Get to Know Bishop Gene Robinson

An Interview with CAP’s New Visiting Senior Fellow

Jeff Krehely and Sally Steenland interview CAP’s new Visiting Senior Fellow Bishop Gene Robinson—the first openly gay bishop to be ordained in a major Christian denomination.

Bishop Gene Robinson, above, joins CAP today as a visitng Senior Fellow. (AP/Bebeto Matthews)
Bishop Gene Robinson, above, joins CAP today as a visitng Senior Fellow. (AP/Bebeto Matthews)

Right Reverend Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the IX Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, joined American Progress today as a part-time Senior Fellow. Bishop Robinson will bring his well-respected perspective and experience to this fellowship, helping to discuss and analyze a wide array of policy areas in a progressive religious light. He will tackle issues related to economic justice, immigration, LGBT rights, health care, and the environment, among others.

Jeff Krehely, Director of CAP’s LGBT Research and Communications Project, and Sally Steenland, Senior Policy Advisor for Faith and Progressive Policy, interviewed Robinson on March 22 about a number of issues, including his new role at CAP, what it was like to be ordained as the first openly gay bishop, what a bishop does, and what he sees as the major issues confronting the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.

Jeff Krehely: Bishop Robinson, we at CAP are excited that you’ll be joining us as a Senior Fellow. We’re thrilled to be working with you on a whole array of issues and are looking forward to the voice, perspective, and experience you bring to the work that we do. Welcome to CAP.

Bishop Gene Robinson: Thank you so much. I guess it really is a mutual admiration society because I am so honored to be invited to join this remarkable group of people. I am delighted to become a part of the common effort.

J: We’ve just announced that you’re going to be joining us as a visiting Senior Fellow, but you are also going to be continuing as bishop of New Hampshire. Can you talk about how these two efforts connect for you?

G: I think this will be fairly seamless for me because the responsibility of any leader in a religious institution is to connect the values articulated in that particular faith with the culture and issues that surround us everyday. All of the Abrahamic religions talk about love of God and love of neighbor—and love of neighbor is really nothing but caring about the issues and the people of the culture and bringing one’s religious values to that.

I laughingly told someone the other day that I was about to do what our mothers told us never to do at dinner parties, which is to mix religion and politics. But for me the two are quite inseparable. Dearly held religious values always propel us into the public square and the issues that face us at any given time. For me, the two go hand in hand.

At the same time, I am a strong advocate for the separation of church and state. So I will be trying to do this in a way that perhaps contrasts to the way we have seen the conservative religious right, particularly the Christian religious right in this country, trying to affect politics. I will try and walk that very fine line between bringing my faith into the public sphere as a way of informing myself about what I should be doing—and other people of faith—while at the same time never demanding that anyone else should think the way I do because of my beliefs. I think that is possible, and I am excited about trying to model that kind of role for people of faith in public discourse.

J: If we could go a little bit deeper, which issues will you be focusing on at CAP?

G: The difficulty for me is going to be limiting myself because as I look at the concerns CAP is addressing, I am interested in all of them. Certain ones, certainly, lend themselves to a religious perspective, such as economic justice.

In all the Abrahamic religions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, the poor figure heavily in the sacred texts. Any of us in any culture is going to be judged by how we care for the most vulnerable among us. I hope to focus on issues such as health care reform, immigration reform, the economy, and the ramifications of this jobless recovery.

My biggest concern is that we have lost the notion of the common good. We are devolving into a, “If I’m OK, then to heck with the rest of the world” attitude. We need to be called back to the common good. It was part of our Founding Fathers’ vision of this country and is certainly part of the progressive agenda in America. We can’t care only about ourselves. I can see myself responding to those things.

Also, the environment figures heavily into most religious groups’ understandings of what we are called to be in relation to the creation.

Personally, I am excited to work with folks at CAP on the intersection of race and public policy and religion. Our experience of slavery, albeit banished 150 years ago, still weighs us down. That racial divide is still in our midst and is mostly played out in economic terms. Yet it seems to be the thing that Americans will tell you is over and should be over—yet we still see the effects of it.

