Preaching to the ‘Moveable Middle’: Bishop Gene Robinson on Marriage Equality and the Election

When Gene Robinson became the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, he wore a bulletproof vest under his vestments during his ordination service. Robinson was the first openly gay person to be elected as a bishop within the Episcopal Church, and his ordination became a touchstone in the battle for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people within both the Church and larger society.

Robinson faced death threats, not just at his ordination, but all through his career as bishop—a post he will retire from at the end of this year. The reality that an openly gay man could hold such high office in the Church set off a firestorm within the larger Anglican Communion, of which The Episcopal Church in America is a part. Some churches chose to leave the denomination. Others, mainly in Africa, protested loudly over Robinson’s consecration. Their complaints were taken so seriously by Anglican leadership that Robinson was forbidden to attend the Anglican Communion’s worldwide Lambeth conference in 2008. 

Robinson showed up in England anyway, holding talks and events outside of the conference itself.

Robinson has used his experiences, and his high position, to pen a new book, God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage, that seeks to answer the ten most popular questions he has heard about marriage equality for gay and lesbian people.

In the book, he tackles questions like why marriage is an issue for LGBT people, why straight people should support it and why civil unions, while they are a good first step, simply won’t be enough to satisfy the LGBT community.

Bishop Robinson recently spoke with Religion Dispatches about the book and, of course, the presidential election.

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What prompted you to write a book about marriage equality?

Well, it is the issue of our times. It’s a topic on everyone’s mind in every culture, in every denomination. Even for those who are clearly opposed, it’s still up for grabs. Whereas, not too very long ago, most denominations were absolutely clear and certain about where they stood on this issue, now we’re in that period of what I like to call “holy chaos,” when what seemed so certain is not certain anymore.

My thought in writing the book was to imagine a conversation between myself and someone who would probably describe themselves as “tolerant,” but not prepared to go all the way to marriage for gay or lesbian couples. I wanted to try to get into the minds of those who oppose this forward movement and be able to respond to their fears.

One of the things I’ve learned in the last nine years is how fear is so operative in the culture. The best way to deal with my opponents is to ask the question, “What are you afraid of?” and try to speak to those fears. It’s a different way of getting to an argument.

How did you choose the questions? Are these just the most popular ones you’ve heard?

I’ve had countless conversations with such people and these are the things that always come up.

The other motivation was that you can read a whole book on just the legal aspects or a whole book on the biblical thing—but I wanted to try to make this a Cliff’s Notes version. I wanted to combine the religious arguments, the secular arguments, the social arguments, and the psychological all into one place.

Most people are not going to take the time to read a whole book on even one of those aspects so I wanted to do an overarching summary of each.

You’ve done a good job. As someone who has faced these questions a million times as well, when I read books like this I’m always reading with the “yeah, but…” point of view. You say you’re trying to answer questions from good and loving people, but my cynicism says, “Yeah, but, what about the fanatics who aren’t good and loving? What do we say to them, or do we even say anything to them?”

They are not my target audience. I’ve had enough contact with people who are so far to that extreme that I think it’s… well, I wouldn’t call it a waste of time, but it’s not going to be terribly productive.

The target audience of this book are those who feel kindly toward gay and lesbian people but perhaps have not had a direct experience of a gay couple or of their families. They’ve not had that kind of personal contact. It’s this largely moveable middle that I’m trying to reach. My sense is that there are a lot of people out there who need just a little help in getting over the hump to become totally supportive.

Have you found, in real life, that the arguments you use in the book have convinced some people in that moveable middle?

Actually, I have. There are a lot of people are ready to be supportive but they don’t know what to say to their neighbor, co-worker or family member when they’re asked about how they changed their mind or got over a particular issue.

Part of the intent of the book is to give people the words they can use when someone challenges them about being supportive they have some notion of what to say. My hope is to give them a sample of the kinds of words they can use when they are challenged.

Why is marriage so important for gay and lesbian people, and why should straight people be supportive?

This is about achieving full and equal rights, and it has as much to do with respect as it does the law.

Everyone knows what marriage is, and when your partner is bleeding to death in the emergency room and they won’t let you back to be with them—that’s not the time to start teaching the hospital staff about civil unions and the rights it gives people. But, if you can say, “I’m her wife,” everybody knows what that means and everybody respects what comes along with that. This is why I think that while civil unions may be a step forward, it’s not the answer.

I think marriage is important for us as LGBT people in the sense that we’re constantly working on our own self-esteem. We learned all those negative messages right along with all the straight people and I think—even though I’ve been out for 26 years—still it means something to me when I introduce my partner as my husband. It’s hard to describe what a difference that makes.

President Barack Obama has come out in favor of marriage equality. What’s your opinion of this position and do you think we’ll find that it hurt him in this election?

I think the people it would hurt him with weren’t remotely going to vote for him anyway.

I actually love the fact that he ‘evolved,’ because at the end of the day we all evolve and so it’s a wonderful role model for how one changes one’s mind about a big social issue like this. I believe that in his heart, he was there a long time ago, but he was being advised to be very careful. 

My partner, Mark and I got a wonderful note from him when we had our civil union—that was two years before we got marriage equality (in New Hampshire). In the note he talked about what his relationship with Michelle had meant to him and that he wished the same for me and Mark. It was an amazing thing.

The big thing that I think was accomplished hasn’t been talked about. We saw the poll numbers in the African-American community go from like 37 percent affirming of gay marriage to over 50 percent right after his announcement. I think that’s a sign that in the African-American community, particularly the religious community, they were doing their homework and they, too, were evolving on this issue. I think the president’s coming out about marriage equality gave them cover to go public. It’s not all of a sudden they changed, but it gave them the cover to say, “Me, too, actually.”

What’s your opinion of the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney? He once supported marriage equality and ran to the left of Ted Kennedy in a failed Senate bid. Now, of course, he’s against it and supports a constitutional amendment to define marriage.

Who knows what Mitt Romney thinks anymore? There’s hardly a position that he’s taken that he hasn’t reversed himself on.

I choose to think that the early Romney is the real Romney—which is actually why conservatives are so suspicious of him. Deep down he’s the more liberal guy that preceded the one we see now and I think the Republican party has become so held hostage by the right wing of their party and has precluded Romney from being who he really is in order to keep that base.

It is astounding to me that anyone, at this point, would be proposing a constitutional amendment.

That’s going to go nowhere even if Mitt Romney is president.

What do you say to keep up the spirits of LGBT people and their allies? Even as we’ve made a lot of progress, those who are against LGBT people seem louder than ever.

What I say to the LGBT community is that we know how this is going to end. This is going to end with the full inclusion of LGBT people in the culture and in our religious institutions. All we’re arguing over now is timing.

Frankly, in my conversation with conservatives who are at least open enough to have the conversation, they know it, too. All they’re trying to do now is to delay the inevitable. When you know how it’s going to end, you can absorb a setback here or there or a bad vote or bad decision because, at the end of the day, you know how it’s going to turn out. I think everyone, conservatives included, see this as an inevitable momentum forward.

What’s next for you?

I retire at the end of this year as the sitting bishop of New Hampshire and I’m going to be working half time as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington DC, writing and speaking on LGBT issues—as well as immigration, health care reform, poverty and other issues. I’m looking forward to having that forum as well as more time to accept speaking engagements around the country.

Candace Chellew-Hodge is the founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians and currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C. She is also the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008)