By Cherilyn Crowe
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter recounted her road to religious liberty advocacy and encouraged the crowd to speak up for freedom during the 2013 Religious Liberty Council Luncheon.
Paynter delivered the keynote address during the annual event and received the BJC’s highest honor — the J.M. Dawson Religious Liberty Award. The meeting also included the election of new RLC representatives to the Baptist Joint Committee Board of Directors.
The sold-out crowd of more than 550 people listened intently as Paynter took the stage and recalled an early encounter with famed atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, which first led Paynter to grasp something as “esoteric” as religious liberty.
In 1978, Paynter was a teacher in Austin, Texas, and had O’Hair’s granddaughter in her classroom. At that time, O’Hair was famous for the Murray v. Curlett lawsuit, which was consolidated with Abington v. Schempp and led to the landmark 1963 Supreme Court ruling that ended school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools. O’Hair was so controversial that Life magazine referred to her as “the most hated woman in America.”
O’Hair adopted her granddaughter as her daughter in order to have access to the public schools. Paynter recalled O’Hair’s visit on the first day of school, warning the teachers that she would not be back until she had a bullhorn and a TV camera with her “to tell you how you are violating my rights and the rights of my daughter.”
After her first encounter with O’Hair, Paynter was struck by a strange juxtaposition. “I was a Christian, I was the wife of a minister,” Paynter said, but she found her beliefs about religious liberty to be pretty close to “the most hated woman in America.”
Paynter first found herself not wanting to defend the right of one student when it was inconvenient for the rest of the students and teachers at school.
“That did not feel fair,” Paynter said. “But, defending the right of this child to unbelief was just. I had to think about the difference between things ‘feeling fair’ and ‘being just.’”
Paynter recalled the Baptist forebears who were also “ostracized for being part of a very inconveniencing group that raised a ruckus over our radical beliefs.” Paynter said she began to face that the words “freedom of conscience” were not only for her.
Later, when O’Hair returned to the school with a television crew, she destroyed children’s holiday decorations that she deemed too religious. The event rocked Paynter.
“I could take her beliefs. I could even defend her sometimes,” Paynter recalled, but O’Hair’s destruction of the children’s work required Paynter to exercise a great amount of restraint. According to Paynter, the school barely made it through the year without violence from parents and teachers.
“Religious liberty … is not sanitized; it is not nice,” Paynter declared. “This is one of the planet’s most important freedoms, and if you think it’s a Hallmark card, you’re wrong, and you’re barely worthy of the name Baptist.”
Paynter’s path taught her how to talk about justice. She said justice rooted in biblical foundations and morality is “not simply an opinion or a position,” but rather a way of processing thoughts and feelings. This requires holding seemingly opposing feelings together in a cruciform way, which is “counter to our culture.”
“My experience with Madalyn taught me that I was not finished with justice and an exploration of religious liberty until I had thought in a ‘Tevye’ rhythm,” Paynter said. Tevye is the character in “Fiddler on the Roof” who has to weigh the benefits of his daughter marrying an honest man against the man’s financial shortcomings and family tradition. Paynter used Tevye’s deliberation as an example of evaluating an issue from all sides.
“It is not an answer, but it is a way of finding justice,” Paynter said. “This is why it’s so important to model deliberation in our congregations, how to think morally about a subject like religious liberty, and how to arrive at just responses. It feels awkward and it feels inadequate to process in this way, but it is just what justice requires, especially where religious liberty is at stake.”
Paynter told the crowd that she made a firm commitment in 1978 to talk about religious liberty and the separation of church and state in Sunday school, on retreats, in vacation Bible school, at youth camp and in her personal conversations. “If this indeed is an enduring legacy of our heritage, then I had better speak up about it deliberatively,” she said.
Paynter’s commitment to talking about religious liberty led to public engagement with elected officials. For more than 35 years, her advocacy work, including her time leading the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, brought her into conversations with elected officials and aides, explaining this issue from a Baptist perspective.
She told the crowd to practice their liberty of conscience, and God will use their conversation.
“This is our chapter. You are the voice; it’s your voice that needs to speak,” Paynter said.
She encouraged everyone in the room to “lift our voices to defend the religious liberty and the rights of others here and around the world.”
At the end of her speech, Paynter told the crowd, “Justice requires action. Jesus said so.”
After the address, BJC Executive Director J. Brent Walker presented Paynter with the J.M. Dawson Religious Liberty Award. Named for the BJC’s first executive director, the award recognizes the outstanding contributions of individuals in defense of religious liberty for all.
The luncheon also included the election of five RLC representatives to the BJC Board of Directors: Jacqueline Moore of Texas, Jesse Rincones of Texas, Mica Strother of Arkansas, Amanda Tyler of Washington, D.C., and Mark Edwards of North Carolina. As the individual donor organization of the BJC, the RLC cultivates an understanding of religious freedom among Baptists and the larger public. It is one of the 15 supporting bodies of the BJC, with 13 RLC members serving three-year terms on the BJC board.
The Religious Liberty Council Luncheon is held each year in conjunction with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly. The 2014 event is scheduled to be in Atlanta, Ga.
From the July/August 2013 Report from the Capital. Click here for the next article.