There are any number of things that I would love to bring our religious perspective to and the only trouble I will have is finding the time to do that.

Sally Steenland: That sounds great. I want to echo Jeff’s good words, welcome you to the Center, and say how thrilled we are that you will be with us. I have a couple of questions. You’re going to be traveling back and forth between New Hampshire and Washington. Can you tell us what you will bring with you from New Hampshire to Washington, and what will you take back from Washington to New Hampshire?

G: Well, I will probably bring some maple syrup to share with the good folks at CAP, but I’m assuming you don’t mean what will I bring in my suitcase.

I think any organization like CAP that’s inside the beltway is pretty much focused on the 24/7 news cycle and what’s in front of Congress at any one moment. One of the things that drew me to the Center for American Progress was this cadre of senior fellows that you have. It seems to be an effort to stay in touch with what is going on outside the beltway. So I bring that, being from New Hampshire.

Let’s remember that New Hampshire is first in the nation’s primary—or at least it always has been—and I may bring an early bellwether state perspective in that way.

New Hampshire is generally a conservative state, although more than conservative, it is libertarian—and we are seeing more folks thinking that way. My experience with that and working with our legislature, for example, on the gay marriage bill in New Hampshire, I will bring with me.

I expect that my experience in Washington and with CAP will certainly give me a leg up on interpreting back to the people of my diocese and to the people of my state about what I have found to be true in Washington. While Washington politicians, and those that surround them, can be easily vilified and stereotyped, what I have found at CAP and with others in Washington is a real desire and commitment to making this nation a better place. I am hoping to act as a bridge between my experiences in Washington and those that I continue to come into contact with as the bishop of New Hampshire back in my own home state.

S: Being bishop is a title that you have, but of course it’s more than a title—it’s a job. Can you tell us about the work you do as bishop?

G: The first thing I will tell you is that I love this work and ministry. Primarily the bishop is the chief shepherd of a diocese. It means that I have oversight over 49 congregations, nine summer chapels, and three schools. It means that I am the primary pastor to the clergy and their families. They are pastors to their congregations, but they need a pastor as well, so I serve in that capacity.

I do a lot of problem solving. I rarely get a call from a clergy person on a Monday morning saying “Bishop I just wanted to call to say Sunday services yesterday were fantastic! I preached a great sermon and we had a great turnout.” I don’t get those calls. I get the calls that are about problems and from people who need help. I spend a lot of my day problem solving, helping clergy and lay leaders strategize about how to really live out the gospel where they are. It’s a very people-oriented job.

Every weekend I am in a different congregation. It takes me about a year and a half to get around to each congregation on Sunday morning. I usually spend a good part of the weekend there—meeting with the lay leadership, having a pizza dinner with the youth group, helping plan some mission effort, and doing all the services on the Sunday. So it’s a full job.

In addition to that, of course, I meet on a regular basis with our national church’s House of Bishops and serve on various committees for our larger Episcopal Church effort. It’s a full and wonderful life. I am honored to serve the people of New Hampshire who elected me to be their bishop.

J: Sally and I are feeling a little exhausted just listening to that schedule. It’s pretty impressive.

Getting a little more serious, I want to go back to 2004 when you were elected bishop of New Hampshire. It seems there were two reactions to your election—there was enormous hope and joy on one side, as well as some fear and anger on the other. How have things played out since then? Do you see hope and joy or fear and anger winning that struggle?

G: You are right to describe the two reactions, and I would say that in general those continue to be the main reactions. Yet I think the scales are very much tipped in the joy, hope, and positive side of things.

In 2003 the Episcopal Church began to color outside the lines and to say that while gay and lesbian people have been serving our churches as priests and deacons in leadership positions for a very long time, this step in electing an openly gay—a partnered gay man—as a bishop was a huge step. We rightfully or wrongfully take our bishops very seriously, and to have me elected and consented to—and consecrated—a bishop was a very serious statement on our church’s part that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are children of God and equal in the eyes of God.

