Over the past four decades, we have seen many significant changes in organized religion. Few of those changes have been as frighteningly disorienting for some and desperately welcome for others as has been the inclusion, to varying degrees, of openly Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered persons in mainline denominations.
The history of these changes parallel the career timeline of the Right Reverend Bishop Eugene Robinson, who has served as the openly gay Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire since 2003.
In his life and in his ministry, Bishop Robinson has broken barriers and opened doors for many, often at great personal cost.
Welton Gaddy sat down with him for a far-ranging and insightful conversation.
You’ll hear Bishop Robinson reflect about the course his ministry has taken, the challenges he’s faced as an openly gay bishop and his take on some of the social issues unexpectedly dominating our political discourse.
Set to retire in 2013, Bishop Robinson, a hero to many, is the author of In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God and the upcoming God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage. In addition to leading the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, he serves as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Click the “play” button above to hear the extended interview. Click here to download it. Scroll down to read the transcript. Click here for the segments as aired April 7, 2012 State of Belief Radio.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: RT. REV. BISHOP GENE ROBINSON
[REV. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: On this week’s program, I want to share with you a far-ranging conversation that I recently had with the Right Rev. Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. Recorded at the Center for American Progress Studios in Washington, DC, where Bishop Robinson is a Senior Fellow, the interview took place on the same day that a new documentary film featuring his life and ministry, was screened in the nation’s capital. That film is called “Love Free or Die.”
As Bishop Robinson nears retirement later this year, I think you will find – just as I did – that his past experiences and, just as vitally, his future plans, make for compelling listening indeed.
The Right Reverend Gene Robinson is a religious and civil rights leader, whose story has been recounted in his 2008 book In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God. 2012 brings another book, God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage.
Now, Bishop Robinson has announced his plans to retire. He’s shown no bent toward knowing what that means, and he continues to lead the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, he’s active in educational and human rights causes, as he has been for a long time. He holds two honorary doctorates and has received numerous awards from national civil rights organizations. He is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. I am very pleased to welcome the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson to our microphones.
[RT. REV. BISHOP GENE ROBINSON]: I’m delighted to be here. Thank you so much.
[WG]: I remember so well the day that I interviewed you and Jane Holmes Dixon about both of you being pioneers in the Episcopal Church and, somewhat, facilitators of reformation and revolution. You do that with such grace and with such humility – and yet you do it straight-forwardly with such power. Our listeners picked up on that, and I’ve been looking forward since that day to this day for a longer conversation with you. I appreciate you being here.
[GR]: Well, I’m so happy to be here, and I love the work that you do. You know, I love the Church – and yet I guess all of us want the Church to be the Church that we think it ought to be. And we’re never very good at it. You know, God always gets it right, and the Church sometimes doesn’t; so trying to reform it, trying to launch a little revolution in a Church that I love is tricky business!
[WG]: It is. At what age did you think about being a priest?
[GR]: You know, I’ve never been outside the Church. My parents took me to church the first day I was able to go, and I’ve sort of been there ever since. And, you know, I had a really special relationship with our ministers. We never had a minister for longer than three years, because I went to a little rural church in Jessamine County, Kentucky and we couldn’t afford a minister – so we got seminarians from what was then called the College of The Bible in Lexington – it’s now the Lexington Theological Seminary – and so we would get a student, wet behind the ears, and just starting seminary, we’d have them for three years and then we’d get another one. And they were, sort of, my link to the outside world. They were somebody who had been some place other than Jessamine County, Kentucky, and I loved that; and so we would talk about God on the long ride home from there back to Lexington where I lived. And so that was very much a part of it.
But you know, I always wanted to be a pediatrician. My whole growing up; my own pediatrician had actually been the one to deliver me, and I was supposed to die – I was massively injured in childbirth, and they just said to my parents: “He’ll never walk or talk or have any mind, and he’ll probably die soon; so just take him home and love him,” you know, and so that pediatrician was sort of my hero. And so my whole growing up, I never really thought about the ministry – although I will tell you that when I was about five or six, I had some long-playing records… Well, no, I don’t think they were long-playing records; it was even earlier than that. Those 78s, you know, the big ones. And I don’t know where they came from, but we had preaching records; and I would learn the entire sermon and preach along with those records! So maybe it was in my blood long before I actually began to think about it.
