An interview with progressive clergy
by Brian Kaller
Christians are in the news a lot these days; re-electing George W. Bush, opposing Hollywood and gay marriage, fighting the teaching of evolution. Yet many or most Christians do not agree with these positions, and many Christian leaders support the environment and labor unions. The media refer to anti-abortion marchers as Christian, even though churches are split on the issue, but never refer to peace rallies as Christian, even though most religious leaders opposed the invasion of Iraq.
Darlington, pastor of the Minnehaha United Methodist Church in South Minneapolis,
would like to change that. He and Rev. Bruce Bjork of the Greater Minneapolis
Council of Churches have organized “Who Speaks for God?,” a weekly
series of speakers to counter the Religious Right with a different kind of Christianity.
The church has hosted talks by Darlington, Bjork and Bishop Sally Dyck of the
Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church. Speaking in the next few
weeks will be Dr. Linda Gesling, director of church relations at Hamline University;
Brian Rusche, executive director of the Twin Cities Religion Labor Network; and
Rev. Al Gallmon of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church. The series will continue
for three more weeks every Sunday night at 5 p.m. at the Minnehaha United Methodist
Church, 3701 E. 50th St., Minneapolis.
PULSE: Who thought of having this series, and of bringing these speakers
Bruce Bjork: It came out of a conversation John and I had in late November,
after my unsuccessful run for the Minnesota state house in District 25A. We
were talking about what we learned from this election season, and what we need
to do differently.
John Darlington: In that conversation Bruce said that what he had learned
was that in the progressive community “God-talk” is hands-off. People
are afraid of talking that way; they associate it with the Religious Right.
BB: We are appalled by the idea that progressives and Christians don’t
belong in the same sentence. We need not to limit moral speech but to expand
it. The Religious Right has defined moral conversation in this country to include
homosexuality and abortion and nothing else. But affordable housing is a moral
issue. The environment is a moral issue. Fair public education funding, public
health care, all these are moral issues.
I was amazed to see, at almost every fundraiser I went to in South Minneapolis,
someone always came up to me and said, “I never knew the church was interested
in social justice.” This is in South Minneapolis, with a higher concentration
of progressive churches than maybe anywhere else in the country.
Gesling: As a historian, it makes me think about how, in the 19th century,
church leaders were fighting slavery, for labor rights, for women’s rights.
It’s our legacy, and yet people have never heard of this.
JD: The swing voters, in the presidential election and other elections,
were people who have a predisposition to faith but were told that if you are
a person of faith, there really is only one way to vote. Those persons are either
going to fall out of the picture or they are going to join the Religious Right,
thinking they must for their own salvation.
LG: I hear about many young people of faith who want to be active in
a church, but the only religious voices they are hearing in society are from
people who support a lot of other things they aren’t comfortable with,
but they have nowhere else to go.
BB: Many progressives believe we should have no political relationship
with a religion. On the other hand, the Religious Right’s culture demands
civic engagement from its people, but limited only to specific areas that involve
individual choice. Our task is to create a third social contract, and I don’t
think we know what it looks like yet.
We’ve also bought into this idea that politics is a linear left-right
line, and that our task is to place ourselves on this spectrum. Then all of
us on that line try to come to some compromise. Well, there are times when that
is appropriate, but if we settle as people of faith on finding the moderate
position, then we ought not to expect to find Jesus there, because Jesus is
not a moderate. Jesus is a radical.
Finding a third social contract would enable us to allow people to occupy that
third place from all over. If we create a place where only left-leaning people
feel welcome, it will not be very effective, but only a place where liberals
can get together and whine.
Finally, we need to examine the language we use. Most of the language to describe
politics and religion has been co-opted by the powers of this country. We need
to decide what language we want to give up on and which words we want to try
JD: Our foundation is what we perceive as the essence of the life and
teachings of Jesus, but there are other people who are shouting over us whose
interpretations of the life and teachings of Jesus are quite different.
For me the teachings of Jesus center on the Realm of God, here and now. In the
Book of Mark Jesus said, “Look around you and you’ll see it.”
Then his movement led him to confront the powers that be, the religionists and
Pharisees, and then becoming a presence of God among the poor, the lepers, the
women and children, those who had been rendered powerless by society’s
PULSE: You have all said that there was once a time when American Christians
were much more focused on making a more fair society than they are now. Do you
believe Christianity itself has been altered, or is it just the image of Christianity
you see on FOX News?
I wouldn’t say Christian leaders are doing less about social justice
than they were in the past. But there’s always been a mix, and right now
the Christian leaders who are busy making the world better—people like
Bruce and John and the National Council of Churches—are not the ones we
see in the media, but they’re still out there.