I think by 2006, when we had gotten such a negative reaction from the Anglican Communion around the world questioning that decision, the Episcopal Church decided to—as I like to say—push the pause button. We agreed to not elect any other gay or lesbian bishops, at least for a while.

By 2009, at our general convention last summer, we had thought about it, prayed about it, and decided, nope, actually we had done the right thing. We were going to move forward in the direction we thought God was calling us, and that was full inclusion of all of God’s people.

That played itself out this past December when the Diocese of Los Angeles elected a lesbian to be one of their two new assistant bishops. Indeed, the consent for her election has come through and she will be consecrated on May 15 in Los Angeles.

In that period of just seven years, we have seen the Episcopal Church go out on a limb for its gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender members. In the debate over my election, the bishop of Wyoming said that it had not been since the 1960s and the civil rights movement that he had seen the church not just put itself on the line, but risk its life for something. I think that is what you see the Episcopal Church doing. We have made a commitment to gay, lesbian, transsexual, and transgender people, and what you see is us institutionally putting ourselves on the line for them, for us.

I think we are winning that struggle. A few people have left, but certainly not as many as you would suspect by reading the headlines. My sense is that the Episcopal Church is ready to move on and do its mission in the world of fully recognizing that our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender members are fully a part of that effort. I couldn’t be prouder to be an Episcopalian.

J: That’s terrific. Throughout those seven years it’s such a compelling story. It has touched a lot of people and generated so much media attention. Related to that, you said that you didn’t choose to be in the headlines—that it was thrust upon you. Can you talk a bit more about that and what your expectations were in 2003, going into 2004, of how this might play out?

G: This was a real surprise to us and I suppose we were just naive. The people of my diocese that elected me and I thought that this would be controversial for a good long news cycle, three to six months tops. I don’t think any of us suspected that it would have the kind of length and breadth that it has had.

But I also think that it happened at a time when the place of LGBT people in the culture, not to mention our religious institutions, was breaking out all over the place. There is not a denomination or world faith that isn’t dealing with this particular issue.

Although early on I said I didn’t want to be the gay bishop, I just wanted to be a good bishop, I realized within a couple of years that I really had no control over that. I couldn’t write the headlines in The Washington Post or The New York Times and at least for a time, and until someone else was elected, I was just probably going to be the gay bishop.

So I switched my outlook from resisting that title to saying, “OK, if I am going to have that title, how can I be the best steward of that opportunity?” The fact of the matter is that having that moniker has given me access to a lot of people that I would not have otherwise been able to meet—both conservative and liberal people.

Partly because I am not a hot head and because I value relationship, I have been able to talk with, and I believe change, many of the people who were opposed to my election or were generally not terribly sympathetic to gay rights. I decided rather than spending all of my time and energy resisting that title, it would be better to spend my time making good use of the opportunities that presented themselves because of it.

S: I would like to expand the picture beyond the United States and talk about global LGBT politics. Hope and joy seem to be winning the struggle here, albeit in fits and starts, but the global situation is far more dire than here. Can you talk about what some danger spots are? Who are behind these efforts and what can we do?

G: It’s a great series of questions, and I think we are going to pay very close attention to them in this next period of time. I was just speaking to a large gathering the other night in Texas and I said it is easy for LGBT people in San Francisco or New York, Fort Lauderdale, or West Hollywood to forget that life might not be as easy for LGBT people in Iowa and North Dakota and south Georgia as it is for those in metropolitan areas—so I think we are making great progress, albeit more slowly than we would like, in the United States on these issues, and it is just as easy for American gay and lesbian people to forget life is not like this in most of the world. We have over 40 countries where it is a criminal offense to be gay, and to act on that is an imprisonable offense. There are still five countries where it is punishable by death.

Two summers ago, I was in England for a big meeting with all the bishops worldwide, and we had a number of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender folks from around the world gather there and tell us their stories. They are blood curdling. It is quite common in Africa for a lesbian who comes out to be taken to the local police station and raped by the entire police force as a way of curing her of her homosexuality. The stories are beyond anything we can imagine here.

