As the Baptist Joint Committee’s executive director, I have written nearly 170 “Reflections” columns. This one is my last. All of them taken together chronicle the work of the BJC over the past 17 of its 80-year history entrusted to my leadership.
In my first column, published October 12, 1999, I wrote about a vow I made to the BJC Board the week before. I will always:
• do my best to advance the mission of the Baptist Joint Committee, putting its interests above my own. I will always try to do good, do well and do right.
• be myself. I cannot replace, replicate or imitate James Dunn. Who can? The Lord broke the mold after he created James.
• keep in sight that our work is not just a job, but a Christian ministry. The means we employ, no less than the ends we seek, should serve as a Christian witness.
• be true to our Baptist heritage and the principles we champion — soul freedom, religious liberty and church-state separation. At the same time, I will be open to new ways of expressing and teaching those principles in the 21st century.
Whatever successes and failures I have had, my work has been guided by these commitments. I believe I have kept them.
In working with Congress, we were successful in leading a broad coalition to help pass landmark religious liberty legislation, such as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (2000). That law has been effective to protect the rights of religious land owners and free exercise needs of prisoners from governmental overreaching and meddling.
Although the BJC often led the way to advance good measures, we also know how to say “no.” We successfully opposed the “Istook Amendment” that sought to amend the First Amendment to allow state-sponsored prayer in public schools and open the door wide for funneling tax dollars into the coffers of religious organizations and ministries.
Sometimes, we failed. I regret that we have been unsuccessful in getting Congress to pass the Workplace Religious Freedom Act to further protect religious expression and practice in the workplace. We have not been able to obtain legislation — or even a presidential executive order — to stop religious discrimination in hiring for federally funded projects.
In the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts, we have had many victories — notably upholding the constitutionality of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and opposing governmental endorsement of Scripture in the form of Ten Commandments displays.
But we lost the battle on school vouchers (in the Supreme Court, at least, but it is still an open question in most of the states). And we have not prevailed in preventing some forms of state-sponsored religious exercises, specifically prayer, at city council meetings.
On the education front, we continue to work to get the balance right in public schools: saying “no” to government-sponsored religious exercises, but “yes” to various voluntary religious expressions by students that are not coercive or disruptive. Our redoubled commitment to education — as well as legislation and litigation — is bearing fresh fruit in large part as a result of our Center for Religious Liberty that opened in 2012.
But we continue to struggle to teach people the importance of separation of church and state to ensure full religious liberty and to convince a much-too-great percentage of the American public that we are not a “Christian nation,” legally and constitutionally; only demographically can it be said we are Christian.
All of this is to say — taking one step forward and one step back (okay, maybe one half-step back) — the BJC continues to be challenged and called upon to fight the good fight for religious liberty. Yes, we’ve got much work still to do.
Just as you have supported me with words of encouragement and, yes, constructive criticism, I know you will continue to support the talented BJC staff under the leadership of my successor, Amanda Tyler. She has my total confidence in her leadership and ability to take the BJC forward.
I trust you will continue to support the BJC with your gifts. Although we enjoy a firm financial posture, our needs always outstrip our resources to meet them. As the BJC’s traditional denominational support continues to wane, we look more and more to churches, foundations and individuals. In addition to your annual gift, a bequest in your estate plan would provide support long after you and I are gone.
Yes, as I have said before, these 17 years — 27 with the BJC all told — have been the pinnacle of my professional career. They have provided me with an opportunity to minister in a way that matters to Baptists, to our nation and to God.
Read tributes to Brent Walker:
Tyrone Pitts: A friend, confidant and adviser
Chet Edwards: A man of faith on Capitol Hill
Richard Foltin: A partner for all seasons
Amanda Tyler: A steady and strong leader
Holly Hollman: A teacher and pastor who prepared us