[WG]: When did you have an awareness that you’re gay?
[GR]: Well, of course, you know, we didn’t even have the word “gay” back then – well, we had it, but it just meant like a fun party or something. So while I had these feelings, there was no, sort of, slot to put them in. But I would say around 12 or 13, for me – and I remember what I think was the first time that I really felt this in a particular way, which was: some friends of mine got ahold of a Playboy magazine and, you know, everybody was excited to see it – and I distinctly got the impression this was doing more for my friends than it was doing for me; and interestingly, at the very same moment – without ever talking about this – I knew I’d better not say that, because it would endanger our friendships, and it might even endanger me physically.
[WG]: Yeah. Well where I was going – or where I am going with all that – is: how did an awareness of a divine call, or an inner impulse toward ministry, intersect with an awareness of the fact that you’re gay? When did that happen, and did you worry about it then, or – what were your feelings?
[GR]: I did. I worried about it almost night and day. You have to remember that the theological construct I grew up in was, you know, you might ask God forgiveness for all your sins, but if you mistakenly, you know, made one little sin between that point and when you died and you hadn’t asked forgiveness for that – you were a goner. I mean, it was that kind of fear-based religion. So, oh my God, I prayed about this all the time. I didn’t know what to call it, but I knew it was wrong; I knew all about Leviticus and being an abomination and so on; and I loved the Church, I loved God, I loved Jesus – and so it was a source of almost constant pain.
But you know, what I consider to be the miracle of scripture and why I so love scripture, is that alongside all this fear I was feeling – which had been taught to me by the Church – somehow I heard God’s voice in scripture; and when I heard what God said to Jesus at his baptism, it felt like God was also talking to me, which is: “You are my beloved son; in you I am well pleased.” Now, it took me another 20 years – more than 20 years – to reconcile those two things, and to lay claim to my personhood as a gay man; but what I had to tide me over was this sense – although I didn’t understand it, I didn’t know how it could be true – that God loved me, and was pleased with me. And so, I sort of feel like the first half of my life was reconciling those two.
[WG]: Who helped you with that?
[GR]: Oh gosh, so many people. One of the reasons that I became an Episcopalian was that I met a chaplain in college who was an Episcopalian, and I had already, sort of, rejected the narrowness of the religion that I’d grown up in. And instead of telling me there were certain questions I shouldn’t ask, which is what I’d been told in high school, he said, “You’re asking exactly the right questions, and I’m not sure we’ve got all the answers; but why don’t you come on in and let’s look together.” And I thought it was just such an undefensive and wonderful way to look at it. And so, he was of enormous help to me – and this was while I was at the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee – and then, of course, seminary was its own journey with its own mentors. And, you know, I was in therapy for two years to try to become heterosexual and make these feelings go away. I love children, I always loved to babysit when I was growing up, I wanted a family and so on – so I was very much trying to be changed and, you know, I listened to the people who say that if you just pray hard enough, you know, and you ask Jesus to take this away – well, you know what, it didn’t happen. And instead of taking it away, Jesus actually helped me to understand and lay claim to who I was, and to be proud of it.
[WG]: Did you do the therapy because you wanted to?
[GR]: Yeah. No one told me, I couldn’t see any other way to have a family and to be happy, you know, I’m a people person. And at that point, I mean, remember, when I started seminary – in 1969, three months after the Stonewall riots that began the so-called gay liberation movement – so this was still very, very early. There were no role models, you know, Ellen wasn’t out, and Will and Grace weren’t on TV, and all the people we now know to be gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender just weren’t there – and life looked pretty bleak.
[WG]: Did you have any sense during that time that you might be the trailblazer?
[GR]: Oh my gosh, no. I didn’t have that sense even when I was elected! I mean, you know, the Diocese of New Hampshire in the Episcopal Church – the clergy and laity of a diocese actually call their own bishop. It’s not done by somebody outside. They knew me, I’d been in the diocese for 28 years, 18 of them as the assistant to the bishop; they all knew me, I knew they knew me – and I was just so humbled and gratified that they would want me to be their bishop. I don’t think any of us expected this to be what it’s turned out to be.
[WG]: When did you know that it was going to be tough – as tough as it’s been?