Recently we have come to understand that some of the very conservative and so-called religious groups in America are fanning the flames of this prejudice in other counties. It is almost as if they see that they are losing the battle here, so they are trying to wage that same battle outside the United States. Most recently, in Uganda, there was legislation proposing to make it a capital offense to have same-gender sex. The bill would even go as far to imprison someone for three years if they knew someone was gay and didn’t report them.

We looked at that more closely and discovered that several organizations, but principally The Family, which is the sponsor of the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., were really behind all that. When confronted about that they said, “Oh, my goodness, we never meant for anything like that happen.” But you can’t play with fire and then claim no responsibility if all of sudden you start a brush fire.

They punish people in California who start a camp fire if it gets out of control. They hold people accountable for what they did that led to this tragedy. So it seems to me that part of the responsibility in America, as gay and lesbian people, as progressive organizations, we need to hold people accountable for stirring up the fires of bigotry and hatred in other countries.

I think this is the next big wave of activism for the LGBT community in America. Indeed, this situation in Uganda was really the first time that our community got really concerned and began to read up and pay attention to what was happening to LGBT people overseas. I think it is going to be a focus of our work for the time to come—as well it should. As the world gets smaller due to communications and technology, we do become a global village. It’s time we care about those in other countries who are under almost unbelievable stress.

S: Tell us what you are working on now. What surprises you in that work? Also, in all the work that you are doing, what gives you hope?

G: Something I am doing a lot of thinking about now is the result of a recent article I read in the Atlantic Monthly—it’s about the long-term effects of the economic meltdown. It might be that this next generation will be the first that cannot expect to do better than their parents’ generation.

It’s gotten me thinking about how much is enough. It seems to me that it might be up to the religious community—at least as one source—of rethinking the American dream. I think the American dream has always been about more and more and more. But everywhere I look, more and more is not only impossible, it is not even good for us. If more and more and more means more at the expense of those that have little to begin with, or if more means literally eating up the environment and destroying this beautiful creation, or if more has to do with getting mine and to hell with you, then more is not a good dream for us to have as human beings and as Americans.

I am becoming passionate about redefining “enough.” How do we know when we have enough? How does the concept of enough fit into a capitalistic system, which we are not apt to change anytime soon? How do we redefine the American dream so it has more to do with enough then always having more?

I am probably going to do some thinking and writing about that with CAP, and I want to talk with some people there about how their work fits into that.

What surprises me? I guess I am always surprised at the goodness of people. I think that one of the reasons President Obama really resonated with people is because people love to be called to their best selves. It seems to me that in his campaign that is what he did. Now we can argue about what he has done since and how it is all working out, but I think what we saw in the last election was people being inspired by the notion that they might be their best selves and not something less than that.

I find when leaders challenge us to be our very best selves, it is not only inspiring but is very empowering. I think people want to feel empowered again, to have some kind of effect on their government, their society, and the people around them.

Maybe that is also an answer to what gives me hope. Of course, as a person of faith, I would say that not my belief in God, but my experience of God, gives me hope.

I believe as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of history is long but it inevitably bends toward justice.” And the God that I know in my life is working toward that end. I think that is what good and progressive people think as well.

Our job is to be aware of where God is already doing that work and then joining God there. We don’t have to think all this stuff up—God is already on this. All we need to do is join God and then work very hard to see that our government is working toward justice for all—really fulfilling the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. That should keep us all busy for a long time.

S: I think you are right. Thank you. Having you join us gives us hope and we look forward to having many more conversations.

Bishop Gene Robinson is a visiting Senior Fellow, Jeff Krehely is Director of LGBT Research and Communications Project, and Sally Steenland is Senior Policy Advisor for Faith and Progressive Policy at American Progress.

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Bishop Gene Robinson

Former Senior Fellow

Jeff Krehely

Former Senior Vice President, Domestic Policy

Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative