It’s time to reimagine religious freedom

2023 BJC Luncheon introduces the work of the BJC Center for Faith, Justice and Reconciliation and a new chapter for BJC 

Sep 7, 2023

Lecture story by Jeff Brumley, Baptist News Global
Presentation story by Devin Withrow, summer BJC intern

BJC and the BJC Center for Faith, Justice and Reconciliation are urgently needed to counter the white supremacy menacing religious liberty for all in the United States, said the Rev. Dr. Adam Bond, a scholar and Baptist minister.

They are needed “to develop definitions and strategies around religious freedom that will unmask and combat the racism, sexism and homophobia that inform Christian nationalism and that inform anti-democratic rhetoric and practices in the mainstream of our nation,” said Dr. Bond, who joined the Baylor University religion faculty in August after serving as pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Richmond, Va.

Dr. Bond delivered the keynote address at the BJC Luncheon on June 30, held during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s General Assembly in Atlanta.

The program highlighted the history of the Center for Faith, Justice, and Reconciliation, which was created with assets from the 2019 closure of Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. The Center joined with BJC earlier this year to become the BJC Center for Faith, Justice and Reconciliation, and the luncheon program focused on its vision and goals.

BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler explained that the Center will “help us expand the conversations about what religious freedom really means” in an era marked by a right-leaning Supreme Court and the expanding influence of Christian nationalism.

The coming together of the Center and BJC also dovetails with BJC’s ongoing work to ensure racial justice issues are a part of its defense of religious liberty and to atone for the ways BJC excluded people of color from the movement, she said. “Our work is cut out for us. Religious freedom has been white too long, and we repent for the ways our organization contributed to the problem.”

Dr. Bond said he was especially taken by BJC’s description of the traditional inequity of religious liberty advocacy and by the organization’s commitment, through the Center, to tap into the wisdom of Black people, Indigenous people and people of color going forward.

“What a provocative and informative way to introduce the work of the Center: Public discourse about religious freedom has been white too long. Let that sink in for a moment,” Dr. Bond said.

Historically, demands for religious liberty have been unevenly made and applied, and usually in favor of the majority and at the expense of those on the margins, Dr. Bond noted. “When is it appropriate to invoke religious freedom? Whose religious freedom has been privileged in the prior iterations of its use?”

An example he gave would be Christians in the South, who during the 19th century claimed slavery as a religious right and denounced abolition as a threat to the Christian way of life.

Matters of race continue to skew the debate about religious freedom, Dr. Bond said. “Racism makes ‘real Christianity’ suppress its liberating elements while embracing a nationalism that often asks all non-white persons to lose their ethnic and cultural inheritances in a melting pot of American identity.”

“The religion that baptizes God in the American flag and makes Jesus a proponent of gun rights is much more pervasive and visible in the public domain than the ideas that the BJC promotes for us to be informed and educated.”

Rev. Dr. Adam L. Bond

While the Center is an invitation to dream of a new world, its leaders must develop new definitions and strategies based on the inherent dignity of all people and grounded on the teaching of Jesus to treat others with compassion, Dr. Bond said.

“What kinds of instruction and practice will interrupt … the discourse and give us the permission to explore and embrace faith freedom from the margins instead of the mainstream?”

Finding those strategies is crucial because people embracing Christian nationalism have found theirs, Dr. Bond added. “Did you know that there are working groups who have leveraged the backlash in this post-George Floyd, Black Lives Matter moment? Did you know that there are groups feeding talking points and strategies to governors who have waged war against AP classes in high schools?”

Dr. Bond cited Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s 2022 executive order banning the teaching of “divisive” concepts in public school, including critical race theory. The Republican later established a hotline to report on teachers who violate the order.

Dr. Bond warned that, while there are many who wouldn’t recognize critical race theory if they saw it, they are nevertheless able to stoke the fear of it to influence politicians and to raise money for far-right causes.

“What is your countermove?” he asked. “Where is your working group? The religion that baptizes God in the American flag and makes Jesus a proponent of gun rights is much more pervasive and visible in the public domain than the ideas that the BJC promotes for us to be informed and educated.”

