Racial Violence is a Religious Liberty Issue
By BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler
On June 17, 2015, nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, were murdered in a racist hate crime during a Bible study. As BJC looks back on this act of domestic terrorism and attack on religious liberty, we are reminded that our organization and our nation have serious work to do in the fight against white supremacy.
As we remembered the Emanuel Nine on the 5th anniversary of their deaths, BJC released a statement with our covenant “to advocate for full faith freedom for all and to work to dismantle white supremacy inherent in our society and in our religion as Baptist Christians.” But we also know that this statement cannot stand alone. We must uphold a sustained commitment to anti-racist principles and anti-racist action.
In 1971, Baptist freedom fighter Fannie Lou Hamer famously proclaimed, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” The mass murder at Mother Emanuel AME is evidence that faith freedom for all cannot be realized in a society that is still sick with the sins of racism and white supremacy.
It is a tragic reality that racial violence has been perpetrated against the Black church for centuries and that it continues in modern times. Through my friend and colleague Charles Watson Jr., I recently learned about the burning of Carswell Grove Baptist Church in Charles’s hometown of Millen, Georgia in 1919. According to a New York Times story, Carswell Grove was “one of more than a dozen churches burned in three Georgia counties that summer, according to various media accounts.” The horror of Carswell Grove stands out, since hundreds of church members were inside the church when it was burned and three people, including a 13-year-old boy, were lynched by an angry mob. The bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 resulted in the murder of four young girls. But the tragedy at Mother Emanuel is a grim reminder that this violence did not fade away with the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. Just last year, three Black churches in one Louisiana parish were burned, and the suspect was charged with a hate crime.
Prophetic leaders have previously alerted us to the connection between religious freedom and human freedom. The Rev. Dr. Marvin McMickle preached to those gathered at BJC’s annual luncheon on Juneteenth in 2015 that any talk about church-state separation is insufficient without an understanding of white supremacy. In order to understand the current dangers of white Christian nationalism, he told the crowd, we must understand how, during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, “the church and the state worked together to deal their economies on the backs of slave labor.”
This means we must also be honest about the figures and nations that we uphold as champions of faith freedom. Dr. McMickle reminded us that many of the “enlightened nations” who purportedly promoted religious freedom were the same nations who denied enslaved Africans their physical freedom. As the Framers of the Constitution promoted religious liberty ideals, many were enslaving their fellow human beings.
In every Christian tradition, we can see what theologian James Cone calls “a Christianity of the enslaved,” as well as “a Christianity of the slaveholders.” Many white Baptist leaders (I am one of them) claim John Leland as a hero in the movement for religious liberty at the founding of the United States and hold up his statements supporting abolition. But we must also confront the historical record that shows Leland adopted more accommodationist views towards slavery later in life. Honesty about the complicated history does not threaten our support for religious freedom; it strengthens it.
We should also acknowledge how white supremacy impacts how we tell our history. Baptist leaders for freedom include not only Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams and John Leland but also Gowan Pamphlet, Maria Stewart, Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Gardner C. Taylor and Prathia Hall.
We at BJC are hosting experts and convening conversations on this crucial topic. In addition to Dr. McMickle’s speech, I recommend a conversation I had with Dr. Corey Walker and Dr. Linda McKinnish Bridges at a BJC event last year and podcast conversations I had last year with author Jemar Tisby and the Rev. Dr. Aidsand Wright-Riggins III on the BJC Podcast series exploring the dangers of Christian nationalism. On a recent episode of Respecting Religion, BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman and I talked with BJC Director of Education Charles Watson Jr. about the intersections of race and religious freedom. Next week, BJC is hosting a national conversation on white supremacy and American Christianity with Robert P. Jones and Joy-Ann Reid. BJC continues to raise awareness about Christian nationalism and its overlap with white supremacy and racial subjugation through the Christians Against Christian Nationalism initiative.
My hope is that these conversations will broaden our understanding of both faith freedom and human freedom, producing a new narrative that protects liberty and life. The work to dismantle white supremacy from our culture and our religion is daunting, but we will never achieve that destination if we don’t take the first step, read the first book, have the first hard conversation.
This week, we remember Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson. And we take action in the hope that we can make “never again” a reality.
Amanda Tyler is the executive director of BJC.