Bishop Michael Curry made headlines last month when he preached an enthusiastic sermon at the royal wedding that quoted Martin Luther King Jr. and included subtly radical theology. Viewers also noted that the black preacher from Chicago read from an iPad, a somewhat jarring sight inside a 14th-century chapel.
These are all just examples of the major public moments that progressive Christianity has been having these days. In this Slate Plus members–only podcast, Chau Tu talks to Slate contributor Ruth Graham about covering religion and its relation to politics, how #MeToo has reached the far corners of American life, and how Melania Trump compares to previous first ladies.
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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Chau Tu: You’ve been keeping an eye on Melania Trump, or at least trying to, because she’s been kind of out of the public eye lately. I want to know how you think that she’s been fairing as First Lady.
Ruth Graham: I guess she’s been sort of edging back into view lately, so we know she’s still alive. She is fun to follow, because she’s such a wild card as we’ve seen these last few weeks, this sort of disappearing. In contrast to kind of wild card elements of this administration, the stakes are basically zero, at least from a public policy perspective.
Who knows what’s going on with her personally. There was a New York Times op-ed about this a few months ago now, just about how in some ways, she’s this accidentally radical figure. She’s in some ways, obviously a very traditional wife—some people would use the term “trophy wife.” But in her actions, she’s having this profoundly feminist impact, or potentially could have that kind of impact, on this unofficial office of the first lady. All these old, old traditions and obligations that have accrued to the figure of the spouse of the president, Melania Trump is sort of refusing a lot of those duties, or being obviously displeased with having to perform them. She’s this really interesting figure, because in some ways she’s bolder than any more-outwardly feminist first lady has ever been. She’s a super interesting figure.
Well, she still has her first lady duties, and one of her things right now is the Be Best campaign, right? Can you talk a little bit more about what you know about that?
Yeah, it’s funny—she debuted this and got a really positive response for it, and then basically disappeared for weeks after. It sort of zapped a lot of the attention from it.
The First Lady does traditionally have some kind of policy platform. Hers, it has three pillars. They’re all relating to children’s issues, children’s well-being, social media, and then opioid abuse and the effects of opioid abuse. They’re completely non-parallel. It feels just even crazy to say that sentence, those three things next to each other, because they just aren’t really parallel concepts. The cyberbullying campaign—which her spokeswoman hates when anyone refers to it as a cyberbullying campaign—that she had mentioned even before the election, sort of falls under that social media pillar.
It’s basically like an awareness campaign. We’ll see what that actually looks like. She had a cyberbullying roundtable with tech executives a few months ago. It basically just seems like things she has shown a vague interest in. Its lack of coherence is funny to me.
Switching gears a little bit, you wrote a cover story recently for Slate about how Down syndrome is redefining the abortion debate. Can you talk a little bit more about the story and the issue at hand there?
Sure. The story is about the intersection of prenatal genetic testing, which is getting better and better and happening earlier and earlier in pregnancy, and abortion and abortion policy. The background is that in some parts of Europe, including the U.K., the termination rate after the prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome is above 90 percent. It’s not that Down syndrome is being eliminated, but that people with Down syndrome are not being born.
In the U.S., the testing rate isn’t quite as high. For women who do get the testing, it’s about three-fourths of them do, terminate the pregnancy after a Down syndrome diagnosis. That’s kind of the background. In the U.S., some Republican legislatures are now trying to introduce, sometimes successfully, legislation that would criminalize abortion in cases, where the doctor is performing it because the woman has had a diagnosis or believes that the fetus has Down syndrome. There’s sort of this pro-life legislative push.
I’m interested in kind of the ways that these things make everyone uncomfortable, or make both pro-choice and pro-life sides uncomfortable. There’s also disability rights activists involved in this, who are basically profoundly unsettled by the termination rates and what that says about what we value as a culture, and what kinds of lives we deem to be worth living, and what families believe about what it will be like to raise a disabled child. These disability rates activists, many of them also argue that just banning abortion outright in these cases isn’t the right approach to it. It’s just sort of a complicated stew of issues that was for a cover story, which was really fun that it got to be a cover story.
How did you come to hearing about this issue?
Well, I have a brother-in-law with Down syndrome, so in general that’s something that I sort of read about and I’m interested in and I’m keyed into. And then, I also have covered the pro-life movement a lot. Seeing these bills bubble up in states including Ohio, [where John] Kasich, the governor, signed a bill in December.
You regularly cover religion for Slate, and I really liked your piece on the bishop who preached a sermon at the royal wedding. He made a big splash across social media as people were watching. What did you take from that?
Yeah, that was such a great moment. I was up at whatever, 7 a.m., watching the royal wedding, as any good American royal watcher was. Just smack in the middle of it, you had this—I don’t know if I would describe it as a fiery sermon—but a sermon that kind of makes you stop and say, “Wow. This person is really preaching.”
He’s an American. He’s a presiding bishop of the Episcopal church in America, and the first black man to hold that role, I think. Michael Curry. It was a sermon about, basically, the redemptive power of love. He quoted Martin Luther King Jr., and then some more controversial figures too, sort of slipping some progressive theology into this sermon.
The larger context here is it’s just really interesting to see progressive Christianity, mainline Christianity, have some big public moments lately, in ways that they haven’t. There’s this.
There’s the Poor People’s Campaign, which has gotten a lot of press. Rev. William Barber, another kind of towering figure within American progressive Christianity. It’s an interesting moment for that movement in a larger way, just because they’re scooping up a lot of the energy on the left and right now. It’s sort of an excuse to think about the state of progressive Christianity in this country.
