How Do We Live and Honor Each Other Despite Our Differences?
by Krista Tippett, host
“Restoring Political Civility: An Evangelical View” with Richard Mouw was as hard as any show in my memory to produce, edit, script — and even to justify, as news unfolded while we were creating it.
I have known Richard Mouw for 15 years and interviewed him on this program in its early days. Other Evangelical Christian leaders have been more visible in American political and media life: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ted Haggard, James Dobson, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, and on the more progressive side Jim Wallis and Richard Cizik. I have followed them, but I have also always kept my ear and eye on quieter figures like Richard Mouw. As president of Fuller Theological Seminary, with more than 4000 students from 70 countries and over 100 denominations, he is training generations of Evangelical and Pentecostal pastors and global leaders.
And in this political season, in which values have once again — and with a new edge of hysteria — come to be a rallying cry for viciousness, I wanted to speak with him again. A book he first wrote in 1992, Uncomon Decency, has just been released in a revised version with the subtitle, “Christian Civility in an Uncivil World.” Mouw has long been a kind of bridge person — theologically conservative on some issues and more progressive on others — but he most fervently insists that the way people are treated is a greater measure of Christian virtue than the positions one takes.
I’ve wondered rhetorically how our political life would have evolved differently if the Christian re-emergence into politics in the late 20th century had modeled a practical love of enemies. My own deepest despair at present is not about the vitriol and division per se — as alarming as they are. It is about the fact that we seem to be losing any connective tissue for engaging at all, on a human level, across ruptures of disagreement. Across the political spectrum, many increasingly turn to journalism not for knowledge but to confirm individual pre-existing points of view. What we once called the red state, blue state divide is now more like two parallel universes where understandings of plain fact are no longer remotely aligned. This leads to a diminishing sense of the humanity of those who think and live differently than we do. And that is the ultimate moral slippery slope, for everyone on it and for the fabric of our civic life.
Richard Mouw lays out the imperative to all kinds of Christians for gentleness, reverence, humanity, and “honor” of the different other at the heart of the Bible and the life of Jesus. But this is not a feel-good plea for harmony. Even as he calls for civility and gentleness, Mouw reasserts his public and private opposition to gay marriage and civil unions. The civility he calls for would not minimize difference, at least at the outset, but would create a different space for discussing and navigating it — indeed for bringing differences into public life with virtue and vitality of expression. Picking up on a phrase coined by Christian historian Martin Marty, Richard Mouw builds upon this idea of “convicted civility.”
We had impassioned and difficult discussions on our production team about his ideas, and the complications and contradictions they present. When he says that, as a Christian, he sees other human beings as “works of divine art,” can that genuinely apply to a person whose sexual identity he defines as fundamentally wrong? And then, in the thick of creating this show, the Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide — one of a string of suicides of gay youth. This sharpened a question of whether religious views condemning homosexuality — however civilly expressed — inevitably fuel hateful, even fatal, behavior.
With all of this on my mind, I was struck by an open letter the Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler wrote in direct response to those teen suicides. Though Mohler is to the right of Richard Mouw theologically and culturally, his letter takes an unexpectedly kindred tone. Mohler leads the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, and one of the most conservative. He spends the first few paragraphs of his statement reiterating his firm theological conviction that homosexuality is a sin. But in words that echo a search for a new way of “convicted civility,” Mohler confesses, “Much of our response to homosexuality is rooted in ignorance and fear.” And he asks, of the faithful and of his church leaders, “What if Tyler Clementi had been in your church? Would he have heard biblical truth presented in a context of humble truth-telling and gospel urgency, or would he have heard irresponsible slander, sarcastic jabs, and moralistic self-congratulation?” I read in Mohler’s statement a profound shift of tone, if not of position — and an opening to new ways of being.
This all drives towards a question I pursue in so many of my conversations: How does social change happen? We will not all be “on the same page,” as Americans like to be, on sexuality or many other issues for generations to come. The 21st century has opened up questions Western civilization thought it had put to rest. Some of them are intimate and raw, terrifying in every life at some point and therefore all the more unsettling when we are forced to ponder them out in the open together. Same-sex marriage is but the tip of an iceberg of human redefinition: What is relationship? What is marriage? What is friendship? What constitutes a family? In this messy moment, we retain our rights and responsibilities as human beings and citizens to discern our truths and live by them. But we have no choice, at the same time, if we want this to end well, to search for new ways to discern our multiple truths while living together.
