Chair Daniel Glaze.
As the individual donor organization of the Baptist Joint Committee, the Religious Liberty Council (RLC) cultivates an understanding of religious freedom among Baptists and the larger public. It is one of the 15 supporting bodies of the BJC, with 13 RLC members serving three-year terms on the BJC Board of Directors.
During the luncheon, those in attendance elected new RLC representatives to the BJC board. Madison McClendon of Illinois and Nelson Roos of Washington, D.C., were elected for new terms, while Jackie Baugh Moore of Texas, Jesse Rincones of Texas and Mica Strother of Arkansas were re-elected for their second term on the board. C. Lynn Brinkley of North Carolina was elected to fill an unfinished term.
Two RLC representatives rotating off the board were recognized at the luncheon for their service: Amanda Tyler of Washington, D.C., and Mark Edwards of North Carolina.
For more information about this year’s event – including links to photos and a video of the entire luncheon – visit BJConline.org/Luncheon. The 2017 event will be in Atlanta, held in conjunction with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly.