The Man In The Middle

As the separation between church and state narrows, a minister from Tampa stands up in defense of the First Amendment

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The noise from the religious right can be deafening. And never has it been louder than in recent weeks, as fundamentalist leaders and their political allies have focused their ire on the federal judiciary.

At the center of the maelstrom is the question of the Senate filibuster, and whether Republicans can alter Senate rules to prevent Democrats from using unlimited debate to block seven Bush judicial nominees.

In an April 18 e-mail by the fundamentalist-leaning Focus on the Family, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called the anti-filibuster crusade a battle against "black-robed tyranny." And Senate majority leader Bill Frist recently used his bully pulpit to fuel the erroneous suggestion by the religious right that the dispute is between the faithful and the faithless.

Amidst all this grandstanding, moderate voices - particularly moderate religious voices - have become more and more crucial. For Southern Baptists, factionalized since a massive split 14 years ago, it's a Tampa-trained lawyer-turned-minister named Brent Walker who's leading the effort to remind church leaders and others of the significance of the First Amendment.

"The goal is religious liberty for everyone by means of separation of church and state," says Walker, who heads a diverse non-profit coalition of Baptists across the U.S. "If you don't have separation between church and state, you don't have full religious freedom for everyone. As soon as government takes sides in matters of religion, someone's religious liberty gets denied."

It's an argument with particular relevance at the moment. And for moderates from a Southern Baptist background, the separation of church and state seems a vital part of their tradition. They have watched as fundamentalist forces within their denomination worked to erode that separation - and now they're speaking out as they see real signs of the same erosion happening in the country as a whole.

It's doubtful that many Floridians have heard of Brent Walker. A former attorney at Tampa law firm Carlton, Fields, he was raised in Tampa's Bayshore Baptist Church and played first base at Robinson High School. As executive director of the 69-year-old Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, Walker is at the forefront of an effort to protect religious liberties in the U.S.On April 24, he helped organize a protest in Louisville, Ky., during the airing of "Justice Sunday" from the 2,000-person Highview Baptist Church. During that broadcast, Sen. Frist championed his plan to overhaul the 200-year-old Senate filibuster system.

The telecast, which was sponsored by the right-wing Family Research Council, made ominous references to "the filibuster against people of faith" and suggested that all religiously minded voters were of uniform opinion, locked in step with Frist and the FRC. Walker begs to differ: "People can speak out, and God can motivate people, but it's presumptuous to say 'God is on my side.'"

In a recent sermon, Walker talked about the issue this way:

"We need to stop trying to convince each other we've got God in our hip pockets. God is not a Republican or a Democrat, nor even an American for that matter. God's precinct is the universe. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln's famous pronouncement about the Civil War, the question is not whether God is on our side, but whether we are on God's side. God is not aligned with any political party, but is able to work within and though all political movements and nations to accomplish his purposes."

A promising attorney slated for partnership when he decided to leave Carlton, Fields to study for the ministry, Walker entered the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville in 1986. His longtime friend, Tampa insurance agent Richard Heider, remembers the morning, during a breakfast at the Village Inn on Dale Mabry, when Walker explained his life-changing plans.

"He just felt called," says Heider, who had grown close to Walker at Bayshore Baptist, and remembers being devastated by the news. Walker's wife and their two children had become so intertwined with Heider's family that their absence seemed unimaginable. "You don't have that many close friends in your life," says Heider.

Since that time, the families have stayed close and visit regularly, Heider says. But Walker's life has changed. After graduating from seminary, he worked for a short time as a minister. But in 1989, he decided to juggle both faith and law and take a job as associate general counsel with the Baptist Joint Committee.

Now, as executive director, Walker spends most of his time filing amicus briefs, or friend of the court papers, for upcoming cases at the U.S. Supreme Court that deal with the First Amendment. He also lectures at churches, colleges and conventions and issues weekly news releases on BJC's website (www.bjcpa.org).

As the head of the BJC, Walker and his group take no position on the proposed filibuster changes or the judicial nominees. The organization becomes concerned with those issues only when there's a perceived violation of church-state separation.

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