By Stephen Reeves, Aaron Weaver and Jeff Huett
When we think of defenders and champions of religious liberty and the separation of church and state, we think of many from the great Baptist cloud of witnesses. We think of Roger Williams and John Leland. We think of Martha Stearns Marshall and Isaac Backus. We think of Helen Barrett Montgomery and George Truett. We think of J.M. Dawson and James Dunn.
And, we also think of our friend and mentor, J. Brent Walker, the longtime executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C.
On Monday, Brent announced his plans to retire from the venerable organization that has been tirelessly working to “defend and extend” our nation’s First Freedom and our Baptist freedoms of soul freedom and religious freedom for nearly 80 years. When he retires, Brent will have served with the BJC for 27 of those 80 years in several key roles — associate general counsel (1989-1993), general counsel (1993-1999) and executive director (1999-2016).
Brent will leave behind a rich legacy and countless contributions as he fought for religious liberty and church-state separation during pivotal times in our nation’s history. The list is long — from working successfully to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993 to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in 2000. Throughout the 1990s, Brent stood strong against repeated efforts to amend the First Amendment. He opposed government-sponsored displays of the Ten Commandments as well as numerous school voucher schemes. In recent years, he has spoken out courageously on behalf of those targeted because of their faith in an environment of heightened Islamophobia.
While Brent’s contributions to defending our shared freedom are many, his mentorship and influence on young Baptists must not be overlooked. As BJC executive director, Brent helped shape the thinking and left an indelible imprint on the lives of dozens and dozens of interns, BJC staff and others. We write as former BJC interns and former BJC staff who were mentored by and worked alongside Brent, and who remain committed to the BJC’s all-important mission of defending and extending religious liberty.
After law school in Lubbock, Texas, and the bar exam, I (Stephen Reeves) found myself in Austin getting acquainted with the unique ministry of Phil Strickland, Weston Ware, Suzii Paynter and the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, where I served as a contract lobbyist during a special session of the state legislature. This experience had me hooked on this unique mix of faith, public policy and advocacy.
As my time at the CLC was coming to a close, Suzii and Phil called Brent and asked if he had any use for a young attorney still finding his way. He did, and I’ll be forever in debt to Brent for finding a place for me. I served as counsel in residence during the fall of 2004, and at the end of the year I was offered the opportunity to fill the newly-reconstituted position of staff attorney. I was given James Dunn’s old desk and sat there until late 2006. I cannot overstate how formative, valuable and exciting my time at the BJC was. I now understand it as a necessary step in the realization of a unique calling — a step impossible without Brent, who has exemplified thoughtful, focused and compassionate leadership that speaks deliberatively and with full conviction of principles. I was fortunate to have a daily front-row seat to his leadership for more than two years.
Following graduation from the University of Georgia, I (Aaron Weaver) had the privilege of serving as a BJC intern during the fall of 2004. For four months, I sat at a desk just outside of Brent’s office and was immersed into the ministry of religious liberty advocacy. That experience inspired me to return to my new home in Texas and study issues at the intersection of religion and politics at Baylor University’s J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies — an institute named for the BJC’s founding executive director. There, the BJC became the subject of my studies as I researched and wrote on a variety of church-state topics.
My time working with Brent and for the BJC was a truly life-changing experience. Watching Brent up-close champion religious liberty and church-state separation gave me a glimpse of what being a Baptist should be about: advocating on behalf of others. Their freedom matters just as much as my freedom, and when anyone’s God-given religious freedom is denied, everyone’s is threatened. Brent modeled these truths to me then and has continued to do so in the years since.
One of the highlights of my (Jeff Huett) nearly 13 years at the BJC, nearly eight of those as director of communications, was when Brent asked me introduce him at one of the lectures he delivered as part of the BJC’s annual Shurden Lectures in 2013. With his impeccable credentials and expansive list of successes, introducing him was a fun and meaningful exercise. Most importantly, because no introduction of Brent was complete without a baseball reference, I was able to work-in my favorite line from a column he wrote for Report from the Capital: “Be prepared to fend off bean balls if you favor church-state separation.”
Brent has stood watch at the church-state intersection for much of his career — fending off bean balls. But it has been much more than that. He took me, an ambitious journalism and business graduate from Baylor still deciding on the pathway forward and gave me a chance to grow, and in doing so, he partnered me with a staff of professionals at the BJC that I count as colleagues and friends to this day. The BJC and its leader are not always the loudest voice, but they are among the most trusted. There’s much to be learned from that witness. Whether standing in front of a bank of microphones on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court or in the studio doing an interview with Chris Matthews on Hardball, Brent exudes calm, clarity and respect. In Washington, respect is hard-earned and easily lost. Brent’s tenure at the BJC has prepared the organization for many great things in the future, but it only has to maintain the most important quality — trusted partner at the church-state intersection.
Stephen Reeves serves as associate coordinator of partnerships and advocacy for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Aaron Weaver is communications manager for CBF, and Jeff Huett is associate coordinator of communications and advancement for CBF.