cross and clouds

This column appeared in the October 2010 edition of Report from the Capital. Click here to read the full edition.

By J. Brent Walker, BJC Executive Director

It’s good to be back from my summer-long sabbatical. Thanks to James Dunn, Buzz Thomas, Stan Hastey and Melissa Rogers for so ably writing this column. Thanks, too, for Holly Hollman and her good leadership serving as acting executive director. What a marvelous job she and the rest of the staff did in my absence.

I appreciate the Baptist Joint Committee Board’s generosity in allowing me this time off. The mainstay of my sabbatical was three road trips — one with my wife, Nancy, one with my son, Ryan, and one alone. I logged 10,200 road miles and traversed 29 states (including Hawaii for the Baptist World Alliance meeting) while visiting 16 presidential homes, museums and libraries and 12 professional baseball parks/games. I also mixed in a visit to the Grand Canyon and a week of teaching Vacation Bible School.

The trips’ basic itineraries were planned, but we were flexible enough to enjoy some serendipitous sidebars like visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama, the Cincinnati Zoo, the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, the Winston Churchill Memorial and Library at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., the Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction, that “corner in Winslow, Arizona” and a lavender farm near Shawnee, Okla., to name a few.

The sabbatical was bracketed by two week-long spiritual retreats: one in Cullman, Ala., at St. Bernard’s (Benedictine) Abbey and the other at Eastern Point Retreat House (Jesuit) in Gloucester, Mass.

Although I went away for the summer, threats to religious liberty and fights to protect it did not. And, upon my return, I hit the ground running.

The week leading up to September 11 each year is always a trying time. This year it was exacerbated by the controversy over the proposed Islamic Center in Lower Manhattan and the threat to burn Qurans in Gainesville, Fla. My first day back, I joined other religious leaders in a meeting with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.  We asked the nation’s chief law enforcement officer to make a strong public statement on September 11 underscoring the federal government’s commitment to religious freedom and condemning crimes and other forms of harassment and discrimination against Muslim and other faith communities.

The next day I had the rare opportunity of being interviewed on Alhurra television’s “Al Youm” program (called the “Today” show of that network). It broadcasts in 22 countries in the Middle East. I tried to communicate to the viewers in other parts of the world, particularly Muslims, how those who want to burn Qurans are far out of the mainstream of public opinion and to express a voice of reason from the mainstream of American Christianity.

On September 10, I had the privilege of appearing on “Hardball with Chris Matthews.” This gave me another opportunity to endorse, along with President Barack Obama and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the principle of religious liberty embodied in the proposed Islamic Center near, but certainly not on or even adjacent to, the hallowed soil of Ground Zero.

Yes, I went away for the summer, but religious liberty issues did not go away.

The following week, the First Amendment Center issued the tally of its annual State of the First Amendment Survey. The results of that poll indicate why the fight for religious liberty never ends. Although two-thirds of those responding endorsed the general idea of a clear separation of church and state under the First Amendment, an astonishing 53 percent believe that the U.S. Constitution establishes a “Christian nation.” Never mind that the Constitution does not mention Christianity and refers to religion only once in Article VI to disallow a religious test for public office, and the language in the First Amendment makes absolutely clear that government is not supposed to advance religion generally or to prefer any religion.

Equally disturbing are the results of a question dealing with the free exercise of religion in which 28 percent of the respondents said freedom to worship should not apply to religious groups “most people consider fringe or extreme.” I am glad this expresses a minority position, but even nearly three in 10 is way too many. The American experiment in religious liberty has been successful in large part because it has been able to assimilate and protect the religious freedom of “fringe or extreme” religions — from Baptists in colonial times to Catholics and Mormons in the 19th Century to Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists in the 20th and, I pray, Muslims in the 21st.

So, we still have a lot of work to do, not just in the courts, the Congress and the White House, but in the forum of public opinion. Education — in the media, our schools and houses of worship — about the nature and value of religious freedom is absolutely essential to its preservation.

Threats to religious liberty and efforts to protect it never take a sabbatical.

From the October 2010 Report from the Capital.