Religious liberty conversations often fail to include discussions of slavery and oppression, and the BJC Dinner explored the need for a new narrative. Held in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the Alliance of Baptists Annual Gathering, the April event brought together leaders and religious liberty supporters and showcased the work of some of the BJC Fellows.

BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler, along with Dr. Corey Walker, a professor at the University of Richmond, and Dr. Linda McKinnish Bridges, president of the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (BTSR), took the stage for a frank discussion on race, difficult Christian roots and history in this country, and how they impact the future of religious liberty.

Two words, many meanings

Tyler began the conversation by asking Bridges and Walker for their definition of religious liberty, since “the words ‘religious liberty’ don’t always have a clear meaning anymore. Bridges defined religious liberty as “the freedom to give expression to my religious consciousness, or not,” and Walker described it as “not only the freedom to exercise any sort of religious belief, practice, understanding, ritual, or not, but it is also the ability to be able to do that in a manner that is unobstructed by the legitimate powers of the state, and unobstructed by fellow citizens who may disagree with that particular practice.”

The trio participated in leading a course on religious liberty and religious dissent organized by BTSR last summer (see Tyler’s column in the July/August 2018 issue of Report from the Capital for details). During the course, they explored the Richmond Liberty Trail and the Richmond Slave Trail, which pose a stark contradiction.

Walker noted  the pride many Baptists have around the Baptist principles of soul freedom and religious liberty. But, he continued, pride can often block one from seeing the truth or acknowledging an unflattering history. Instead of “this heroic narrative that Baptists gave us this unique vision of religious liberty,” he said, “we began to look at the reality.” He pointed out that Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, is the home of many contradictions, including the two trails.

“We cannot think ‘religious liberty’ outside of the enslavement of Africans. We cannot think of religious liberty outside of the genocide of Native Americans,” Walker said, calling for a new narrative. “Although we can all call and claim the concept of religious liberty, how is it that it means so many different things to so many different people? We can actually deny liberty to those who want to seek as our fellow citizens and who begin to challenge the very boundaries of religious liberty.”

Bridges shared more about the course and the importance of including intersectional history. She reached out to Walker with the course idea, telling him, “Let’s walk into the capital of that Confederacy together and do something together.”

With his help, she says, the narrative changed. “It was not enough just to extol the virtues of our Baptist forebears, but it was trying to understand what it was to really live together, and it was our work and it was important for us to talk about these things together,” she said. “We could be born with ecumenical diversity and also have racial inclusion.”

Ready to be troubled

Tyler posed a hard question for the group: “What do we do about honoring the contributions of people like [Baptist preacher John] Leland, who helped influence the writing of the First Amendment, and helped influence the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, without ignoring the fact that the authors of that legislation were themselves slave owners?” She added that we also cannot ignore the fact that some Baptist ministers at the time were slave owners. “What do we do with this? How do we hold this contradiction?” she asked.

Walker said one way to begin is to recognize that these questions and issues are never simple.

“The task right now is to desegregate God,” he said. “We have to go deeper to the very idea of the creator that we have created in our own limited image that then gives birth to one singular mode of what it means to be human in the world.”

Walker also elaborated on how this viewpoint feeds into damaging narratives, such as Christian nationalism.

“That’s why we have this idea of religious liberty that is now being tethered to a new expression of American nationalism: America as this Christian nation is inextricably linked with the exercise of white supremacy.”

To undo this damage, Walker said we must strive for authenticity. “We have to be authentic and true to the Gospel of Jesus as Baptists in the world today,” he said.

“How do we do that? We do that by operationalizing a desegregated theology: a theology that is inclusive of all of God’s creation, and that inclusive aspect means we have to revise the narrative. We have to tell a new story. We have to sing new songs. We have to begin to imagine a whole new world.

“It’s not something that is very easy. It’s very difficult, because it’s going to go to the very root of what we believe,” he continued. “That’s the radical nature of this proposition; that’s the radical nature of religious liberty. It means giving, it means having the capacity, having the disposition, cultivating the virtue to begin to host that which is other in all of its ‘otherness’ not assimilating it to the same. If we can do that, then it’s quite possible that we can give birth to a new expression — a much more robust expression not only of religious liberty, but also of human community beyond ‘nationalism.’ Shall we say, ‘A beloved community’?”

Bridges echoed Walker’s statements, and expounded upon the contradiction of the birthing of a nation on the notion of religious freedom, while ignoring the soul freedom and chained humanity of slaves. “Here were groups of people [slaves] that had a religious consciousness but in order to be subversive, or submissive, rather, to their master, they had to absorb a Christian position,” she said. “They were beaten into submission to be Christian.” So, when thinking about Baptist history and the role of religious freedom, Bridges said that it’s important to “stand in the stones and to sit in the pews and see how belief had been coerced … How could we talk about religious liberty with those Baptist forebears unless we talked about what they were doing?”

Where do we go from here?

As the conversation came to a close, Tyler asked the panelists what attendees could do to continue changing the narrative once they left that night’s dinner.

Walker shared poetic advice, saying “Be open, be honest and willing to revise the ways in which you understand, convene courageous conversations that are in the spirit of advancing beloved community and maintain hope for the emergence of our new humanity.” Bridges’ response was a simple, “May I just say ‘Amen’ to that?”

Voices of the next generation

Also at the dinner, BJC Fellows shared how they are using the lessons they learned to make an impact on their community conversations.

Dr. Sabrina Dent, a member of the first class of BJC Fellows in 2015, said, “Being a BJC Fellow means extending the invitation for people of color and marginalized communities to be included in a larger conversation that impacts not only our religious freedom but our human rights. It’s because of my introduction to the BJC that I have been able to pursue this passion through my work at the Religious Freedom Center [part of the Freedom Forum Institute at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.] by centering the perspectives of African Americans on this topic.”

Chelsea Clarke, a 2018 BJC Fellow, shared the weight of the conversations she’s having in the nation’s capital. “As a person of faith, living in Washington, D.C., as a lay leader at First Baptist D.C., and as someone who works four blocks north of the White House at a major media company, this carries with it a weight of responsibility to be actively engaged in the national conversation, particularly when it comes to conversations around the First Amendment – protecting, defending and extending religious liberty for all, the freedom of speech and of the press, and the right to peacefully assemble – which is an almost weekly, sometimes almost daily, occurrence here in D.C.”

Head to our YouTube channel to watch the conversation, or listen to a podcast recording here.

A version of this column appears in the Summer 2019 edition of Report from the Capital. You can download the magazine as a PDF or read a digital edition.