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Religion, Marriage, and the Economy

An Interview with Bishop Gene Robinson

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SOURCE: Center for American Progress

Listen to the interview (mp3)

Sally Steenland speaks with CAP Senior Fellow Bishop Gene Robinson about religious liberty, contraception, marriage equality, economic inequality, and more. Robinson is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire and the subject of a documentary film, “Love Free or Die,” that premiered at Sundance and has been playing around the country. He is also the author of an upcoming book, God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage, published by Knopf and coming out September 18. You can view a video of the religious liberty event here.

Sally Steenland: At our religious liberty event, where you were a panelist, we talked about contraception and marriage equality, as well as other issues related to religious liberty that aren’t in the headlines. What was your takeaway from the event?

Gene Robinson: The most interesting thing for me is that there seemed to be a consensus among panelists that religious liberty is not at risk in this country. One is left to conclude that it’s being used as a wedge issue, a solution to something that isn’t a problem. And one has to wonder, what’s behind it?

One of the things I was struck by—and I didn’t bring it up because I’m not absolutely sure of it—but the polling research that Robby Jones presented broke out responses in various ways. White, faithful people seemed to be in a more conservative place than the rest. You could say that’s mostly evangelicals, but there are a lot of evangelicals of color, and I couldn’t help but wonder how it relates to the fact that we have an African American president. There have been some of us who have been speculating for a long time that much of the opposition to the policies of the current administrations may be code for racism. You can’t get people to admit to racism in any kind of a poll, but I was struck by what a conservative place some white voters are in. I don’t know what that means or where it’s going, but it did come to my mind.

SS: White evangelicals and white Catholics who tend to be older polled more conservatively. You raise an interesting point. If George W. Bush were president, would the issue of religious liberty have the same salience?

GR: Well, it could be the reason we see Republicans voting against the [health care] legislation that a few years ago they were proposing themselves. I get it in a partisan sort of way—that you’ll want to be against the current administration—but opposing things that you used to be for just doesn’t make sense unless you figure in that racism piece.

SS: Many of the principles underlying the Affordable Care Act came from a conservative think tank. These same ideas, including the individual mandate, were Republican free market alternatives to the Clinton health care plan. The individual mandate was presented as a conservative concept. During one of the debates, Mitt Romney slipped and defended it. He said something like, if you get sick and go to the emergency room, the rest of us are going to have to pay your bills. So everybody’s got to pay their fair share. Nobody gets a free ride.

GR: The mandate at its core is a very conservative idea. One has to wonder why they’re running in the opposite direction. I think it’s code for something else, and at the end of the day, I think it’s a red herring. It’s not unlike the efforts to purge the voter registration rolls to solve the problem of voter fraud for which there is no evidence.

SS: I think that’s right. And the truth is, as you say, religious liberty is alive and well. It’s a core American value.

GR: And a core progressive value.

SS: I want to ask about “Love Free or Die,” a moving documentary that Macky Alston did about your life. It premiered at Sundance earlier this year and has been playing around the country. What’s been the response to the film? And what was it like to be followed around like that?

GR: I would not have said yes to this film if I hadn’t so implicitly trusted Macky Alston, whose day job is running Auburn media, which is associated with the Auburn Theological Center in New York. He trains national religious leaders to be effective voices in the media. I did know him and trust him, but even so, the request to follow me around with a film crew for three years was daunting to me and my husband Mark. We said yes, and what I learned was that, although people say that after a little while you don’t notice the camera at all, it’s not true!

SS: When the camera’s in your kitchen and you and Mark are talking, you know it’s there?

GR: Yeah, move out of the way, I need to get into the refrigerator. The response to the film has been overwhelming. In general we prepare for 50 people and 100 show up. We prepare for 100 and 200 show up. We decided not to do a commercial release, but rather through word of mouth get screenings in people’s living rooms, [in] community centers, on college campuses, and in churches. It’s astounding the number of people who decide they want to do that. They can go to the website, lovefreeordie.com, and say, “I want to do a screening in my living room or church basement.” You receive a free copy of the film and materials about how to use them.

This is especially important and timely for Maine. It could be the first state that ratifies marriage equality at the ballot box, with no lawsuit being filed outside of the legislative process. Polling shows that, like all over America, Mainers are increasingly supportive of marriage equality, and I think it stands a really good chance of passage. We have been pushing for screenings especially in states that have some sort of marriage equality related initiative on the ballot. That would be Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, and Washington state. We think the movie is going to have a real impact there.

SS: The movie is suspenseful. Who would think at an Episcopal general convention you’re going to sit at the edge of your chair?

