WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (ABP) – Freedom of religion and the press are two Baptist gifts important to both church and state, two award recipients said at a May 1 ceremony sponsored by Associated Baptist Press.
On the eve of ABP’s semi-annual board meeting, the independent Baptist news service honored Melissa Rogers of Wake Forest Divinity School with its Religious Freedom Award and R.G. Puckett, editor emeritus of North Carolina’s Biblical Recorder, for lifetime achievement.
Puckett, who edited Baptist state newspapers longer than anyone in the 20th century, said accepting the Greg Warner Lifetime Achievement Award in Religious Journalism was “just as much for” C.R. Daley, the longtime editor of Kentucky’s Western Recorder for whom Puckett worked three years as associate editor, as for himself.
Puckett credited seasoned editors including Daley, who died in 1999; Texas Baptist Standard Editor E.S. James; John Jeter Hurt, who edited both the Baptist Standard and Georgia’s Christian Index; and Reuben Alley of Virginia’s Religious Herald for helping him with a huge learning curve when he took the editor’s job at the Ohio Baptist Messenger in 1958 with no journalistic experience.
“These men taught me what it meant to be an editor — the style, the content, the positions taken and the integrity that’s demanded,” Puckett said. “Without them in those early years, I wouldn’t have made it.”
Puckett said as a young editor his mentors “taught me very quickly how important it was for Baptists to be informed.”
“The effectiveness of any democracy depends on an informed constituency, and if Baptists don’t know, they can’t do,” Puckett said.
After 13 years as editor of the Maryland Baptist, Puckett took over as editor of the Biblical Recorder when the “crisis” in the Southern Baptist Convention was full-blown with leaders like Paul Pressler, Paige Patterson and Adrian Rogers demanding acceptance of biblical inerrancy for convention leaders.
Puckett said North Carolina Baptists were no better off, and “it was a crisis moment for the Biblical Recorder” as well.
“The chairman of the board wanted to be the editor, and he would have handed the Biblical Recorder into the hands of the fundamentalists in North Carolina 30 years ago,” Puckett said. “But I accepted the call to be editor on a split vote and haven’t regretted it a single day.”
Melissa Rogers, who directs the Wake Forest University School of Divinity Center for Religion and Public Affairs and is a nonresident senior fellow within the Governance Program of The Brookings Institution, said “the Baptist ideal of religious freedom” has been important to the United States.
“In no small part because of this vision, America has often gotten religious liberty remarkably right,” said Rogers, who previously served as executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and before that as general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
“Americans have great confidence in our ability to make choices in religious matters,” she said. “Faiths in this country are vital and independent, precisely because they are largely free from government interference and support.”
Rogers said “where America has failed” when it comes to religious freedom, it was not the model that failed. Where America has failed, she said, is when this “Baptist model of religious liberty and church-state separation” was abandoned
Puckett is second recipient of the lifetime achievement award, inaugurated and given in 2009 to Greg Warner, ABP’s longtime executive editor forced by chronic back problems to go on permanent disability in 2008 at age 53.
Rogers was the 13th recipient of the Religious Freedom Award, established in 1994 to honor individuals who advance the principles and practice of religious freedom, particularly in the field of journalism.
Rogers accepted her award on “behalf of that Baptist vision of church/state separation and religious liberty.”
“There are some difficult issues to be sure that face us in the nation,” Rogers said, “but I believe that this vision of religious liberty that we share in this room continues to be the best understanding of the Christian gospel, and it also continues to be the best and brightest hope for our increasingly diverse nation to come together and indeed to be a more perfect union as we move forward.”
The banquet event, held at Ardmore Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., was attended by about 125 people, including family members of both recipients.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.