By Cherilyn Crowe
DALLAS – What will you say when faced with injustice and inequality? On Juneteenth, the Rev. Dr. Marvin A. McMickle’s rousing address at the Religious Liberty Council Luncheon asked attendees to break the sound of silence and explained the complicated relationship between African-Americans and church-state issues.
McMickle serves as the president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School and is a prolific author, with his most recent book titled Pulpit & Politics: Separation of Church & State in the Black Church. Speaking to more than 600 people gathered for the 2015 Religious Liberty Council Luncheon in Dallas on June 19, he noted the significance of the date. Commonly referred to as “Juneteenth,” June 19 is one of the most popular celebrations of the abolition of slavery in the United States. On that date in 1865, news about the Emancipation Proclamation finally made its way to the state of Texas in an order from the Union army.
This year was the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, which continues to serve as a somber reminder that slavery continued for more than two years in the United States after its legal abolition. The order did not make things easier for many of the enslaved, and state- sanctioned discrimination continued long after the first Juneteenth.
“I begin with a reference to Juneteenth because there is an important connection between religious liberty and human freedom that has brought me before you today,” McMickle said. “The power of the state should never be used to prefer one religious tradition above any and all others, and I’m only too aware historically of the centuries-long struggle of religious intolerance and the quest for religious liberty.”
McMickle discussed the history of religious intolerance in Europe, and noted that the Thirty Years’ War was essentially between nations and their state-sanctioned religions. The idea of a state-supported – and sometimes state-mandated – church came to America with its European settlers. McMickle reminded the crowd of the path (including the persecution of Baptists) that led to the protection of religious freedom and separation of church and state enshrined in the First Amendment.
Turning to the historical significance of speaking on Juneteenth, McMickle pointed out that, while Holland, Spain, England and its colonies were seeking religious liberty for themselves, they were also “actively involved with the trans-Atlantic slave trade that denied physical liberty to tens of millions of people.”
McMickle discussed the history of slavery, including how the church and the state often worked together to “build their economies on the backs of slavery.” He explained that “because of the historic collaboration between the white church and white governments, the perpetuation of the suffering and exploitation – the state by its actions, and sadly the church by its silence,” many African-Americans have a “jaundiced view” regarding the issue of separation of church and state.
Commenting on Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous letter from the Birmingham jail, McMickle noted that King did not write it simply to protest segregation statutes; it was also in response to clergy who told King he should not be so active in protests and the fight for civil rights.
McMickle said many African-American ministers found they could alter the course of history if they “put their hands on the levers of political power.” They got involved in politics, he said, not because they wanted to use the government to advance religion, but they wanted to make a difference and create change, such as shaping policies to help the underprivileged.
Speaking days after the deadly shooting at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., McMickle noted that the pastor – who was among those who lost their lives – was also a state senator.
McMickle challenged the crowd to think about what they will say when it comes to inequality. “While you are speaking on the separation of church and state and your interests in the matter of religious liberty, I invite you, I implore you, I encourage you to not continue the sound of silence on the issues of injustice and inequality that go on in this country almost undisturbed.
“Today is Juneteenth. One hundred fifty years ago, slavery was finally ended in this country, not by any moral persuasion, but by the Union army. But the pain goes on, as does the struggle.
“Religious liberty is good, but so is physical freedom. Keep the faith by breaking the silence,” he proclaimed.
The luncheon included updates from BJC Executive Director Brent Walker and General Counsel Holly Hollman on the latest from Washington. BJC supporters Woody and Penny Jenkins also shared why they decided to include the Baptist Joint Committee in their estate plans, becoming part of the James Dunn Legacy Circle. When planning for retirement, they said they wanted to make sure that things they cared about were taken care of, and that included religious liberty and the BJC. “We know of no other organization that promotes religious liberty at the level and to the extent that the BJC does anywhere in our country,” Woody said.
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 officers and board representatives. Rebecca Mathis of North Carolina and Mitch Randall of Oklahoma were elected co-chairs of the RLC, and Alyssa Aldape of Georgia was elected secretary. The new class of RLC representatives elected to the BJC board were Andrew Daugherty of Colorado, Aubrey Ducker of Florida, Courtney Krueger of South Carolina, and Tambi Swiney of Tennessee.
For more information about this year’s event – including links to photos and a video of the entire luncheon – visit BJConline.org/Luncheon.
From the July/August 2015 Report from the Capital. Click here to read the next story.