GR: Macky took great care to not demonize anyone in the movie although clearly the movie has a viewpoint. But people are portrayed at their best and in their own words. A church convention being interesting is a stretch, but being the subject of a film is an even bigger stretch. I went to a screening of the movie in Washington with an organization called SMYAL, the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League. It’s one of the oldest institutions in America dealing with LGBT teens. There were maybe 15 or 16 kids at this movie, all but one was African American and probably four were transgender. They were absolutely glued to the screen and the only audience I’ve seen—when the vote was taken in favor of blessing same-sex unions and the ordination of gay and lesbian people to all orders of the ministry in the church—they cheered.

You know, we have so lost our respect for institutions, but this said to me that these teenagers want to believe in institutions again. When they saw one doing good, they cheered. I thought that was telling, and it was very moving for me because as much as I fight with church, I also believe in it.

SS: The vote makes a difference in the real world.

GR: Absolutely. There’s a young Episcopalian, I think she’s Asian American. She stands up and says, “I’m a gay Episcopalian. This is not an issue for me. This is my life.” I think that’s exactly right. It was really nice to see that portrayed well in the movie and get word out that there are progressive religious groups doing good work.

There’s a particular women in the movie that many people point to. She’s crying and says, “I can’t vote for this, but I can neither celebrate nor apologize. I just have to be who I am the way you say you need to be who you are.” And she says, “I just want you to know, all the pain around this has not been only on your side. There are those of this who are opposed to this change in our church. And it’s very painful for us as well.”

That’s a telling moment. I’m sympathetic that we’re asking people to change their mind about something we taught them for generations. So we should not be surprised that this is difficult, because after all we taught them the other way and now we’re changing the rules. Of course it strikes fear in the hearts of people because if you change this, what’s going to be the next thing and the next? And then will they even recognize their religion?

SS: It’s a slippery slope that makes people nervous. We need some absolutes and certainties.

GR: When I’m speaking to groups, particularly more conservative groups, I take great care in letting them know I’m theologically very conservative. But the fact of the matter is we’re not arguing about the Trinity or the divine and human nature of Jesus or the resurrection. We’re talking about a particular social interpretation of a few passages of scriptures. The Anglican church around the world and the Episcopal church in this country have a very important distinction between the essentials and the nonessentials. I would say, for instance, the essentials are contained in the historic creeds of the first few centuries: the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed. As long as we agree about those, we can disagree about the nonessentials.

Frankly, you take most of our congregations and name an issue from abortion to stem cell research to who should be president, and you’ve got people all over the map. We find our way to the alter rail and receive the body and blood of Christ in communion. We find our unity there, and then go back to the pews and fight about all the other things. I think that’s exactly right.

SS: You’ve written a book that’s coming out this fall called God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage. Why did you write it?

GR: The idea of the book came from someone else. The book agent for Archbishop Desmond Tutu heard me on NPR talking about gay marriage and thought there was book there. As we developed the idea, I imagined a conversation between me and someone I would call in “the moveable middle”—someone who doesn’t hate us, who would certainly describe themselves as tolerant of gay and lesbian and transgendered people, but is not prepared to go all the way and support marriage.

I imagined a conversation with that person. Each of their objections to marriage equality became a chapter in the book. Hopefully I will have answered the reservations people have about each one of those things so that at the end of the book, people are back to the place of the title. At the end of the day, God believes in love.

We include a passage from the first letter of Paul that says, “Where love is, there God is.” As more and more same-sex couples become more known to their families, coworkers, classmates, we see love there. That is unmistakable. If love is there, God is for it.

SS: If you watch the news or read the newspaper, the economic news is not good. The accumulated wealth of American families has dropped to 1995 levels. Working people are worried about losing their jobs and being foreclosed on their homes. Many working people don’t have healthcare, but they do have sick kids. Beyond that a lot of people can’t even find work and have been unemployed for a long time. Jeb Bush recently said that we’re a nation in decline. As a person of faith, also a concerned American, what do you have to say to that?

GR: I would not say that America is in decline. I’m an essentially hopeful and optimistic person, but I don’t think there is evidence to show we won’t come out of this. I think it’s important to talk about the reality of what some people are calling a decline. If you look at the salaries of middle-class people over the last, let’s say, 20 years, it’s essentially flat-lined. If you look at the income of the wealthiest 1 percent, it is a climbing number of staggering proportions.

SS: It’s like Mount Everest. It goes straight up.

