Progressive Religion in Bush Country
A week after visiting the Shoreline Christian Center, we decided to go to a smaller church to compare and contrast the services and worshippers. We chose St. Andrew's Presbyterian in Austin, a church of approximately 300 worshippers, after reading about an event sponsored there by Third Coast Activist. I immediately knew I was in for a different experience after seeing the word "progressive" on the church's program.
Minister Jim Rigby spoke about the importance of humor and laughter to get through the bad times. "After the bombing in Iraq began, I went home and watched the Daily Show and somehow it saved my life," he said. Rigby went on to say that the idea the media is liberal is "so funny." He referenced a 2002 Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) study of the three major networks' nightly news broadcasts. Of partisan sources on CNN, 75 percent were Republican and only 24 percent Democrats; CBS had the most Republicans (76 percent) while ABC had the fewest (73 percent). I couldn't believe I was hearing references to the Daily Show and FAIR in church. I assumed this was a church full of Democrats, but I was wrong.
Bob Bartlett has been attending St. Andrew's for 10 years. "It's such a friendly church," he says. "We don't care what nationality, race or creed you are. We don't care how you dress or undress. We have open hearts, open minds and want everybody to feel welcome." Bartlett says he "regretfully" voted for Bush and is still on the fence about the war. He doesn't agree with the plan to privatize social security and believes the economy is worse than it was under Clinton. "I think Bush turned out to be greedy, but I think we're better off than if we had Kerry."
After interviewing a few more Bush supporters who said they attend this church because they like the people and enjoy the sermons, I caught up with Minister Jim Rigby. Here are excerpts from that interview:
Tell me about this area.
We're right above Austin city limits. In a typical election, there will be three signs in row: the first says, I'm a Republican; the second says, I'm more Republican; and the third says, you're wusses, I'm even more Republican. There's not even a vestige of Democrats up here.
Do you live around here?
Yes, it's kind of a paradox. When I first got out of the seminary, I was a liberal, but I wasn't integral. My religion and my liberal stuff were two separate worlds. As I became more of an activist, we moved up here for demographic reasons, but it's been pretty ironic because most of the stuff we've done now that's progressive is seen as evil.
Can you give me an example?
Gay and lesbian advocacy. That's not very popular in this neck of the woods. We've gotten several members from the Shoreline Christian Center just because they put us down in the worship service. They would say things about the liberal church over there and out of curiosity, people would come over.
And they keep coming back?
Yes, but we've had bomb threats. It depends on what's happening. If there are abortion laws at stake and I get in the newspaper, then there will be bad phone calls and letters.
Who attends this church and are they mostly from this area or outside of the area?
They're pretty scattered around. Liberals are pretty lonely. Austin is a great place to live, but still, there's a separation of the spirit and the politics. People treat those as separate and have sort of given religion over to the conservatives, so the people that come here tend to like world religions and see Christianity as one of those. They also want an activist church that gets involved in the issues. To me, politics is about how we treat each other. People that say they separate politics and religion usually mean they're disguising how they're controlling other people.
The pastor at the Shoreline Christian Center says he keeps politics out of his service, yet encourages people to get involved in politics.
I think what it is -- not speaking about a particular church -- it's all politics. When you think you're the chosen people, when you think that you have this mandate to control everything, what's more political than that? When you have somebody like Jesus who said, take the lowest place, surrender power and don't control other people, you reverse that story. I thought it was fascinating when some years ago, the religious right did their contract with the family and it was the Republican platform. Conservatives have usurped religion that has nothing to do with Jesus; it's all Republican. There's nothing Christian about it. Simply look at the verses that are quoted. They don't come from Jesus.
After hearing your sermon, I assumed everyone here is a Democrat.
We have some conservatives. They have a conservatives anonymous group. Usually though, people leave; they feel like they're being attacked. We lose a lot of rich, white males thinking they're being attacked by being put on the same plane as everybody else.
How do you deal with mixing politics with religion?
It's justice. It's saying that all people have a right to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, to be fed, clothed, to have self-determination; that's the core Jewish, Christian and much of the Islamic message of human rights. That's what it's about. The problem is being partisan and thinking one group should have power over somebody else. That's wrong, but being political means your religion is engaged in the real world. And it always is, but when you're powerful enough, you can act like you're not doing it. When I was working on a hate crimes bill, what I discovered is white people, when you're talking about racial issues, they think you're talking about blacks and hispanics. They don't think they have a race. When you talk about gender issues, men think you're talking about women. They don't think they have a gender. When you talk about sexual orientation, heterosexuals think you're talking about gays and lesbians. They don't think they have an orientation. Very few people even know the meaning of universal human rights.
Democrats are really struggling with the issue of religion. Almost every Bush supporter I've met say they like him because he believes in God and is a good Christian man. I don't remember anyone saying, I like Clinton because he's a good Baptist.
To stop shadowboxing would be a good start. To stop being a little less bad than the Republicans would be a good start. But when you don't come from your own principles; when you try to be a corrective to somebody else's, people aren't going to follow you. Liberal is not an evil thing. Liberal means you look at things from different viewpoints; you believe in freedom; you believe in sharing. Those are not evil things, but we've become ashamed of the world of the virtues. Most liberals I know are not really liberal. I don't think of myself as a liberal. That's a term the conservatives have put on me. I like to learn about other cultures. I like to think they're as good as I am. I think the whole world should be fed and clothed. That's not really liberal, that's just being a human being. Caring about the environment. That's not liberal, that's just being responsible. To me, we've let ourselves be defined and we're kind of lost in the shadows.
Tell me about the pro-choice actions you've had. The Democrats are also struggling with that issue.
Again, it's about principles. If you believe a woman is a person, then she has the same rights over her body that a male has over his firearms, so you kind of look at it with that second amendment zeal. I'm not sure if that's been established in the constitution, that a woman is a person. When we struggle with fetal issues, does it have will, does it have integrity, well does a woman? I was sitting in when they (Texas politicians) were doing a lot of the debates and there wasn't a woman on the panels talking about a woman's most personal issues and there wasn't a woman there. How do you call that a democracy? If women aren't even in control of their own persons, it's not a democracy. If workers are wage slaves, then it's democracy in name only. The corporations choose the two puppets we vote for. The Democrats, on some of the most important issues, have sold us out a little less badly than the Republicans. Somebody who can't beat George Bush in a debate maybe shouldn't be able to go to Washington. They're not different enough.
How do you deal with frustrations and everyday political challenges?
The work just seems so important to me. It seems like the harder it is, or the fewer people that are doing it, the more important it is. The people who are attracted to prophetic issues need to realize that you're going to lose most of the time. When you start winning, the struggle is over. If you're really trying to build a habitual future, you're going to lose more then you're going to win, but that's so much more important. I'd much rather be in the company of the Martin Luther Kings and the Gandhis and lose, then be with the politicians and win. If people don't have hope, if nobody is saying the truth, then the future doesn't look very bright. Politically we have to compromise on what's doable, but I don't think you should ever compromise your principles and values.