Bishop Gene Robinson’s passion for the separation of church and state.
by Neil Ellis Orts
Photo by Mary Schwalm
When Gene Robinson became the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire in 2004, the fact that he was in a long-term relationship with another man made him a hero to some, an enemy to others. While LGBT Episcopalians (and their supporters) celebrated, death threats came in. Robinson was consecrated as bishop while wearing a bulletproof vest under his robes.
Now, nearly ten years later, Bishop Robinson has retired from his duties as bishop and taken up a part-time position as senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington DC. He was asked to join CAP by founder John Podesta, to be “. . . a moral voice to various issues that face us as a nation.” Robinson notes, “It’s really an amazing thing because, historically, liberal think tanks have run screaming in the opposite direction, away from religion.”
The Houston chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State is bringing Bishop Robinson to Houston for a speaking engagement on October 3 at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. In this interview, he gives us a preview of his presentation, as well as his thoughts about the documentary Love Free or Die, now available on DVD.
Neil Ellis Orts: Can you give me a preview of what you’ll be talking about here in Houston?
Gene Robinson: I’m mostly going to be focusing on what I think is the current issue facing us with regard to the separation of church and state—an issue that really comes out of the marriage equality movement and the attempts by more conservative religious people to use [gay marriage laws] as a way, at least in my opinion, to expand the [legal exemption that churches are given] to discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual people.
I’m actually writing a piece now, for the Leadership Journal (which is sponsored by Christianity Today), on this so-called issue of religious liberty. That phrase, which I’ll try to unpack in my presentation, has sort of been co-opted by the Religious Right to describe the liberty that religions will have to discriminate, and what the boundaries of that exemption will entail—part of which I agree with, and part of which I think is very dangerous. Where we stand together on that is that I believe that no religious entity, of whatever ilk, should ever be compelled to sanction, bless, or in any way authorize relationships between two people of the same gender [if it is] against their own religious teaching. I’m totally supportive of that exemption. So on the one hand, I would support a church not having to hire a minister or rabbi or priest who supports something that goes against the teaching of that particular religion. [But then] it gets fuzzier when, you know, [you hire a] secretary who answers the phone in the diocesan office. In my own diocese, we made [clerical positions] open to anyone of any religion, as long as they could cooperate with the values and mission of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire.
So the real question comes down to, if the job requires no religious teaching—no religious content whatsoever—then should a religious organization be able to discriminate [by refusing to hire] someone who is LGBT?
It’s even fuzzier in some ways—although it’s clear in my mind—when a religion engages in activities that are actually regulated by the secular culture. So what if a hospital or an adoption agency wants to discriminate against hiring anyone who is LGBT? It seems to me that when you get into an activity that is regulated publicly, [even if you are doing it for religious reasons], you need to play by the public rules. Just because that activity is motivated by religious belief, it is not religious in its implementation.
So the placement of children in adoptive homes, for instance, is one of those public activities, and while a particular religion may be doing that work out of its religious conviction that we should be caring for the most vulnerable, let’s say, when you enter into that sphere or activity, you need to be subject to the restrictions that are placed on the culture related to that activity. So if a religious denomination or particular congregation wants to engage in these activities—and if they want to be able to hire and fire without regard to anti-discrimination laws—I think that’s wrong. I think that’s one of the places, for instance, where the separation of church and state needs to be upheld rather than further restricted.
So, would you say a religious adoption agency would be able to deny adoption to a gay couple?
I think that when you open an adoption agency, you open yourself to the prevailing rules and anti-discriminatory processes that are set for that public work. The Roman Catholic archdiocese in Boston closed down its adoption agency because they were required to place children in same-gender adoptive homes as long as their agency took public money. They claimed that the government sort of shut them down, but in fact they could have kept doing what they were doing [if they had become a purely] private agency that did not accept public money. But when you accept public money, you have to play by the public rules.
I think those distinctions are very subtle for some people.
Yeah, well, they are. For me, the dividing line is this: is the activity that is being regulated religious activity or is it merely religiously motivated?
I’ll tell you an example that I think is a little bit illustrative here. Back in New Hampshire, one of our largest churches is St. Paul’s in Concord, and it’s located right next door to the capitol where parking is at a premium. Well, the church has a pretty-good-sized parking lot, and they rent out those parking spaces during the week when, generally speaking, they’re not being used. They receive rental income from that, and they have to report that as taxable income because their mission as a church is not to provide parking spaces. So if they’re doing this activity that is not related to their central mission, then that income—at least as the Internal Revenue Service understands it—is taxable. I think that’s an instructive illustration because what it says is that if you’re doing something that is absolutely core to your mission, you’re protected, and if that activity is not related to your core mission, then you fall under the society’s guidelines.
Let me move on to your turn as a movie star [Robinson laughs] in the documentary Love Free or Die, which covers your experience as a bishop who is not allowed to participate fully as a bishop. That movie was filmed, what, two years ago?
