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By J. Brent Walker, BJC Executive Director

I am sometimes asked where the Baptist Joint Committee stands on the political spectrum: conservative or liberal? My response is that the BJC is neither left nor right, but at the sensible center. Let me explain.

It doesn’t mean we are not passionate advocates for religious liberty and church-state separation. Nor does it mean that we are wishy-washy or afraid to take a stand. As someone once said, whoever heard of a soft-spoken advocate for the First Amendment?

What I mean is that the BJC historically and today understands that few church-state issues are black and white. Many occupy the gray area in between. Both religion clauses in the First Amendment ensure religious liberty but in different ways, and they are often in tension with one another about how they do it.

This position in the sensible center is also strategic. Precisely because we are not partisan and try always to see the big picture, we can reach out to the left and to the right to build a coalition and hopefully consensus on otherwise divisive issues.

There are others in the public arena that approach public policy issues the way we do, but not many. Unfortunately, one of them recently passed away. William Raspberry — one of the first widely read African-American columnists in the United States — died on July 17. Raspberry wrote opinion pieces for The Washington Post and was syndicated in more than 200 newspapers for more than four decades.

Raspberry was hard to pigeonhole politically. Conservatives thought he was a liberal, and liberals thought he was a conservative. He always was prepared to puncture left-wing orthodoxies and reject right-wing verities. His opinions were articulated forcefully but always civilly in a media culture that became increasingly bellicose during his career. In fact, according to his obituary in The Washington Post, Raspberry quit going on television talk shows because they demanded a strident tone and “they force you to pretend to be mad even when you’re not.”

In the course of opining more than 5,000 times over his career, Raspberry sometimes dealt with church-state issues. I did not always agree with him, but I give Raspberry credit for being thoughtful and struggling with the difficulties surrounding the issue at hand. His approach was generally to affirm the no establishment principle without denying the relevance of religion to public life and to always seek a practical win-win outcome in church-state controversies.

For example, in 1980 when the California attorney general tried to take over the Worldwide Church of God — charging it with brainwashing and fraud — Raspberry cried foul. Following a well-tuned and instinctive understanding of religious freedom (I don’t know if Raspberry realized he had Supreme Court precedent behind him), Raspberry wrote the government could not be the judge of salvation and the legitimacy of a particular church without establishing religion and violating the religious freedom of minority groups.

Addressing the “December dilemma” — whether to wish someone “Merry Christmas” — in 1993, Raspberry appealed more to simple etiquette than tenets of constitutional law. According to Raspberry, good manners require a season’s greetings take into account the sensibilities of the listeners, but an errant or overuse of “Merry Christmas” is not the same thing as religious intolerance either on the part of well-wishers or the government.

“What’s the Danger in Prayer?” was the title of a September 2000 back-to-school piece he penned. Raspberry quite properly distinguished between prayers written or sanctioned by school authorities and ones lifted up by students at lunch time, ball games and other non-coercive, non-government- controlled venues.

Suspicious of the Faith-based Initiatives in 2001 because of Establishment Clause concerns and the prospect of subjecting religious charities to governmental regulation, Raspberry settled (too quickly in my mind) on the idea of voucherized aid to the prospective clients instead of the religious body as a way to avoid the constitutional questions.

Writing shortly after September 11, 2001, Raspberry grappled with the tension between appropriate separation of church and state and the public display of religion throughout the country. The answer to misguided religious fundamentalism is not, he said, a mirror image of secular fundamentalism, but a toleration of the neutral expression of religion by persons of all faith in the public spaces.

In 2004, Raspberry took on Michael Newdow’s challenging of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Raspberry was quick to say that “the pledge was better without the phrase, which, in [his] view, ruined the rhythm while adding no discernible meaning” to the pledge, but he argued that removing it after 50 years was not warranted or practical.

According to his Washington Post obituary, Raspberry said in 2006 that he had learned two important lessons throughout his career. First, with respect to virtually every public policy issue, “most thoughtful people secretly believe both sides.” I judge this was his way of saying that there is at least an element of truth or something worth considering in both arguments. And, it is entirely possible to be confident without being arrogant and possible for someone to “disagree with me without being, on that account, either a scoundrel or a fool.”

A lot has been said recently about the value of civility and a more textured grappling with difficult policy questions, including church and state, that confront us today. William Raspberry incarnated those values. We shall miss him, but the BJC will carry on in his tradition.

From the July/August 2012 Report from the Capital. Click here for the next article.