By John D. Pierce
It might not have rivaled Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man” speech in 1939, but neither was the situation so dire. However, J. Brent Walker gave an inspiring farewell address to about 750 friends and supporters during the June 24 Religious Liberty Council luncheon in Greensboro, N.C.
It was a time to honor and be challenged by the devoted executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, a much needed, rationale voice on Capitol Hill. Walker has served this good cause for 27 years, the last 17 in the top post.
The BJC’s relentless work of “making sure government accommodates religion without advancing it,” he said, is “a marathon, not a sprint.”
Brent noted that he first learned in his youth about the importance of religious liberty during Training Union at Bayshore Baptist Church in his hometown of Tampa, Fla. — long before any notion that this important cause would be his calling.
“We are faithful to our [Baptist] roots…,” said Walker of the 80-year-old educational and advocacy organization. “The separation of church and state is indispensable to ensuring religious liberty.”
Walker noted that his work has given him memorable opportunities to engage with national leaders including four presidents and to advocate for full religious liberty in the halls of power.
He has testified before Congress in opposition to those seeking to advance one religion over others through political power — including Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore who called Walker “a hypocritical Baptist minister.” Brent laughed off the accusation.
The BJC’s full name has meaning. “Baptist” means being true to the historic role of John Leland, Roger Williams and other early Baptists who advocated for the religious freedom that has served this nation well — despite many challenges from those (including some contemporary Baptist leaders) who fail to grasp its importance.
“Joint Committee” has nothing to do with Willie Nelson’s bus. Rather it refers to the varied Baptist bodies (15 of them now) that pull together to provide this clear voice in the nation’s capital.
The words “for Religious Liberty” acknowledge the sole purpose — “defending and extending religious liberty for all of God’s children” — carried out by the excellent BJC staff.
Six months remain before retirement sets in and, as Yogi said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”
So Brent has more good work to do in the great cause of religious liberty at a time in which many preachers and politicians misconstrue religious freedom (in an intentional effort to mislead) by seeking exclusive religious privilege.
The BJC, however, “gets it” when it comes to defending and extending full religious freedom that allows for everyone to embrace the religion of his or her own choosing or none at all — realizing that authentic faith can never be coerced or propped up by government power.
Brent followed a legend — James Dunn — whose small stature but enormous presence could never be matched. Yet Brent stepped up to the plate in his own influential ways and wisely never tried to wear that ill-fitting uniform.
Once when introducing Brent to a church gathering I jokingly noted that his being both an attorney and a Baptist minister provided a vocational combination with credibility that would rival a used car salesman. Brent responded that the only less credible mix might be that of a journalist-minister.
So I decided to stop using that introduction for him.
Anticipating many good years ahead, Brent (with whom I share a passion for baseball and games on occasion) referred to this transitional stage as the “seventh-inning stretch” of his life.
Well, you’ve played your position well, Brent. Wave your cap proudly. Touch ‘em all.
Enjoy your life’s seventh inning stretch. Here’s to a strong finish — and prayers for extra innings.
See you in the cheap seats.
PS: Brent will be part of the Nurturing Faith Experience: Colonial Williamsburg on Sept. 19-21, that will explore America’s religious heritage. Join us!
[Photo: Brent Walker tackles a Texas taco dog at a Rangers game in Arlington.]