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A pastor on why the religious left has a compelling political message

“We're at this unique moment where the narrative of the religious right is subsiding.” —Rev. Amy Butler

Rev. Amy Butler

Riverside Church in New York City is arguably the most prominent liberal Protestant church in the country. Its legacy of activism runs deep, with roots in the civil rights movement and other progressive struggles.

For the first 84 years of its history, the church had never been led by a female minister. That changed two years ago when Amy Butler, a 44-year-old single mother, assumed the mantle as senior minister.

Riverside has a diverse congregation, and it sits squarely at the intersection of faith and politics. Social justice, immigration, and LGBTQ rights are regularly discussed during services, and Butler has embraced the activist ethos.

No surprise, then, that she lunged into presidential politics last month with a powerful op-ed for USA Today. The piece was a response to Donald Trump’s characterization of Hillary Clinton’s position on abortion as “saying in the ninth month you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb.”

Butler, who had a late-term abortion to save her life and spare her unborn child an immense amount of pain, was outraged by Trump’s remarks.

“Trump, who has never been pregnant and presumably has navigated this far in his life without undertaking any difficult, gut-wrenching, gray-area decisions,” she wrote, “used my own pain — deep, deep pain — to advance his political agenda.”

After reading her op-ed, I reached out to Butler. I asked her about Donald Trump, patriarchy in the church, the religious right, and whether the left now has an opportunity to reassert itself in the public square.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

What’s it like to be the first woman to head the famed Riverside Church? How has the congregation responded?

Amy Butler

Well, I’ve been here for two years and I’ve received a very warm reception from this community. I think they felt proud that they had called a woman to leadership, and I’m obviously honored by the opportunity.

One thing that I have learned over these two years is just how significant their decision has been in the lives of other young women who are seeking to assume leadership in the church. I’ve been truly humbled by that.

Sean Illing

Why did it take 84 years for this to happen?

Amy Butler

Well, I think it’s mirroring a shift in society. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we're seeing so many women in leadership now — in politics, in the business community, and in the church.

I think it’s just time.

Sean Illing

I’ve always found the patriarchy of the church to be a moral obscenity, one that too easily gets a pass in our society. And the problem, at least in my view, is that this patriarchy does appear to have scriptural justification.

How do you think about this as a female minister, and as someone who’s obviously progressive on this issue?

Amy Butler

What’s more troubling to me than that is that I made it to the age of 19 without even realizing that this was troubling. It’s not so much the dogma and the theology as it is the culture. It never even occurred to me to question it when I was younger.

Some of that comes from my own evangelical background. It just never occurred to me that this was an inequity, and I think that has to do with a bigger dialogue around the church and the world and how they interact.

But this is something I think about a lot, and I’ve become a proponent of suggesting that scripture interpreted in a patriarchal way is interpreted wrong.

The Washington Post / Contributor

Sean Illing

So you don’t think it’s fair to say that scripture is inherently sexist or that it subordinates women?

Amy Butler

Well, I can’t speak from a Jewish standpoint, but certainly from a Christian standpoint we deal with a holy text that is steeped in the culture in which it was written. And it’s our job as modern practitioners and adherents to extract from it the essence of the message of Jesus, which was radically inclusive and empowering.

Sean Illing

You mentioned your background in the evangelical community, which leans to the right politically. As someone on the left today, how do you think about the role of religion in public life?

Amy Butler

We've sort of had this dichotomy, particularly over the past 30 years or so, of the religious right and then the sort of quieter religious left. The religious right sucks up all the oxygen and somehow narrates the role of religion in public life. I think this has gone hand in hand with the decline of the institution of the church.

But I think we’re seeing a shift in this dichotomy now, and I think this is a great opportunity for religious voices that are inclusive to really come to the fore. And I'm really hopeful that that’s going to happen.

Sean Illing

How was the religious right able to seize the political ground in the way that they have?

Amy Butler

I think it was a variety of factors. Part of it is that mainline traditional American Protestantism, the religious left, got lazy. We’re an institution to which people have adhered without much thought for a long time. We didn’t expect that to change, and when it did, we weren’t ready.

And so the more radical voices on the right, who are very gifted in organizing and political networking, took advantage of this opportunity.

Sean Illing

Is there an organized movement on the religious left that’s comparable to what we’ve seen on the right?