BJC’s leaders kicked off the event by stressing the importance of justice in this new phase of BJC’s work. The six leaders who delivered the presentation introducing the BJC Center for Faith, Justice and Reconciliation emphasized that BJC works toward a more inclusive vision of faith freedom for all — a vision in which “all” truly means all.

“I made a personal commitment to really disrupt the narratives of the ways in which religious freedom has been talked about in this country without including the experiences of African Americans,” said Dr. Sabrina E. Dent, Director of the BJC Center for Faith, Justice and Reconciliation. Dr. Dent continues this commitment in her role, guiding BJC into the future with a more inclusive vision of faith freedom for all.

To this end, Dr. Dent invited the audience to consider this question: “How do you imagine, and what would you like to see, as we expand our work on religious freedom through a broader justice lens?”

“I made a personal commitment to really disrupt the narratives of the ways in which religious freedom has been talked about in this country without including the experiences of African Americans.”

Dr. Sabrina E. Dent

The Rev. Janna Louie, BJC’s chief of staff, identified herself as a daughter of immigrants. Going to school in the United States, she said, “I didn’t see my community’s stories told,” as stories like her family’s were excluded from U.S. history.

The Rev. Louie asserted that those who have formal power aren’t the ones that should be leading. Instead, she suggested that those in formal leadership follow the lead of those who have been marginalized and oppressed by society.

“While I believe that power needs to be engaged on all levels, I do think that this movement forward in justice will be led by the way of those who experience and live in the underside of this empire,” she said.

The Rev. Anyra Cano, vice chair of the BJC Board, spoke of caring for the needs of immigrants to this country. In a reading of Jesus’ words from Matthew 25, the Rev. Cano shared Scripture alongside caveats that others sometimes add.

“I was hungry, but you were obligated to ask if I was ‘illegal.’ I was thirsty, but you might get audited. I was sick, but you had to report my status. I needed clothing, but I wasn’t the right color immigrant. I was in prison, and you could not visit me. I was a stranger, but you were afraid of being criminalized as a smuggler.” She continued, “I hope you thought to yourself, ‘That is not my Jesus.’ I hope you know that’s not what Scripture says.”

The Rev. Cano, who also serves as the director of programs for Fellowship Southwest, spoke of how churches must grapple with the increasing number of anti-immigration laws that go against the command of Jesus to care for immigrants, for refugees and for those who are deemed “least” by society.

“Churches,” she said, “should not have to think about who you can serve or how you can serve.” Instead, she said churches “are called by Christ to be his servants, not servants of a government who may call on us to stop, to seize, to limit, or to make us turn away those whom God has called us to love and to welcome.”

BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler affirmed, “We must listen to those whose freedom is most impacted and threatened today and learn to advocate in community with them.”

BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman noted that, throughout this work, there is a deep commitment to religious freedom for all people. “Those who came before us — who, like us — truly believed that we are each created in God’s image, free in matters of faith, and unwilling to let the government make religious decisions for us,” she said. “But as we are saying here, we know that freedom doesn’t look or sound or feel the same for all of us.”

The chair of the BJC Board, the Rev. Dr. C. Lynn Brinkley, spoke to the recent actions of the Southern Baptist Convention disfellowshipping churches because they had women in pastoral roles. Dr. Brinkley, who also serves as associate executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, offered a word of hope. “In this world that we are living in right now, I’m convinced that neither lists, nor conventions, nor things present, nor things to come, nor hierarchies, nor glass ceilings, nor patriarchy, nor misogyny, nor anything in all creation will be able to separate us from being created in the Imago Dei and equally called to serve.”

Dr. Dent invited the audience into the work. “You’ve heard our stories, so I hope something that was said sparks interest in you and a commitment in you,” she said, inviting everyone to join the journey.

“As we say in the Center: Faith is our foundation, justice is our calling, and reconciliation is our goal. And we are committed to doing that every step of the way as we continue to advance and protect faith freedom for all.”

Read the Baptist News Global coverage of the BJC Luncheon here. This full article appears in the fall 2023 edition of Report from the Capital.  You can download it as a PDF or read a digital flip-through edition