By Bob Allen
Religious liberty doesn’t mean much to people who are physically enslaved, an African-American preacher reminded a predominantly white audience at an annual Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty banquet that this year coincided with the holiday celebrated as Juneteenth.
Friends of the Baptist Joint Committee attending the June 15-19 Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Dallas gathered Friday for the 25th annual Religious Liberty Council luncheon. It was 150 years ago to the day when — two-and-a-half years after signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the effective end of the Civil War — that word reached the last enslaved Americans in Galveston, Texas, that they were free.
Keynote speaker Marvin McMickle, president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, N.Y., suggested the time of his invitation was perhaps providential “to help you understand the composition of this room.”
McMickle, a local church pastor for 34 years and a seminary instructor for 25 years before becoming president of the American Baptist Churches USA-related seminary in 2011, said he supports the BJC’s work in securing and protecting religious liberty for all Americans, while recounting “perhaps the most ironic and hypocritical dimension of the long quest for religious liberty in Europe and the United States.”
“During the entire time that Holland and Spain and England and British colonies in America were seeking religious liberty for themselves, during the entire time, all of the above nations were actively involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade that denied physical liberty to tens of millions of people,” McMickle said.
McMickle, author of 14 books, said to those people “soul liberty” seemed to matter less than the prospect of economic prosperity.
“The position that most African-American clergy hold with regard to the issue of separation of church and state cannot be understood unless you first understand this,” he said. “What happened between the 15th and 19th centuries in both the church and the state worked together to build their economies on the backs of slavery.”
McMickle quoted a recent New York Times editorial about discovery of a sunken slave ship off the coast of South Africa reminding that the trans-Atlantic slave trade “was driven not by hatred, but by greed.”
The colonizers, the editorial explained, wanted cheap labor for sugar, tobacco, coffee and other goods from the New World in demand back at home. McMickle added that unlike the American South, the North did not have a cash crop to make slavery profitable, but northerners nevertheless profited in ways including the building of ships in New England designed to transport slaves.
While that was going on, Baptists in Europe and the American colonies struggled against state-established churches for the right to worship freely without harassment by authorities.
“In short, while the enlightened nations of the West were debating their freedom to worship God according to their conscience, those same nations at the same time were denying actual physical liberty to the 12-and-a-half million Africans who made it to this country, and the two-and-half million who died in the process of the transport,” McMickle said.
“I share this with you today in order to help you understand the composition of this room and why perhaps more African-Americans are not here, and why they view the issue of separation of church and state with a jaundiced view,” McMickle said. “It is because of historic collaboration between the white church and white governments in perpetuation of the suffering and exploitation. The state by its actions and sadly the church by its silence.”
McMickle said African-American ministers entered politics not for doctrinal reasons but to work for equal rights. One such minister, Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., and one of nine victims shot dead during last Wednesday night’s Bible study, opposed a recent bill in the South Carolina legislature that would have dropped a ban on permit holders carrying a concealed weapon into a church.
McMickle said the United States “has not yet resolved all the lingering effects of Juneteenth — slavery, segregation, second-class status, and the presumptions of white supremacy operating in the mind of a shooter in South Carolina who said, ‘You are taking our country from us.’”
McMickle urged Baptists supporting religious liberty not to remain silent about other important moral issues.
“What will we say about reduction in voting rights of African-Americans?” he asked. “What will you say about limiting the program called Souls to the Polls, voting on Sundays? What will you say about no same-day registration? What will you say about voter ID laws designed to prevent voter fraud which does not exist?”
“I believe in the First Amendment, and I believe in the work that you do,” McMickle said. “I have come to encourage you in that work and I pray God’s blessing upon it.”
“But I also believe in something else,” McMickle said. “Not something more, just something else. I believe that American history and its economic foundation was largely written in the blood of African slaves and their descendants, a story that many in this country do not want to hear.”