[GR]: Well, the death threats started almost immediately. That tells you it’s tough.
[WG]: You were installed wearing a bulletproof vest, right?
[GR]: That’s right. Exactly. And they began almost immediately. But, you know, more important than all the controversy and the negative stuff – I was just as surprised by the positive stuff. So, three days after I was elected, I got a note from a woman at the New Hampshire State Women’s Prison. Turned out to be a very young woman, and she wrote this note, and it said: “I’m neither gay, nor particularly Christian; but there is something in your election that makes me believe that there might be a community out there who could love me despite what I’ve done.” And it was at that point that I realized that this was very much bigger than homosexuality; that this, you know, as so often happens – and we know from scripture, when those on the margins see a reason for hope, it’s a signal of something really big and really important – and that almost took me more by surprise, I think, than the negative reaction.
[WG]: Do you ever get accustomed to the negative?
[GR]: No – and just when you think you’re sort of setting it aside, not thinking about it, you know, something else happens. Just a couple of years ago – it might have been right after I did the invocation for the opening inaugural event for President Obama – the Vermont State Police arrested a man who, driving through this little Vermont town, saw a parked empty police cruiser, and shot all the windows out. So they caught up to him, and in the passenger seat, right next to him, he had MapQuest maps to our house; he had pictures of me and Mark; and he had scrawled across them: “Save the Church, kill the bishop” – and he had a sawed off shotgun and tons of ammunition. So we get this call saying: “We’ve arrested a guy who, it seems to us, that he was on his way to kill you.” So it keeps rearing its ugly head from time to time but, you know, we decided early on that we were not going to let this paralyze us. And I think, you know, one of the benefits of being a Christian – or even more broadly, a person of faith – is that you learn that death isn’t the worst thing. Not living your life is the worst thing. And, you know, and as a Christian I know that I will be with God after this life, and I don’t care what form it takes or what it’s like, that’s all I need to know. And so it really can free you to just not be bound by those kinds of threats and negativity.
[WG]: Bishop Robinson, do you worry about our nation?
[GR]: All the time. It’s part of the reason that I’ve become a part-time Fellow here at the Center for American Progress. It seems to me that we have lost our way – but not in the way that conservatives would describe that. I think the thing that alarms me the most is the polarization and the demonization that we see in the so-called “civil debate.” There’s nothing civil about it anymore. You know, I’m old enough to remember the days when Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill would have a drink together at the end of the day – even though they were on the opposite end of almost everything. We just don’t see that anymore; and we see the demonization and mischaracterization of the other side. It’s as if we’ve agreed not to treat each other as human beings anymore. And that concerns me more than any one issue; because if you don’t have that, if you don’t have the basis for a relationship, then there’s very little room to move towards solving the issues that face us.
[WG]: I think you know me well enough to know that what’s behind this question; I certainly think that political responsibility is a part of Christian discipleship – as a minister I say that.
[GR]: Yes, indeed.
[WG]: At the same time, I am concerned that the polarization that you’ve mentioned looks the same in the Church as it does in the politics. And what are we going to do to get off dead-center here, and begin to find some ways to contact each other?
[GR]: Well, I’d like to share with you one of the learnings that have come in the last 9 years, and then I’ll tell you what I’m trying to do about that; and it might be an answer to your question.
I was attacked, you know, from all over. People I didn’t know; people in low places and high places; the Archbishop of Nigeria said that gay people are lower than the dogs; the Archbishop of Kenya said that when I was consecrated, Satan entered the Church – so I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that stuff. And what I learned is that – and I believe this with my whole heart – that how a person treats you in no way relieves you of the responsibility you have to treat them like the child of God that they are. The seductive urge to return evil for evil is just so powerful that sometimes you have to just be quiet and absorb it, and for the first time in my life I understood why, according to a couple of the gospels, Jesus was silent at his own trial. You know, somewhere, it’s just got to stop; and you can’t return hate for hate – but the urge to do so is so great.
So, I’ll tell you a part of what I want to do in my retirement.