GR: It is. It goes almost straight up. And what’s interesting is that some of the people who have profited the most in the last 20 years are the ones saying for political purposes that we’re in decline, which is just bizarre. It’s important to not take an ax to this problem when a finely sculpted knife is what’s needed. It is the middle class being preyed upon by the few. And then as an effort to solve that problem, the middle class—who knows they’re not doing very well—are recruited into taking out the difference on the most vulnerable and the poorest. So it’s a terrible combination.

I read a really interesting book that I want to take a lot of time with in retirement. It’s called The Righteous Mind. It’s one of the most important books that’s come out lately. It talks about how Democrats appeal to only two of the five or six foundational values and moral compasses we have. Republicans respond to all of them. I think progressive people need to pay attention to that, both in terms of changing people’s minds and also in not writing off those who are conservative but seeking to understand what they feel are important and sacred values.

Unless we do that, we’re not going to be able to respond politically and legislatively to the ills that face us. So I would say, no, we’re not in decline. Are we going through a tough time? Absolutely. Are we tempted at this point to take it out on those least able to bear any more? Yes, I think we are, and I think we need to stand up to that. Going back to our earlier conversation, there’s probably no theme in scripture—both the Jewish scriptures of the Old Testament and the Christian scriptures of the New—more clearly articulated than that God will judge us on how we care for the most vulnerable in our midst. I just wish we could hear the Biblical literalists talking about that.

SS: I want to close with a personal question. Next year you’re going to retire from being bishop.

GR: I’m looking for a different word. Someone told me I should be talking about my “encore.”

SS: OK, your encore career as you segue into a new adventure. What are you going to miss about being New Hampshire’s Episcopal bishop? And what’s on the horizon?

GR: I go through the day now, this being my last year, and I’ll be doing something and think, “Oh my gosh, I am really going to miss this.” I love my visitations out in congregations. I love talking with young people … I think we undersell the younger generation as being sort of not interested in religion. They are interested in religion and more especially in a relationship with God. I think churches that are failing are those that have forgotten that their central purpose is to facilitate people’s relationship with a living God. And where that’s happening, kids are totally turned on. They are more interested in how faith is being put into practice, and so they’re out working in soup kitchens, doing systemic work politically. I love that. I love being in touch with them.

And I have to say that in New Hampshire, which is actually more libertarian than it is conservative, fighting against this rugged individualism, which has been both America’s strength and its greatest vulnerability. At the end of the day, we’re a community, while individualism argues for an “every man, woman, and child for themselves.” It seems that the religious message of virtually every religious institution is that no, actually, we’re a family. We’re a community. And I’ve loved working for that, which leads me to what I’ll be doing afterward.

I really believe faith communities can offer messages in the civil discourse that has become anything but civil, so I’m looking to expand my time here at the Center for American Progress. I’m really excited that this is a progressive organization that actually believes that moral discourse is relevant to these enormous discussions. And I would say, in terms of how we treat one another while we’re fighting about these things, that there’s nothing wrong about fighting over issues, but how we treat one another in the midst of fighting about them is a profoundly moral question. I think we’ve lost our moral way, so speaking to that process and to the issues themselves is something that is very exciting. I can’t think of a better bunch of buddies to have than those here at CAP. I always feel like I have to row really hard to keep up here, and that’s so great.

I’ve also gotten in increasingly involved in a congregation here in D.C.: St. Thomas, Dupont Circle. It’s a historic parish and was where Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt worshipped when they were here in Washington. I just learned—this boggles my mind—that Roosevelt served as senior warden, which is the head layperson.

This congregation, as I say, is historic. But 40 years ago, it was torched by an arsonist and burned to the ground, probably because of the church’s stance against the Vietnam War. They made this remarkable decision not to build back. They took the land and made a public park. At the very back of the park [are] the burnt-out remains of the back of the altar. It’s a beautiful and moving place. After 40 years they’ve decided now to rebuild. They asked if I would be the honorary chair of their capital campaign, which I was happy to do. Last September they came to me with the idea that they wanted to name the small chapel in the new church for me.

SS: Oh wow. How moving.

GR: It’s very moving. And I still can’t quite get my mind around it. I said, “Don’t you have to be either dead or very, very good in order to have something like that happen?” So I’m very excited about that. And this new church we hope to build has a multiuse plan. The idea is to make it a community center for the nation’s capital. Maybe we’ll even have some CAP events there.

SS: We would love that.

GR: One of the things we’re hoping to do is to become a place where people can come and learn about nonviolent conversation, so that we can change the nature of the debate in Washington.

SS: That sounds very exciting—there’s so much to look forward to.

GR: I think that should keep me busy, don’t you? Not necessarily out of trouble, but busy.

SS: Good trouble. Thank you so much for being with us. It was a pleasure.

GR: You’re very welcome. I’m delighted to be here.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.

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