One other thing about Bishop Curry is that he was reading his sermon off an iPad, and that seemed to catch people’s eyes. But you’ve noted that phones and other personal devices are pretty common in churches these days, right?
I am a churchgoer; I go to church almost every week. It’s something I’ve been noticing shifting, just a little bit in the last 10 years, basically the same period, where cell phones have appeared everywhere.
At first, cellphones were everywhere but churches, it seemed to me, there was just something a little bit taboo about bringing your phone out in church, because it’s a distraction and all of that. That does seem to have changed. Watching Bishop Curry give the sermon from an iPad, it wasn’t a turning point, but it was an example of the way that we do see phones. People are taking pictures. It’s much more OK now to be tweeting little snippets of the sermon. Some larger churches sort of encourage that, encourage you to Instagram during the church service. Taking pictures and posting them.
I remain a little bit of a hold out on that in terms of my own preferences. But when I was interviewing pastors about it, a lot of them were saying, “Listen, we didn’t reject the printing press. This is a technology that has the ability to kind of broadcast what’s going on in the church, outside of the church,” which is kind of the whole point of church. It’s another way of evangelizing basically.
People use Bible apps. Instead of lugging their big, hardback Bibles with them, they tap into an app. You see them in the pews more and more.
You also covered the controversy surrounding a prominent Southern Baptist leader named Paige Patterson. Can you talk a little bit more about what’s been going on there?
Sure. This story is such a mess. It’s really interesting, because Paige Patterson is this lion of the Southern Baptist Convention. He’s part of the conservative resurgence, which is sort of, a conservative takeover of the denomination in the ’70s through the ’90s really. He’s this hugely revered figure. especially to conservatives in the SBC. Most recently, he was the head of a Baptist seminary in Texas.
Over the last few months, some of the old sermons that he’s given, old conference talks, things like that, in the light of the #MeToo movement, have been dredged up and looked at in a new light. A lot of them were really flippant toward domestic violence; one of them he told an anecdote about counseling a woman who had been beaten by her husband, counseling her to go back to him and pray audibly in front of him. It was sort of a happy ending, because although he beat her again, the man returned to church.
It’s really disturbing anecdotes meant to be charming or instructive. A couple of those were trickling up and getting a lot of blow-back from women in the SBC, thousands of whom signed a petition against him. It also got a lot of just mainstream coverage, great coverage in the Washington Post specifically. I’d point people there, if they want to really do a deep dive.
Eventually, some other stories came out where, in his capacity as head of a different Baptist seminary, he had counseled a rape victim to forgive her attacker and had been just really giving her terrible and sort of cruel counsel in that setting. Eventually, he was fired. At first, he was just sort of demoted to president emeritus of the seminary and then about a week later, he was fired.
It’s all happening around the same time as the SBC’s annual meeting in Texas, which is going on as we speak. He was set to give a major sermon there. Very late in the game, he pulled out of that. It’s kind of this symbol of some of the divisions within the SBC. It’s the largest Protestant denomination in this country. They’re a very, very big deal. How they are talking and thinking about women, and politics and all of these things has pretty huge implications for kind of what conservative evangelicalism looks like overall in the United States.
What do you foresee happening then? Is there a new leader that’s kind of coming up now?
Well, they’re going to elect a new president. They elect a new president either every year, or every other year, maybe. There’s a younger guy running and an older guy running, although they’re both fairly conservative. You know, Patterson at this point was the head of a seminary. It’s sort of telling to watch who’s responding how, and how the denomination as a whole responds. They’re a big, slow moving institution, so I don’t foresee huge, immediate changes. They have a guy, Russell Moore, he heads the policy wing of the SBC. He has been outspoken against Trump. He’s been outspoken defending women. You know, again, within this conservative evangelical context. I don’t want to describe him as a feminist or anything like that.
You can see these signs of changes to come. I would say if someone like Paige Patterson is losing his stature in this context, then that really does say that the #MeToo movement as reached, you know, pretty much every corner of American life. So not immediate changes necessarily to the SBC, but a really significant moment.
Since you’re on the religion beat, what do you think is the toughest part about covering religion in this country these days?
There are so many things. For me, as a reporter, the thing I try to keep in mind—I mean, religion, it has all of these public implications obviously. So much of it is done in public. It also at heart is, it’s a private expression. It’s private beliefs. It has these public and private faces. One risk as a reporter is just sort of only covering the politics, the politically active religious people, the extremists.
I write about evangelicals a lot in particular. That’s my own background, although I’m not evangelical anymore. I just try to keep in mind to not only cover the people on TV. Even for the people on TV, sort of setting them on context and trying to explain why they appeal to people, and that it’s not only about the handful of political issues that tend to make the news everywhere. That’s the challenge for me as a reporter.
What do you think you’re going to keep your eye on in the next couple of months? Anything involving upcoming elections and anything like that?
Yeah. Absolutely. Despite the answer that I just gave, I continue to be fascinated by the way that the Trump administration has sort of dredged all of these televangelist characters—they’re not all grifters, but conservatives, conservative Christians who have been out of power, out of visibility for a long time—and brought them into the White House and made them feel important again, and not just made them feel important, but you know, the very act of doing that has made them important again. There’s sort of this zombie religious-right movement happening, because of Trump’s need to curry favor basically with this huge voting block of evangelicals.
I think it’s also worth keeping an eye on what happens with progressive Christianity. I was talking about that earlier, just in terms of, are they going to be able to, not just scoop up the energy that’s happening right now, because of the Trump administration on the left, but turn that into sustainable growth or even just stanch the losses that they’ve been experiencing over the last few decades. That’s an interesting thing to keep an eye on too.