Actually, it covers the period from the end of 2007 until 2010, and it’s not just about those difficulties but the ways in which, in that short period of time, the church really moved. I think the hero of the film is the church, which by all accounts is a fairly lethargic, slow-to-change, stuffy institution that is usually thought of as being resistant to change. Yet, in the ten years since I’ve been bishop, the Episcopal Church has just moved light years away from where it was ten years ago. So to my way of thinking, the film is a tribute to an institution that is far more nimble and far more willing to change than is generally thought of religious institutions.
In that time, a lot of the controversy involved the worldwide Anglican Communion. Are you seeing movement around the world as well?
Not as much as I would like. But it was widely predicted, worldwide, that on the day that I was consecrated the Anglican Communion would explode apart, and the fact of the matter is we’re still here. And all those predictions of the end of Christianity as we know it have not come to pass. Almost every American diocese of the Episcopal Church has a companion-diocese relationship with a diocese in the developing world, and those relationships continue.
At the Lambeth Conference of Bishops, the one I was excluded from, what the African bishops in particular said to us was, “Look—first, we just don’t understand this issue of homosexuality. You tell us that we have LGBT people in our pews, but we don’t know that. They’re not out, and from what we know about this issue, we’re opposed to further and deeper inclusion of them. But frankly, we’re dealing with abject poverty, we’re dealing with the abuse of women and children, we’re dealing with civil war, we’re dealing with deaths from AIDS and malaria, and [LGBT issues are] really way down our priority list. What we want is to stay in relationship with you. How about we work together on getting clean water to that village over there, and somewhere along the line we’ll discover that some of the very people who are helping us get clean water to that village are gay and lesbian, and we think that somewhere down the line we’ll figure all this out. But let’s continue holding on to one another while we do figure it out.”
It’s a hierarchy of needs.
Exactly. If you’re struggling for your survival because of poverty and disease and war, you sort of don’t have time to pay attention to these other issues, and it’s not helpful for us to alienate ourselves from one another over this at this time. And I think that’s exactly right. The African context is completely different from the American one.
One of the few sympathies I have for the Roman Catholic Church and for the pope is that when the pope establishes a teaching or doctrine, it has to apply to one worldwide church. But the Anglican Communion is not one worldwide church. It is a communion of thirty-seven autonomous churches, and I think the strength of that is that it means each of those autonomous churches can respond to its own context, even if it is not the context of some of the other member churches. What the American church has done, because of our context, is to gently but firmly change its understanding of the gospel imperative as related to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. That context is different in most of the African countries, where homosexuality is still criminalized and in a few places punishable by death. [The African church] is not going to have the same kind of movement in those contexts as we have here in the American church. Is there a congregation [in America] left that doesn’t know that it has LGBT people in it? I don’t think so.
So it sounds like the best way to help our oppressed LGBT brothers and sisters in Africa is to be sure they have clean water and medicine, and meet their basic needs.
And—and not to be reticent to let them know that some of the people who are helping them are gay Christians. The fact of the matter is that the reason we are where we are in America right now is that so many of us have come out. Now that people know us, they are unwilling to believe the awful things that have traditionally been said about us. So that needs to be replicated on a worldwide scale so that people come to know us, are in relationship with us, and then they come to know that some of us are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. And just as it has changed everything in America, I think it will change the world.
To return to Love Free or Die, do you think that the film is reaching the right audience?
Yeah, I do. In the American church, this issue is largely over. We now have another openly gay and partnered bishop in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Other gay and lesbian nominees have come forward in other Episcopal elections—they haven’t been elected, but they are nominees. The Episcopal church has authorized a liturgy for the blessing of same-sex unions and authorized its use [for LGBT] marriages in states where that is legal. And at our last General Convention a year ago, we stated that transgender people were welcome to be nominees for deacon, priest, or bishop. Although not everyone feels totally comfortable with it—it’s a stretch for some people—it is the official policy of the Episcopal Church now that sexual orientation or gender identity is not a barrier to ordination. That’s just a huge move. Now we are largely past that as an issue. Not in every place, not in every diocese, not in every congregation, but officially, we are beyond that now.
I’ve heard people say we’re done talking about this, but there continues to be bullying in schools and there are still murders outside gay clubs, and as much as I would like to stop talking about it, we have to keep talking about it, right?
Absolutely. The similar situation I like to point to is the 1960s, when we got Jim Crow laws off the books. Just because we did that did not mean racism went away. We still need to be talking about racism and the systemic exclusion of people of color from the privileges that white people enjoy in this country. The changing of policy and official teaching is important—it’s a huge step, but it doesn’t mean that the work is over. Of course, we’d all love to stop talking about all these issues if they were actually resolved. What we’ve done is resolve some of those officially and theoretically, but the work to change hearts continues.
Through all the rancor that has come your way, I think most of us are amazed at how you have managed to keep your cool, and it appears to be a commitment to loving the enemy and to nonviolent resistance.
