Phil Strickland, who worked with Texas Baptists’ ethics, public policy and religious-liberty agency for nearly 40 years, died Feb. 11.
Strickland, 64, battled cancer for many years. In recent months it developed into pneumonia. He refused to consider retirement, however, telling a newspaper columnist last fall “There are still just too many things I want to get done.”
As executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas Christian Life Commission for nearly a quarter century, Strickland viewed his role as to speak “to” and not “for” Texas Baptists on issues of “applied Christianity,” including family life, race relations, Christian citizenship, daily work, moral issues and religious liberty.
Strickland differed from most other Baptist ethicists in his generation, in that his background was law rather than theology, and in his approach, which emphasized action over words.
“Phil was a doer of the word more than a talker about it,” said Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics. “He worked tirelessly to advance legislation that elevated the common good, whether it was fighting gambling or defending children.”
Strickland “outworked a generation of Ph.D. graduates,” Parham said, in seeking a more just society. One of his great contributions, Parham said, was introducing younger Baptists to ethics through CLC internships.
“In a way, he was a street-corner evangelist, calling folk to commit their hearts to justice and giving them an opportunity to learn firsthand how to do ethics in Southern Baptist life,” Parham said. “Phil’s death ends an era but leaves us a legacy upon which moderate Baptists must rekindle their commitment to ethics work.”
Established in 1950, the CLC was the culmination of work by legendary ethicist T.B. Maston and other Texas Baptists in the 1940s determined to provide a prophetic voice against issues like racism in an era when most churches were segregated and supported the status quo.
At a breakfast honoring his career last fall, Strickland worried that Baptists were in danger losing that tradition.
“Where have all the prophets gone?” Strickland asked in a speech last November, delivered by his pastor because he was too ill to attend the Texas Baptists Committed breakfast.
Strickland said nowadays he seldom hears prophetic or even strong ethical preaching about issues such as poverty, religious liberty, the environment or tax cuts for the wealthy.
“Have they [prophets] all disappeared?” he asked. “Or is it possible that some of them are around but aren’t doing their job? Is it possible that God is still appointing them, but not many of us want the job?”
Strickland was born Oct. 17, 1941. He grew up in Abilene, Texas, torn between desires to become a lawyer and a preacher.
He graduated from the University of Texas law school in 1966, and worked briefly for a law firm before becoming a lobbyist for the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission in December 1967. He became executive director of the Texas CLC in 1980.
“I have a love-hate relationship with politics,” Strickland told Dallas Morning News columnist Steve Blow last fall. “It’s not an art or a game to me. It impacts people’s lives dramatically.”
“It’s different for a lobbyist who takes on a few clients he’s not deeply, emotionally involved in,” Strickland said. “I have never taken on an issue that I wasn’t deeply emotionally involved in. So when you lose, you’re sad. And when you win, you celebrate.”
Though it was originally supposed to be a temporary job, working for Texas Baptists turned out to be his life’s calling.
“Christian citizenship is our expression of Christian values in public policy,” Strickland said in a BGCT magazine interview in 2004. “In a democracy, we have the unique opportunity to influence those public decisions that have a huge impact on the lives of people.”
Strickland said too many Christians seek to apply the Bible’s moral teachings in their private life, while ignoring a corporate responsibility.
“‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ is not just a command to do so directly one-on-one,” he said. “It is to care about what happens to our neighbors as a result of policy decisions that are made each day in local, state and national governments.”
Christians will go to great lengths to help a friend, yet too often “ignore policies that are destructive to human life,” Strickland said. One way Christians respond to needs of the poor and downtrodden in a democracy, he said, is through public policy.
“To take a Thanksgiving basket to a hungry family is good, but to fail to notice and sense responsibility for half a world that lives on $2 a day is to abdicate our Christian calling to care for everyone God has created,” Strickland said.
In addition to advocating for the poor and powerless, Strickland was a long and vocal opponent to fundamentalism. “In all of its shapes, whether it’s Christian or Jewish or Hindu, fundamentalism is virtually always destructive,” he once said.
In 2003 he was inducted into the Mainstream Baptist Network Hall of Fame, which recognizes courage in standing up for Baptist principles, heritage and freedom over years of service.
A memorial service is scheduled at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, where Strickland was a long-time member. He served as a deacon and on search committees for church staff, task forces on select issues and on the church’s Christian Life Commission. He was on the personnel committee for three years and chaired it for two in 2003 and 2004. He was active in a progressive Sunday school class that has grown tremendously during the last 10 years.
“With all he has done denominationally and in state political lobbying for causes of moral concern, Phil never neglected his church,” said his pastor, George Mason, who added he viewed Strickland not only as a church member but also a confidant and friend. “Phil combined the theory of a scholar with the strategy of a political operative. He has been a prophet of good tidings and spiritual wisdom in his church as well as in the world. He is irreplaceable as a friend, a colleague and a church mate.”
Under Strickland’s leadership, the Texas CLC produced conferences, periodicals, literature, consultation and other resources on a myriad of social issues. Each year it sponsors an annual statewide conference. This year’s meeting, scheduled March 26-27, is in San Antonio and will focus on “emerging issues” like healthcare, bioethics and the “culture wars.”
Strickland was a leader in forming the CARE Coalition, which evolved into Texans Care for Children, a children’s advocacy network. The group marked its 20th anniversary last November by establishing a Founder’s Award bearing Strickland’s name.
“Phil Strickland helped Texas Baptists to remember and be faithful to their heritage, and he consistently declared the high ethical calling of the Christian life,” said Charles Wade, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Statement by Robert Parham:
Phil Strickland brought to ethics work a gritty pragmatism of enormous earthly good for the least of those among us. He began his career at a time when ethicists were defined in Southern Baptist life by a Ph.D. degree. He broke new ground with a law degree and outworked a generation of Ph.D. graduates. While many ethicists prided themselves on being wordsmiths and saw power in words to shape convictions, Phil was a doer of the word more than a talker about it. He worked tirelessly to advance legislation that elevated the common good, whether it was fighting gambling or defending children.
On my desk is a metal paperweight with a quote from Reinhold Neibuhr, “The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.” I think Phil would agree with Neibuhr that the duty of politics was to establish justice. He would disagree about the adjective modifying duty. He would say the moral obligation of politics was the “joyful” or “grateful” duty of Christians in their practice of citizenship intended to make our society a more just one. Surely, it was out of his gratitude that he was able to work faithfully across four decades in some of the toughest of times.
One of Phil’s unflagging efforts was to bring young Baptists into ethics work through internships with the Christian Life Commission. In a way, he was a street-corner evangelist, calling folk to commit their hearts to justice and giving them an opportunity to learn firsthand how to do ethics in Southern Baptist life.
Phil’s death ends an era but leaves us a legacy upon which moderate Baptists must rekindle their commitment to ethics work.