JD: Number-wise, there are just as many social justice preachers in
Christendom as ever. But the evangelical and fundamentalist movements, which
are not aligned with traditional denominations, have taken off in this century;
especially so now that they run the government. I don’t mean that because
George W. Bush won that there are more fundamentalists than there were before,
but that they can get more positive attention.
LG: I think they started in the 1980s, and the money they have been
able to command has been more significant in buying them a platform.
BB: The money is a sharp distinction between the conservative Christian
movement and progressive Christians; conservative Christians put their money
where their mouth is. A recent radio report said that Focus on the Family’s
James Dobson was able to mobilize $540 million in resources for the election.
There’s not a progressive organization in the country, Christian or otherwise,
that even approaches that.
Progressives give their money to Bread to the World and Habitat for Humanity
and other outstanding causes. But we don’t invest in our own media, and
we need to.
LG: The United Methodists tried to create their own national media network
some years ago, and they ran out of money.
BB: I asked the woman who did my campaign commercials, “How do
we get media coverage?” She said, “Well, you have to buy it.”
Same thing with bookstores—if you want books of faith, you have Northwestern
books, which are all over the place, and are fundamentalist. But for progressive
Christians there’s only St. Martin’s Table and the bookstores at
a few seminaries, and who’s going to drive to a seminary to browse a bookstore?
JD: I know some progressive churches are studying these issues, but
the discussion is taking place in individual parishes, and I suspect is mainly
cathartic. There’s nothing wrong with getting things off your chest, but
it’s internal and risk-free. This is a question we should take to the
public, and put our resources on the line to build a movement. The reason progressives
are not winning is partly money, but it’s partly fear.
LG: But I think the reticence is not just that. I talk to a lot of people
who would love to change somebody’s mind. But a lot of progressives are
very concerned about intruding on somebody else’s space.
BB: That’s a real problem for progressives—we are concerned
about relationships, and so we don’t want to offend. We can’t do
that. We can’t look for the least common denominator all the time. We
have to be able to know what we believe and make decisions based on that.
We need a theology of conflict that acknowledges our differences and lets us
creatively reconcile. Right now the only model for doing that is the Religious
Right, which says, “you are with us or against us. Pick a side.”
That’s appropriate if your goal is to purify a community or a country,
and eliminate the people who disagree with you.
What they do is effective. We have ceded so much to the far right, and they
LG: As you said, we’ve ceded much of our language to the far right.
I’m a committed Christian until I get around fundamentalists, and then
I want nothing to do with being called Christian.
A remarkably profound moment for me came in my campaign when I was door-knocking.
I was walking up the driveway and saw this person’s bumper sticker, something
like “Honk if you love Jesus.” Then I saw the wind chimes and other
decorations, and they all had Psalms and religious symbols.
Now I’m a clergyman, and I thought when I started this that I would have
a natural connection with people of faith. But come September or October, when
I began to see such overt displays of religiosity, I would be scared to knock
on the door, because almost without exception, those were the folks who gave
me the hardest time. My literature was very explicit in showing my religion
– the pictures showed me in my collar, my language alluded to the Bible.
But it didn’t matter; most of those homes thought of the DFL as the Antichrist.
Then other people would be glad to see me and said, “Oh, you’re
a pastor, good, we need to do something about those homosexuals getting married.”
They assumed because I was clergy, that was my cause.
JD: Here’s a question: Why did the swing vote that went for Bush
consist of people of faith, even though he lied to us in sending us to war,
even though we have created more resistance in the Middle East, even though
the jobless rate was escalating? Why would they vote for him in spite of those
things? Because he is a “man of God.”
LG: I think he also increased fear to an extremely high level. I’ve
actually heard people say, “He kept them from coming over here.”
You’ve got to raise the fear rate really high for people to believe that
this country would have been invaded by Iraq. Someone on an e-mail list-serve
said that if we hadn’t invaded, “We’d be speaking Arabic now.”
I get to see FOX once in a while, and it’s my opportunity to see what
Americans are being told. We all know about those studies that show that the
more people watch FOX, the less they know.
BB: I’m not sure it’s just that people were afraid. You
can quote these statistics about people favoring better education, a better
environment and so on, and most polls showed people thought Kerry was better
on those areas. That’s not why they voted.