Amy Butler

I think people on the religious left sometimes forget that people do not make decisions of devotion with their mind. They make them with their heart, and the religious right is really good at touching hearts.

The religious left has a compelling message of the inclusive love of Jesus, but we're not so good at touching people’s hearts. But I think we're at this unique moment where the narrative of the religious right is subsiding. We have to recognize this and find ways to activate people’s moral conscience, to persuade them to work for the common good, and not just the good of one’s own.

Sean Illing

I imagine it’s frustrating for many people on the religious left, who know there’s a vibrant tradition of social activism in the Christian world but see that it’s been obscured by the culture wars.

Amy Butler

You’re absolutely right. Look at the first half of the 20th century in this country. The church was at the fore of labor reform, civil rights, and other progressive movements. It was the church that started hospitals and schools and fought in defense of racial and economic justice.

This history is too easily forgotten.

Sean Illing

I have a lot of religious friends who are liberal, and one of their biggest concerns is that all the moralizing and all the hypocrisy on the right has driven people away from the church. A recent Pew Research Center study confirmed a trend we’ve been seeing for a while now, which is that Americans are becoming less religious.

Do you see the politicization of religion has partly responsible for this?

Amy Butler

I think it’s a reality, but I reject the view that the church is dying. Perhaps the church as we know it is going away, but religion won’t because people are hardwired to ask big questions and to search for ways to live in community. And I really think this is an exciting time for the church because we're sort of reimagining who we’re being called to be and what we ought to stand for.

The question is can we reinvent ourselves and speak compellingly to issues that matter in ways that will mean something to people beyond organized religion?

Sean Illing

You mention people being hardwired to ask these kinds of questions, and it reminds me of a conversation I had recently with Alain de Botton, who is an atheist but he acknowledges that religions have developed sophisticated ways of addressing our most fundamental questions.

What he’s trying to do is carve out a space in which these questions can be addressed in secular terms, or to replicate the things that religion does well outside of organized religion or metaphysical commitment.

Amy Butler

I'm enthusiastically supportive of that kind of effort because I think anything that brings us together in ways that are positive and life-giving is a great thing. Anything that gives us rituals to celebrate the best parts of being human is a great thing.

Sean Illing

Do you feel obligated to respond to arguments about God’s existence or nonexistence? In my conversation with de Botton, for example, we talked about the need, as nonbelievers, to think about God as more than an epistemological claim, as a kind of motive force in people’s lives.

If you’re an atheist who wants to engage religious people, or even to make them less religious, it seems important to recognize that belief in God is about much more than what’s true in the empirical sense.

Amy Butler

Wow, that’s a really great question. I’ve thought about this as well. I have a 22-year-old son who discovered that he knew the answer to every existential question after his first philosophy class in college. He’s a proud atheist, and we talk about this all the time.

I think the question is not, “Do you believe God exists?” but rather, “What is the theological narrative that informs your life?” I believe God loves the whole world. There is room for everyone around this table. It doesn’t matter whether you believe or you don’t believe. Everybody should have a chance to thrive and flourish.

Sean Illing

So if it’s about the message of Christ, does it matter to you if God is real in the epistemological sense? Does it matter if the claims of the Bible are true?

Amy Butler

Well, “true” means different things to different people at different times. What I can tell you is that whatever I believe about God and life after death and all the rest is less important to me than how I actually practice my faith and the function of my faith in my efforts to empower others and heal the world around me.

Sean Illing

You’re an evangelical in the sense that you’re committed to spreading the message of Christ. How have you navigated this election from the pulpit?

Amy Butler

Well, I have a very public pulpit. And I think the essence of preaching is preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other hand, as Karl Barth always used to say. And there is a difference in my mind between endorsing candidates or pushing policies and addressing behavior or ideals that run counter to our faith.

So I’ve asked people to keep listening, to keep comparing what they hear from the candidates with what they know to be true about their faith.

Sean Illing

Do you think Christians in general are doing that?

Amy Butler

You know, Sean, I don’t know. I really don’t know.

Sean Illing

I know that there are plenty of religious people, on the right and the left, who are disgusted by what they’re seeing. And I know there are people, especially on the right, who feel they’ve been exploited by politicians.

Do you think the long-term result of all this will be to encourage religious people to retreat from political life altogether?

Amy Butler

I don’t know. I’d like to see a religious voice engaging in the political square. I don’t want that position to be absent, and I hope that there can be some other voices that emerge in the wake of this election.