Recent speeches in the Kansas City area by an American Baptist leader urged Baptists to reclaim the historic understanding of true religious liberty for all. Aidsand Wright-Riggins, the former head of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies and now mayor of Collegeville, Pa., delivered the 2019 Shurden Lectures, an annual event held by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. He delivered his first address on Mar. 26 on the campus of William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., and his second the next day at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kan.
In his first lecture, Wright-Riggins talked about the importance of “right-sizing” religious liberty after some have used it as a weapon against minorities instead of a shield to protect them. Yet, as he noted, religious liberty is designed to protect religious minorities.
These efforts to pit religious freedom against other rights, he said, distort the vision of religious freedom, which is supposed to be “for everyone.” Thus, he urged those who care about religious freedom for all to speak out. Otherwise, the effort to redefine religious freedom will succeed.
He mentioned several examples of the misuse of religious freedom, including a Feb. 7 U.S. Supreme Court decision where a narrow majority of the justices argued the state of Alabama could execute a Muslim man without his imam present even though Christian inmates could have a Christian chaplain present. (Three days after Wright-Riggins’s remarks, the Supreme Court flipped its position without explanation and halted the execution of a Buddhist inmate in Texas where officials refused to allow him to have a Buddhist religious advisor present; the Muslim inmate in Alabama had already been executed without his imam present.)
Wright-Riggins also noted the example of “Project Blitz” legislation in several states that are designed to chip away at church-state separation. Such proposed bills include those requiring the placement of “In God We Trust” in every public school classroom, those encouraging “Bible literacy” classes in public schools, and those giving broad exemptions to businesses and individuals who do not want to provide services to LGBTQ individuals. Wright-Riggins blasted Project Blitz for seeking “to trump nondiscrimination laws and interfere with freedom.”
The next evening, Wright-Riggins focused on issues of race in debates about religion and religious liberty. He noted that Christianity has both been used as “a major support of white supremacy” — which he labeled a “heresy” and “sin” — and also “one of the biggest challenges to it.” For instance, he noted that William Jewell — the namesake of the college hosting the previous night’s lecture — had been a slaveowner and that enslaved people were used to build some of the campus.
“How, how, how could an institution inspired by the Gospel of Christ, founded as a Baptist college, located in Liberty, Mo., reconcile being physically built by still-enslaved great-grandchildren of Angolans brought to these shores 230 years before?” he asked in his remarks. “What was going on in the mind and the spirit of slave-owning Dr. Jewell as he contributed what today would be over $300,000 of his wealth — money and property with a direct line to slavery?”
“The project of reconciliation is daring to learn a new calculus of the decolonizing of a society that was built through bad things. Jesus talks about this as the Kingdom of God,” Wright-Riggins added. “If ever there was an anti-colonial, anti-hierarchical force on this earth, it was Jesus. It was this Jesus who died upon a lynching tree to remind the marginalized everywhere: ‘I know exactly what you’re going through. I am with you. And I will be with you.’”
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way. Hear more from Aidsand Wright-Riggins in Kaylor’s interview with him in episode 69 (May 7) of the Word&Way podcast “Baptist Without An Adjective.”