I would go into these rural Minnesota towns filled with poor white folks, and
they all voted Republican. The DFL recommended that to such people we talk about
jobs, we talk about economic opportunity, all these things that are all about
But people don’t always vote for their own self-interest. People vote
because they want to be part of something bigger than themselves. It’s
their chance to do something for their country, for the common good, and frankly
the Democratic Party doesn’t articulate an alternative to what the Republicans
I also think a whole variety of people I know believe that Republicans spend
less than Democrats, even though they don’t. So many people think they
are voting for their own self-interest.
BB: Ask people what they believe in and they will tell you they are
in favor of protecting our environment or health care, but ask what people vote
on, and people vote on one or two issues. For many people it’s defense
of the country and defense of the unborn.
LG: And we have defined defense of the country in a very limited way.
The fact that we are making enemies around the world right now is not seen as
a national security threat. I was in Tanzania last summer, and it was interesting
that every Tanzanian I met, as politely as possible, asked me to make sure Bush
did not get re-elected. And Tanzania is not exactly in the center of these spheres
JD: Also, the way in which many Americans picture God is a problem.
Most people are locked into this childhood picture of God that looks like a
king sitting on a throne, looking down. That king is going to do something like
come down off the cloud every now and then to reward or punish. If you picture
God that way, as a judge who divides us into the worthy and unworthy, then war
makes sense, nationalism makes sense, homophobia makes sense.
But if you think of God as a universal presence grounded in love, able to keep
creating new life, God takes on a whole new power. Love between two people of
the same sex doesn’t seem like it’s going against the grain.
Jesus did speak of God in some anthropomorphic ways, but he also popularized
the idea of God as the universal spirit. So I wish people would re-imagine God
FG: There are a lot of people – like my parents, who are Republican
– who volunteer at the food shelf, who help out in the community and who
are committed Christians who are live out their faith. There are a lot of people
like them – not fundamentalist, but not really political progressives
We don’t need to go to Christians like them and try to get them civically
engaged; they already are. But what they do is to perpetually put band-aids
on the giant gash on the arm.
They define Christianity as a doing thing, and they do wonderful work with the
homeless or the poor. But they haven’t taken the next step, to look at
the system that creates homelessness and makes people poor. Much of what we
have to do is to get people to take that step.
PULSE: What issues do you most want to see your congregations work on
in the Twin Cities?
BB: One of the biggest is to organize people around decent wages. Not
just living wages, because people need to do more than just get by. Why is it
that 40 percent of the people who sleep in homeless shelters in Minneapolis
go to work the next morning? That’s the most rapidly growing segment of
the homeless population, except possibly for children.
Why is it that people work two jobs full time and can still be at 85 percent
of the poverty level? If people got paid well for a day’s work, a lot
of other things get taken care of – affordable housing is not as big an
issue, hunger is not as big an issue. This country has the most outstanding
food distribution system in history in this country, but it’s not accessible
to those who need it. Cub is remarkably efficient at distributing food; why
do we need alternative systems?
JD: My two biggest would be affordable housing and a fair and informed
view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which reverberates across so many
international conflicts. As a frequent traveler in the West Bank I can tell
you that the media’s portrayal of the conflict weighs heavily against
LG: The house I stayed in the West Bank had bullet holes in the walls,
all day we heard Israeli tanks going by. It’s hard to imagine what it’s
like for the Palestinians who live there.
JD: And our taxes underwrite that conflict to the tune $10 million per
day. And when we disagree with the common perception, we are called anti-Semitic,
just like when we disagree with the fundamentalist way of seeing the world we
are called unpatriotic.
Fundamentalists have gained so much power that the rest of us can’t really
afford to separate ourselves from politics anymore. People say the church shouldn’t
be involved in politics, but the church is a significant enough institution
that it will be involved in politics, and it should be a good influence.
There are serious problems in America, and we can no longer choose to stay out
of them. Not choosing is a choice. There can’t be any not choosing for
The series “Who Speaks for God?” will continue every Sunday night
at 5 p.m. at the Minnehaha United Methodist Church, 3701 East 50th Street, Minneapolis.
Each lecture will be followed by a public forum and potluck dinner. For more
information call the church at 612-721-6231. ||
Those interested in progressive Christianity may visit one
of the following churches in the Twin Cities area. This is not a comprehensive
list of progressive churches.
Walker United Methodist Church
3104 16th Ave S
Minneapolis MN 55407
St. Luke Presbyterian Church
3121 Groveland School Road
Wayzata, Minnesota 55391
Prospect Park United Methodist Church
22 Orlin Avenue
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55414
Minnehaha United Church of Christ
4001 38th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55406-3413
St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church
4537 Third Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN. 55409
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church
2730 E. 31st St.
Minneapolis, MN 55406