[GR]: I’m becoming very much associated with a parish here in Washington DC – St. Thomas Dupont Circle. It’s where FDR worshiped when he was president. And about 40 years ago, their church was torched – probably over their stand against the Vietnam War – and they turned it into a park up here on 18th street, 17th street, I think it is – and they’ve now decided to build a building. It’s a very exciting design, and they and I have in mind to put together a center for nonviolent conversation. I think we are going to call it “A Better Way,” and take groups that are divided from one another, and see if they would be willing to come in and have us help them find a better way of having a conversation that gets away from this kind of demonization and caricaturing that we’ve become so accustomed to. So we have as our audacious goal – a big old hairy audacious goal – is we mean to change the tenor of the conversation in the nation’s Capital. That’s going to be what we’re going to be working toward and using this new building to do it.
[WG]: My question is a very sincere one. I could be funny here, and I don’t want to be funny here. Do you think that there are people in the House and the Senate that would come and do that?
[GR]: I don’t know. We’re going to find out. I think the easy answer is: “Oh, good Lord, no!” – but this parish has a lot of their staff people in it. And if their staff person, as a member of St. Thomas, goes to them and says: “This means a lot to me, and we think we’re onto something here, and would you do this for me?” And we mean to make that a safe space, you know, it’s not going to be in the papers the next morning what got said and how it got said. We think it’s worth a try, because if we continue going in the direction we’re going – boy, I worry for us.
[WG]: Me too. Me too. Well – and I know you’ve got a full year ahead of you in 2012, and that you’re going to be retired then – but what you’ve just told me makes me want to say “Hurry up.”
[GR]: Well I think I’m going to stop using the word “retiring,” because it just feels like I’m changing work; changing focus.
[WG]: Yeah, I think you’re not retiring. I want to look from 1973; you were ordained in 1973, till today. When you think about that journey, how do you characterize it?
[GR]: I think that for me and my ministry and the Episcopal Church, it has been a series of meeting challenges. Not running from them, but meeting them.
I was ordained in 1973. It was the very next year that 11 women were irregularly – which is a nice way of saying illegally, non-canonically – ordained in Philadelphia. Two years later, we approved the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church. Three years later we had a new prayer book and, you know, the one sure way to get Episcopalians riled up is to mess with their prayer book, right? Lots of controversy and so on. It was also in 1976 that the first resolution saying that homosexual people were children of God and deserve the full pastoral administrations of the Church. Now, it’s taken us a very long time to live into that, but that was pretty early to be saying that. And it’s taken us 30 years to begin to put some real flesh around that.
So I guess the thing that I’m proudest of over that time period is that the Episcopal Church has argued about things, fought about things publicly, and has made no bones about the fact that these are very difficult issues, and that people of faith can disagree about them and still be people of faith. And I think the most recent controversy – over my election and consecration – asked the question: “Can we disagree about this and still be in the same Church?” And a small percentage of us decided that no, we couldn’t – and so we’ve had about, using their numbers, maybe about 100,000 people leave – out of the 2+ million – and that makes me very sad, but I can tell you that many of them are coming back. Many of them are missing the Church in which they, you know, they baptized their kids, and married each other, and buried their parents – and that actually, the Church hasn’t changed very much just because there’s a gay bishop in New Hampshire – and now in Los Angeles.
[WG]: Was there a most difficult moment?
[GR]: Yeah. It was not a moment. It was a period of three and a half weeks, when I was at the every-ten-year Lambeth Conference of Bishops. All the bishops of the Anglican Communion have been invited to this conference since 1868, and for the first time since then a bishop was not invited – and that was me. And I made the decision to go anyway and to be on the edges of the conference. I wasn’t, you know, trying to storm any of the meetings that I wasn’t welcome at – but I wanted to be there to remind everyone, even the Africans and Asians who claim they don’t have any gay people in their churches, that we are here, and they do have us in their congregations, and they would know about it if it weren’t punishable by imprisonment to be gay in their nations, and in few of them punishable by death – and I just wanted to be there as a constant reminder.