Richard Mouw suggests that we need to start some of our conversations again from the beginning, certainly the conversation about sexuality. He believes that only by naming our hopes and our fears, articulating them among ourselves, revealing them to each other, can we begin to recreate something called a common life, which can contain, and not be destroyed by, our differences. I want to believe him, to believe that this is one answer to the question of how social change happens. If I didn’t believe that a new kind of conversation can also be a starting point for walking forwards together — living together, differently — I would not do what I do.
And yet, maybe another reality we have to live with is that these critical new conversations will start small, in many places, compelling us to connect dots for a while in lieu of convening the sweeping dialogue we might hope for. I’d point to a few that we’ve pulled together at onBeing.org with this show, including Albert Mohler’s letter in its entirety as well as a Religion Dispatches report about an historic meeting between a senior Mormon elder and LGBT Mormons.
We’ve also posted a piece we admire by fellow journalist Sasha Aslanian titled “Sex, Death, and Secrets” — featuring an interview with two lesbian pastors who’ve experienced a roller coaster ride of discernment within their own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
And we’ve posted another kind of contribution to civility, an act of care for “despairing LGBT kids who are being bullied and harassed, kids who don’t think they have a future” — a video project called “It Gets Better” that was created by syndicated columnist Dan Savage and his husband Terry. Both come from families with conservative religious roots, and we see photographs that bespeak the embrace they’ve both received as members of these families. They are photographs of love that has overcome convictions — or chosen to live in a gracious, loving tension alongside them. This too is possible. Please add your thoughts, stories, and pictures — your dots, if you will — to this difficult, dispersed, essential conversation.
Sex, Death, and Secrets: A Reporter’s Notebook
by Sasha Aslanian, guest contributor
On January 1, 1990, Jeff Johnson, a gay man and pastor of First United Lutheran Church, and Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart, lesbian pastors of St. Francis Lutheran Church are ordained in San Francisco. Both churches were suspended in 1990 and expelled by the ELCA in 1996. (photo courtesy of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries)
My old English prof used to say “The Victorians were obsessed with death. We’re obsessed with sex.” I made an unexpected discovery on a recent assignment: sex and death have something in common: secrets.
In August of 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voted to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as pastors. As a reporter for MPR News, my assignment was to follow up a year later on the impact of the vote. I stumbled into a news story: the church was in the process of reconciling with partnered gays and lesbians who had previously been unwelcome. In July of this year, the ELCA added seven people back to its roster in San Francisco. Then, this September, they did the same with three women in Minnesota.
Two of the Minnesota women, Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart, were the first lesbian couple to be ordained without the blessing of the ELCA in San Francisco in 1990. They invited me to their home for an interview.
For the next 70 minutes, their story spilled out, spanning a sweeping slice of a social revolution moving rapidly through in our times. They told of coming out, falling in love, losing jobs then gaining them, and feeling God work through them during the AIDS crisis and hospice chaplaincy. Their story transcends Lutheranism. It’s personal, yet tethered to movements on both coasts, inside churches, seminaries, universities, courthouses, and workplaces.
“When you’re a change agent,” said Frost, “you act where you are. Some people do in the secular arena: political activists, social activists. Our arena was the church. I’m third-generation Lutheran clergy.”
For me, the unexpected part of their story was how they connected their work in hospice with the battle for inclusion in the Church. Zillhart and Frost began their ministry in San Francisco just as AIDS was ravaging the city. As they plunged in to help the men, their partners, and their families prepare for death, the two women saw opportunities for forgiveness, reconciliation, respect, acceptance, and love.
The “tape” at the top of this post is my favorite, but I had to leave it out of the final radio version. My news piece needed to cover the ordination, expulsion, and eventual embrace — already a tall order — and I wasn’t sure my editor would let me wander into end-of-life stuff at all. Thankfully she did, and it gave the story more depth. I think it also showed what Frost and Zillhart have been striving to show all along: there’s more that unites people than divides them. We all have secrets. Death is a universal unburdening of secrets.
Sexual orientation can be just one of them.
“There isn’t a family that doesn’t have a secret that they yearn to share and talk about the hurts and hopes we all have,” said Zillhart. “Our difference is more obvious, more politically charged, people do a lot of fund-raising around how scary we seem — that feels electrifying — but the differences we have are all among us. The commonalities are so much deeper.”
Frost adds with a note of amused exasperation, “I would love to get past being an issue in the church as a lesbian. I’ve been a professional Lutheran lesbian all my life. It’s time to be meeting one another in deeper ways than that affords.”