Right. I would say that the greatest learning I have had in the last ten years is this: how someone treats me is irrelevant to how I treat them. That no matter how badly I’m treated by someone, it does not lessen my responsibility to treat them like the child of God they are. The human, natural reaction to respond to threats and attacks with an equally violent response is so seductive. It seems to me the core of Jesus’s teaching is that we are called upon to treat other people like the children of God that they are and not be seduced into returning evil for evil.
Having said that, has there been a time when you’ve lost your cool, or have you managed to keep it in most situations?[Laughs] I would say that yes, in most public situations I have been able to, but that doesn’t mean that in the privacy of my own home and with my husband I don’t vent the natural feelings I have about people who treat me poorly and forget that I, too, am a child of God. I always laugh and say that there are holes in the walls at home, where I punched a hole to get out my own frustration and anger. But that allows me, then, to publicly and personally continue to try to treat others with the respect and dignity that I believe they deserve.
God has been just palpably close during all of this, and that’s the only way I’ve been able to try to achieve some measure of calm. At the end of the day, if you’re going to absorb the evil that is coming your way and not return evil for evil, you have to be able to give it to God and believe in your heart, as I do, that at the end of the day all will be well. And when we’re in heaven together, those people who treat me that way and I will get along just fine because we will be with God and all will be well.
Speaking of your husband, I understand that the two of you are living in separate states right now.
Right. I’m here in DC about half the time, and he continues his work with the state of New Hampshire back home. I’m leaving on Monday to be there for two weeks and really looking forward to being home. It’s a bit of a new reality for me, although he’s fairly used to me traveling quite a lot in the last ten years, so it’s not wholly new to us. We talk every night, and I try to stay current with what’s happening at home and certainly with him. It’s another few years before he can retire, and then we’ll make some decisions—whether or not I stay in Washington and he joins me here, or something else.
Getting as much press as you do, are there ever things we don’t ask you? Are there things you never get to say?
Yeah, maybe a couple of things I’d like to say that I don’t get to say. Sort of going back to why I’m coming to Houston—I think there is a right way to bring religious belief and practice into the public sphere. I think we’ve seen the conservative religious Right do it the wrong way, which is to come into these public debates and demand that everyone think the way they do because God says it. I’m using this part of my life to see if we can articulate the correct way of bringing religion into the public debate without violating this separation of church and state, which I think is so important.
For me, my faith is what gives me my values. There is probably no more constant theme in all of scripture—both the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament and the Christian scriptures of the New—there is no more constant theme than we will be judged by how we treat the most vulnerable among us: the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized. I think there is a way of taking that value and bringing it into the public debates we’re having [about] cutting food stamps, the budgets that fund the military but don’t fund education, and the safety net for our most vulnerable, [so that this biblical value] really informs how we want to be as a nation and as a people. I think we need to figure that out in order to protect this really important separation of church and state. That’s really why I left being bishop, which I loved, to try to do this new thing and try to get clearer about that. I’m really quite passionate about it.
And the other thing I’ve been thinking about lately at the fiftieth anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech—it’s interesting to me, and I’ve been doing a lot of reading about this—is that everyone likes to quote Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and speeches that he made prior to that, but what they don’t quote is Dr. King speaking and writing in the last couple of years in his life, when he began to make the connections between racial discrimination and militarism and capitalism. He began to connect the oppressions around wealth, around militarism, around poverty, and I think that’s when he became dangerous—when the culture began to fear him much more than when he was just talking about race.
It is that connection that we need to make right now in our culture, connecting racism and sexism and this growing divide between rich and poor. I think that we need to enter that dangerous territory again, and I’m really passionate about that. Part of what I’m trying to do is to call the LGBT community into care about issues far beyond ourselves. When we [look at] the George Zimmerman trial verdict and see the way that racism is still alive and well and living in this country, I think that LGBT people need to be concerned about that. Or concerned about immigration reform. Or concerned about our gutting the Voter Rights Act. I think our movement will be stronger when we support these other similar kinds of anti-discriminatory processes. I think that’s an issue that is very compelling at this time. When we begin to make those connections, we’ll become dangerous in the way that Martin Luther King became dangerous in his later years. We will have progressed when, like Dr. King, we move from our own specific issues to recognizing the connections between our issues and those of other oppressed groups.
So, you’ve never taken up tightrope walking?[Laughs] What do you think I’ve been doing the last ten years? Listen, walking a tightrope across the Grand Canyon is nothing compared to all that!
Neil Ellis Orts is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine. He blogs his own religious views at crumbsatthefeast.blogspot.com.
APPEARING FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HOUSTON
BISHOP GENE ROBINSON
retired bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire in the Episcopal Church
Thursday, October 3, 2013 7:30 – 9:00 p.m.
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church
1805 West Alabama
Houston, Texas 77098
The Houston Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State is pleased to present an evening with Gene Robinson, retired bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire in the Episcopal Church of the United States of America. Bishop Robinson will be speaking about religious freedom in America and how the Religious Right gets it wrong.
For tickets visit: http://www.eventzilla.net/web/event?eventid=2138984217