What I underestimated was the toll it would take on me. I’ve never felt so isolated – and I’ll tell you what saved me. There is a very small Franciscan community right in the center of Canterbury, and there are four brothers there and there were a couple of novices, and every morning they gather in this beautiful old building that literally sits above a stream. It was a mill at one point. And they worship at 7AM. And I had to stay out of town because of death threats, I had to stay in, you know, an undisclosed location; we would get up – I had a 24-hour body guard and so on – so we would all get up at some ungodly hour to be in Canterbury at the Franciscan place to pray at 7 o’clock. And it saved me, spiritually. They were so welcoming and so wonderful, and it was important that each and every day I let God remind me of God’s love for me, because the rest of the day was going to be whittling away at that understanding. It was a really, really tough time and, you know, it’s one thing for your enemies to treat you poorly. It’s another thing for your friends and your family. We’re brothers and sisters in Christ, you know, we are brothers and sisters by virtue of our baptism and you know you can’t choose your family. And so it was really hard.
[WG]: You may or may not believe this, but the next thing I was going to ask you is so related to that. I was in a battle within Baptist life that tore people to shreds, and that’s the backdrop for this question: were your friends a part of the obstacles, as well as the enemies? And the reason I’m asking this is because I found that sometimes our friends, whether it’s not knowing – I’m not trying to be judgmental – but, not knowing, or I don’t think it’s not caring, but there is the lack of courage and the lack of encouragement that you need in a situation like that, and your friends can fail you more than your enemies defeat you.
[GR]: I think that is exactly right, and I would agree with you. It’s not that they saw what to do and didn’t do it; it’s that somehow they failed to see what could be done.
I think maybe this is the way to get at it: I’ve done a lot of speaking lately against “tolerance” because I don’t think it’s enough; I mean, it beats intolerance by a mile, don’t get me wrong, but it’s just not enough. And “tolerance” sounds to me like someone is sort of begrudgingly accepting my existence, right? And you know what, that just doesn’t feel all that good. What we long for, I think, all of us, is acceptance and affirmation and celebration of who we are. I think good liberal clergy, bishops, Christians, Jews and Muslims if they’re liberal, think that they’ve won the battle if they think that they’re tolerant – and it just seems to me that Jesus wants more of us than mere tolerance. And I guess I learned a lot in my anti-racism training too, when I had a young black woman say to me: “You know, you can tolerate us, you don’t ever have to use the n-word, you don’t have to ever be mean to any one of us; but every morning when you swing your feet out of the bed and over onto the floor, you get up in a world that is set up to benefit you because you’re white. And unless you are seeking, actively, to dismantle that racist world, you’re a part of it, you’re benefiting from it.” And I think that’s what applies here. Just playing it easy, playing it safe, not stepping up, not standing up, is just not enough. And our friends, because they are our friends, they can sort of pat themselves on the back because they’re friends with us – and we actually need them to step up and do something that counts.
[WG]: The next question is theoretical, though in your life I’m pretty sure it’s actual, repeatedly. If a young man comes to you and says: “Bishop Robinson, I’m thinking about a life in the Church, I’m feeling some call to ministry.” Would what you say to that young man be any different if he is not gay, or if he is gay?
[GR]: Only in the sense that I would be honest with the gay young man that there might be some limitation about where he could serve. But I would also go on to say to him that whatever struggles he might encounter along the way will serve him and serve God and make him a better priest. It seems to me that Jesus was always aligning himself with those on the margins, those pushed aside – and we learn about Jesus by putting ourselves in the same places with the same people, and I think that it’s doable now. There was a time when I would have said, “Really, just save yourself a lot of heartache and, you know, you‘ll make a lot more money as a plumber!” But now there are enough people, enough congregations that would gladly evaluate him on his skills and not on his orientation. And frankly, it’s an exciting time to be in the Church, and you know, interestingly, after my consecration, the number of clergy applying for open positions in New Hampshire tripled! And they were not gay clergy; they were clergy who thought this was an exciting place to be in Christendom at the moment.
[WG]: My Goodness. Is there anything that would come – right off the top of your head – if you’re talking to a young woman or man going into Episcopal ministry, and you were asked what do you know now that you didn’t know when you started your ministry?
[GR]: I think I believed that the Church was durable – and now I know it is. I also, you know, being a convert to the Episcopal Church – and you know we’re the worst, it’s sort of like being a non-smoker, it’s like, you just go to the extremes – so I loved the Church that I came into, which has just changed so much. And what I know now is that the change that comes about is for the good, and it is of God; and what I know now is we don’t have to worry for the Church, and God is going to take care of the Church. God may change the Church – radically – but that’s OK, as long as God is with it. And so, I think, I just have a lot more confidence in that, and that we as a Church need to have confidence about that.