Frost and Zillhart show just where that depth can take us.
Unedited Interview with Frost and Zillhart (mp3, 71:00)
This interview is what I call “a spigot interview” — the story spilled forth with very little coaxing. Their narrative connects their individual lives to a larger canvas of social and religious history.
Sasha Aslanian is a reporter for MPR News and creator of MPR News’ Youth Radio Series. From 2000 to 2008, she produced documentaries for American RadioWorks, the national documentary unit of American Public Media. Aslanian has won awards named for famous news men: Edward R. Murrow, Lowell Thomas, Heywood Broun and Eric Sevareid. She is a graduate of Grinnell College.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
It Gets Better Project
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The YouTube project called “It Gets Better” is a noble effort to help save the many young gay and questioning children and teenagers out there right now who are struggling, who are contemplating suicide. The project tries to show those “despairing LGBT kids who are being bullied and harassed, kids who don’t think they have a future” that adults who were in their same situation as them have endured and emerged in a safer, happier place. They are examples that life goes on, that situations do improve.
The video above of Dan Savage, the author of the syndicated sex column “Savage Love” and who started this project after Billy Lucas’ suicide, and his husband should be a vivid reminder to all of us about the true virtue of civility and kindness. No matter where you stand on the gay rights issue, this video should appeal to the need for a common decency for all people.
And for all of you Project Runway fans, Tim Gunn has recently released his contribution to the project with a troubling story from his own childhood:
“The Trials of Ted Haggard”
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
The first entry I wrote for SOF Observed (which was never published as it was part of a blogging trial) was about the fallen Evangelical pastor Ted Haggard. More than two years ago, news had broken about his then-alleged homosexual entanglement and solicitation of crystal meth. The e-mails were making rounds among the SOF staff.
Not only were all of us shocked like so many others, we were also discussing the news coverage. If I recall, most of us thought it was surprisingly restrained. Many critics of Ted Haggard who might have reveled in his demise, didn’t. And those who might have demonized his accuser were beseeched to pray for him instead. Boy, just thinking back, the Evangelical Right still held quite a bit of political sway. The NAE — of which he was president at the time — was rocked to its core.
We also found Haggard’s letter to his congregation, which was read to parishioners at a Sunday service, terribly and painfully tragic. I remember thinking at the time: Is this evidence of the power of sin over the most sanctified among us, or simply evidence of the power of homophobia and the closet to destroy human lives?
Well, perhaps I’ll be able to better discern the meaning of that question in a few weeks (or when it becomes available months later on Netflix?). Alexandra Pelosi’s — yes, Nancy’s daughter — short documentary, The Trials of Ted Haggard, will be shown on HBO through the month of February. If any of you watch it, I’d like to hear your analysis. One reviewer calls it “engrossing” and writes: “The man comes across as wounded, damaged, confused, deluded, in crisis with his faith, and very, very human. Curiously, his trademark grin is still in place.” There’s a trailer on the linked page above.
Teasing Out Issues of Race and Religion
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
It’s a mixed bag when somebody verbalizes what others dare not express. There’s always one loud-mouth that says something that makes people around him feel completely uncomfortable, even if he’s saying something that is at the back of others’ minds.
From David Kirkpatrick’s “Abortion Issues Again Dividing Catholic Votes” in this morning’s online edition of The New York Times:
“One parishioner ruled out voting for Mr. Obama explicitly because he is black. “Are they going to make it the Black House?” Ray McCormick asked, to embarrassed hushing from a half dozen others gathered around the rectory kitchen. (Five of the six, all lifelong Democrats who supported Mrs. Clinton in the primary, said they now lean toward Mr. McCain.)”
Unfortunately, I hear some of the people (loved ones included) from my home when I read this statement. I just have to wonder if some Catholic voters aren’t using the Vatican’s stances on abortion and homosexuality as a pretext, a protective shield for their prejudices. And this gets conflated in reporting about Catholic and Evangelical voters and the issues that will determine these voters’ decisions in the booth.
For one, I’d like to thank the man for articulating a sentiment — racially discriminatory though it may be — to a reporter, in public. I may have cringed, but it needed to be said — in a parish rectory, no less. And thank you to Mr. Kirkpatrick for diligently teasing out the lingering mindset of racial discrimination from social issues girded by one’s faith.
As you can see, I have strong opinions about this. What do you see? What do you think?