During the consent for my election, the Bishop of Wyoming, Bruce Caldwell, said that it had not been since the Civil Rights movement in the 60’s that he had seen the Church risk its life for something, and he thought this was just such a time. And I think, over the last nine years, you have seen the Episcopal Church actually risk its life for us – its gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender people – and that’s a very humbling thing to be on the receiving end of, and to realize that the Church just went out on a limb for us, and that it’s a microcosm for what we are meant to do for all of the oppressed, all of those who are marginalized. And so, you know, all of this has just made me love the Church even more, and love God for God’s willingness to hang in there with us while we try to figure this out.
[WG]: Bishop Robinson, I know your husband, Mark Andrew – tell us a little about your family.
[GR]: Well, I met Mark 24 years ago, and he was working here in Washington at the National Office of the Peace Corps and was thinking of going back overseas – he has been in the Peace Corps himself, in West Africa – and I took him away from all that, and he did as many women have done forever, he left his job and moved to New Hampshire because I wasn’t going to leave my kids, they were five and nine when I met Mark. So he’s become a part of our family. It is so, you know – our daughters are now 30 and 34 – there are things that they would talk to him about that they would never come to their mother or me to talk about. They just adore him. And our older daughter, has our two granddaughters who are six and eight, of course they’re the most adorable grandchildren in history of the world, but I’m not too objective about that, we have… I think people would be – particularly our detractors – would just be shocked at how “normal” we are. We always laugh about the “gay agenda,” you know, and we did as the kids were growing up, and we used to play board games a lot, we had the girls every weekend. And watch the Golden Girls and eat ice cream on Saturday night. We would always laugh about, you know, ok here we are, the gay agenda is ice cream and board games on Saturday night. And I think that’s what’s happening across America, is that people are realizing that we have dreams and hopes for our families that look very much like the dreams of everyone else’s family and we’re doing… You know, I think the Holy Spirit is working, whenever we discover that we have very much more in common than we have that would separate us. And I think that’s why we’ve seen the kind of progress around LGBT rights, is that people have actually come to know us. And instead of being so scary, we actually look quite familiar.
[WG]: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I want us to take advantage of your experience and wisdom on some of the great issues of the day, and I’m going to just, kind of, tick some off and have you respond. Talk about marriage equality, DOMA, LGBT issues in general.
[GR]: You know, we are making progress state by state of course, Washington State just signed into law the marriage equality bill, becoming the seventh state, plus the District of Columbia. And that is real progress. That’s very, very important. But much of what we hope to accomplish can only be accomplished at the federal level. So as far as Social Security is concerned, my husband and partner of 24 years is a complete stranger to me, and none of those benefits accrue. And it’s the little things, you know – we go on vacation outside the country; we’re coming back, and the flight attendant comes down the aisle with the immigration and customs forms, and what she says is, “One per family.” And she gives me one and she gives Mark one. And we’ve been together 24 years. Across the aisle from us is the heterosexual couple who are coming back from their honeymoon; they’ve been married a week, and one will do fine for them. It’s just one of those little ways that the government reminds you that your family doesn’t count. So until this gets worked out at the federal level, we’ll still have a long way to go. I’m delighted that the President and the Justice Department have decided that they just simply cannot defend the Defense of Marriage Act any longer, and I’m hoping we will see that go soon.
[WG]: Are you nervous – and I’ll just confess I am nervous – at what case goes to the Supreme Court – and really nervous about what this Supreme Court might do with it?
[GR]: Absolutely. So, you know, the people who know about these things have been keeping cases out of court that might get there too early, because the research shows that the court isn’t going to make some big social change until that change has become effected in about a third of the states. And we haven’t reached that threshold yet. The one thing that gives me hope is that the conservatives who oppose marriage equality are just as scared as we are about how this will go when it gets to the Supreme Court; partly because it takes a very long time for the court to decide it’s going to overturn a precedent. It took 17 years in the sodomy case. And so, whoever loses – this will be a big loss. My own guess is that it will be the Proposition 8 case that goes to the Supreme Court first. My guess is that they are going to take a safe route with this, and I think they will uphold the lower court’s ruling that Prop 8 was unconstitutional – and they’ll write it in such a way that it limits it to California. Would I love to see them just wipe all this out of every state? Absolutely. But I’m not sure the time is right.
[WG]: But it would be a step in the right direction.
[GR]: It would be a step in the right direction, and it would not be a setback. And the case that Judge Vaughn Walker decided in California is just brilliant. It’s brilliantly written. And basically, what he kept saying to those who were arguing against marriage equality was: “You know, the things you’re saying might work in a political commercial on TV. Just show me the evidence.” And there wasn’t any; you know: “This undermines heterosexual marriage.” really? Show me the evidence. Well, actually, it turns out not to be. Children fare worse in same gender households? Actually, there is no evidence to that effect. So I think it’s a pretty good chance that they will affirm those lower courts’ decisions – and that would be terrific.
[WG]: It’s hard to believe, isn’t it, that in 2012 we are in the middle of a huge debate on birth control…
[GR]: Isn’t it mind-boggling?
[WG]: It is.
[GR]: Let me tell you what else is mind-boggling to me, is that the contraception coverage and the payment for it is under siege by the very groups that are against abortion. And wouldn’t you think that in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies – and therefore abortions – you would be for both sex education and contraception. It just boggles my mind. The other thing is – and I don’t know the answer to this, makes me remember that I need to look this up – I don’t believe any of these people or groups have opposed coverage for Viagra! I don’t know, this seems more like – instead of the Administration’s war on religion – this seems like religious conservatives’ war on women. The denominations we see opposing this tend to be the same denominations that either don’t ordain women, don’t permit them in leadership positions in the Church. It looks pretty misogynist to me.
[WG]: Yeah. Bishop Robinson, I relate all of that, in some ways, to my concern, and the Interfaith Alliance’s concern, about religious freedom, and what I see happening in the midst of all of this are people stepping forward to rewrite the definition of religious freedom in such a way as to give them what they want – regardless of what it does to other people. How would you, one, define religious freedom? And secondly, how would you talk with a Catholic brother or sister about what’s going on to help them understand this is what America’s about?
[GR]: Right. I think this is really, really important. And I think we need to reassert the wisdom, and frankly, the miraculous freedom that the separation of Church and State gives us. It is just one of the most important parts of our heritage. But you know what? It works both ways. It makes sure that the State doesn’t impinge on religion; but it ought to also ensure that religion doesn’t try to assert its control and influence over the State, and I think that’s what we see in marriage equality.
You know, we would be throwing a fit if, let’s say, that there were a Muslim, let’s say a conservative Muslim majority in this country, and laws were being proposed that all girls would wear head scarves and not go to school or something – sort of Talibanish. We would be outraged that a religious group was trying to force the secular culture, the civil culture into a kind of action based on those religious values. But that’s exactly what we’re trying to do here. And so I think it’s time to reassert the wisdom and the rightness of that separation. And I think that I don’t want the government helping or making a case for God for me. You know, we can do that just fine, thank you very much, and the government needs to be focused on equal protection under the law, equal rights for all our citizens, and based on the Constitution, and they do not need any religious group trying to force itself on them. And frankly, I know in the state of Maine when they were arguing the marriage question, there were separate collection taken up in certain churches to fund that; there were just some things that I don’t know why the Justice Department didn’t investigate and call into question the 501(c)3 status of those places. It seems that we owe it to the secular culture that gives us a tax break to stay the hell out, if you don’t mind my saying it that way. It is a separation that is worth preserving, I absolutely believe in it.
[WG]: Let me ask you something about that: it’s very, very pragmatic, and all of us run into it all the time. I know you well enough to know that one of the reasons you feel like you do about marriage, and the reason that you are outspoken on it, is not just because you’re gay; it’s not just because of your personal opinion; it’s because of your theology and your sense of morality. Now, we know that. But when you go to argue for that, isn’t there a danger of you saying, if you ever did: “I want you to do this because this is what God wants us to do”? Because then, we’re doing exactly the same thing that the religious right’s doing, and saying: “God told me to tell you this, and you better listen to me.”
[GR]: Right. Yeah, whenever I’m arguing something like that, I try very hard to make “I” statements about what’s true for me.
[GR]: If that moves you to change your mind, that’s between you and the Holy Spirit. I’m just trying to share with you what’s really true for me. And I think one of the ways that we can help this separation further is – you know, this has gotten very confused in this country, because we’ve deputized clergy to be agents of the State in the institution of marriage. And when people stop and think about it, or you point it out to them, they get it. If their marriage falls apart, they don’t go back to the sweet little church where they were married to get their divorce; they go to the courts. And so I’ve asked my clergy, in effect, to get out of the marrying business, and to stay in the blessing business, which is what we are in business for. And so, Mark and I acted that out in our service. So our female Jewish lawyer married us in the eyes of the State at the back of the church, by the back door, where the sacred and secular meet. And then we processed up the aisle to the altar; and then we did what the Church did, which is we listened to scripture, we had a sermon, we prayed for ourselves and for the world, we had communion and we blessed that relationship. It would seem to me if we did more of that, everyone who attended such a wedding would get instructed in where the civil part begins and ends and where the religious part begins and ends. And I think we would be a lot less confused about this – and also there would be less people standing up shouting about how a marriage is this, or marriage is that. What makes you married in this country is an authorized signature on the marriage license. You don’t have to take any vows; you don’t have to promise anything. If it’s signed – you’re married. That’s it.
[WG]: Yeah. When you look back, because I know you’re not stopping when you walk away from the office you’re in right now, so I’m not talking about the end of your ministry, I’m talking about when you look back to your ministry up until now, what’s the dominant feeling?
[GR]: I don’t think anyone has asked me that before. I think that I’ve become convinced, in a way that I did not know before, that one gets to know God, gets to know Jesus, by doing the things Jesus did with the people Jesus did them with – and that there is nothing that can take the place of that. I was here in Washington, DC preaching at a church right here in downtown – near the White House – and they have an amazing ministry to the homeless, this is Church of the Epiphany – and they let all the homeless people in about 6 o’clock in the morning on a cold winter morning. And all the homeless people go to sleep in the pews, and at 8 o’clock they wake everybody up and say, OK, it’s time for church. And so we do church, and then they get fed a fantastic breakfast by the members of the congregation. Well, you get a bunch of homeless people in there at 6 o’clock to warm up – by 8 o’clock the aroma is unbelievable. And so, I remember preaching; and then it’s time to exchange the peace and I always go out, you know, into the congregation. And I get out in the middle of them, and, honestly, the stench was almost overwhelming. And then all of a sudden it hit me: this is the smell that Jesus smelled. This is where Jesus would be, smelling this. And I thought, you know, what a gift. What a gift.
[WG]: Yeah. Bishop Robinson, we have got to wind this up. You’ve talked a lot about changes in our society, changes in the Church. What’s changed in you?
[GR]: I thought that my faith in God was bedrock-unshakable – and now I know it. God has seemed so palpably close during this time, sometimes prayer seems redundant, God seems so close. There is no question in my mind that I could not have done this – and I’ve not done it perfectly, some days I don’t even do it well – but God has never abandoned me. And at the end of the day – I’m going to heaven, you know? So if I’ve had a bad day, if I haven’t done such a good job, that’s OK, because I’m going to heaven. And I think I believed it before, now I know it. And I also know that nobody can take that away from me. Nobody.
[WG]: I hope you know you have been a sign of hope for a whole lot of people and your ability to act, receive whatever comes back at you, embrace some of it and then to my amazement forgive other parts of it – that has demonstrated the gospel more than you will ever preach it. But spending time with you today and having this conversation is important to me, and I think important to a lot of people, and I really appreciate you taking time to do it.
[GR]: I can’t tell you how much it means to me to be here with you. I have admired you and respected you and your ministry for so very long, and I will come back and talk to you anytime.
State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.
Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.
The host of State of Belief, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, leads the national nonpartisan grassroots and educational organizations, The Interfaith Alliance and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and serves as the Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Welton is one of 20 international religious leaders on the Council of 100 Leaders, a group created by the World Economic Forum to improve dialogue and understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Welton emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is the immediate past President of the Alliance of Baptists and is a twenty-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, Welton served in many leadership roles in the SBC including membership on the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-1984 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-1977.
Welton received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.