Over the weekend, Rev. Dr. Phil Snider—a Missouri pastor and alumnus of my institution, Phillips Theological Seminary—discovered that a speech he’d given to the City Council in August had been picked up by Gawker and gone viral. Like, over-a-million-views, posted-by-George-(Sulu)-Takei viral.
So he had quite a weekend, in other words. Here’s what he had to say about the experience.
SMB: So did anything interesting happen to you over the weekend? 🙂
Phil Snider: Can’t think of anything. 😉
More seriously, why don’t you give us a little bit of the background on your August speech to the City Council? What was the resolution, and how did you decide to take the approach you did?
As you can imagine in a city such as Springfield (located in the heart of the Bible Belt with several religiously-affiliated schools and universities), any ordinance that seeks to affirm gays and lesbians and secure equal protections for their rights is going to come under all kinds of resistance, often in the name of religion.
I wanted to make a strong rhetorical impression that might have some staying power, so I decided to quote sermons on segregation that sounded strikingly similar to conversations that were currently taking place in our city about the ordinance. I saw an article from the Miami Herald that helped jump start the process, and soon thereafter I came across a sermon preached by Bob Jones on Easter Sunday in 1960, in which he (as I understand it) was partly responding to Billy Graham’s move toward advocating for social reforms in the South. I did a bunch of Google searches related to strings like “sermons on segregation” or “sermons supporting racism” and started compiling phrases similar to what I had been hearing in Springfield.
It was actually one of the easier speeches I’ve ever written, mostly because so much of it was quoted material. After all of this started going viral, I was especially taken aback when a friend of mine informed me that one of the more popular quotes I used was actually related to slavery, not segregation, which of course drives the point home all the more.
Walk me through how you came to the convictions you hold: your religious convictions, and your convictions about marriage equality (realizing that they are not two separate things).
A bunch of different things, but mostly my friendships with those who are gay. Here is an excerpt from a sermon I preached back in July:
My mind has changed a lot on this over the years. Throughout the course of my own ministry I started meeting more and more people who came to me in pastoral confidence and talked to me about their struggles growing up as a gay person in our society in general and in the church in particular (feelings of hurt, rejection, and depression, often feeling suicidal).
I used to think about homosexuality as a sin along the same lines of alcoholism or adultery (and I should “love the sinner but hate the sin”), but after a while even that didn’t add up in my mind. For instance, if one is an alcoholic, and gives up drinking, one’s life improves, it gets better. And if in a relationship neither partner cheats on the other, well, obviously, that’s much healthier for the relationship.
But throughout the course of my pastoral ministry, I started to notice that people who are gay don’t tend to get better over time when they try to renounce their sexuality. I know several people who have gone to counseling to try to become straight, or have literally had people pray in exorcism fashion for their “gay” demons to leave them, but none of it worked.
Then I started to notice that the gay people I knew who were most healthy were actually the ones who had come to terms with their sexuality and didn’t try to repress or ask God to change it, but had accepted it as part of who God created them to be. And I started to think that people don’t choose to be gay any more than I chose to be straight. Why in the world would someone choose to go through such heartache and pain? It didn’t make sense to me.
All of those experiences changed my mind in pretty significant ways, so much so that I now view things much differently than I did when I first started ministry. Now I tend to think that the Bible reflects the prejudices of ancient culture on this matter in the same way it does regarding slavery, or viewing women as property, or any number of things that our culture no longer affirms or accepts.
My perspective can best be summarized in a quote from my theological hero, John Caputo: “My own view is that the outcome of a careful debate about these matters would be to show that there simply are no arguments to show that homosexual love is of itself anything else than love, and that therefore, since the essence of the Torah is love, it hardly falls afoul of the law. To be sure, when it is not love, when it is promiscuity, or infidelity to a sworn partner, or rape, or the sexual abuse of minors, or in any way violent, then it is indeed not love, but that is no less true of heterosexuality.” (Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?)
Those interested in more technical conversations related to scripture and such can check out my sermon series, What Does the Bible Really Say About Homosexuality?
Regarding the second part of this question, about marriage equality: If a person doesn’t believe that one chooses to be gay any more than one chooses to be straight, then there really isn’t a strong foundation for denying people the right to marry. Plus, if marriage is viewed as a sacrament, then why is it the state’s business to determine what a sacrament is? I believe not only in the separation of church and hate, but also in the separation of church and state.
What were you doing when you found out the speech had gone viral, and what has been the most surprising thing about the reaction?
I was having dinner with my family and my phone wouldn’t stop buzzing. To be honest—as lame as this might sound—the most surprising part of all this craziness was how quickly it all took off. Even though I thought the speech would only be heard by those at the City Council meeting, I owe a lot to Gawker, George Takei, and many others for sharing it, because it helps show that people of faith across the country—even in the nooks and crannies of the Ozark Mountains—are coming together to stand on the side of equality for all people.
Have there been any criticisms—or praises—that surprised or unsettled you?
I’ve been pleasantly surprised regarding the feedback I’ve received. While there have inevitably been a bunch of criticisms—folks praying for my salvation or telling me I’m going to hell, all the standard fare—far more of the messages have been encouraging and affirming. All of which confirms from an anecdotal perspective what the statistics already show: the tide is shifting in this country. Most of the angry criticisms I received are rooted in the reality that society is changing on this matter, and we aren’t going back. The train has left the station. I take great heart in that, and I’m thankful for all of those who paved the way.
Has the attention affected your church, Brentwood Christian Church, and if so, how?
Today was actually a very normal kind of day at Brentwood, which, given the craziness of the rest of the weekend, was a welcome respite. We had several more visitors than usual, and our blog stats are through the roof, but nothing entirely out of the ordinary. This may change over time, we’ll see. I guess all we can do is take it one step at a time.
You’ve written one book, edited another, and co-authored another with Emily Bowen. Can you tell us a bit about each of them?
My most recent book, Preaching After God, is written for progressive preachers who are trying to find ways to effectively communicate with those who increasingly identify as “the nones,” i.e. those who aren’t sure what to make of God and/or religion, including those who believe in God some of the time, or none of the time, or all of the time; which I tend to think includes all of us some of the time and some of us all of the time. I draw heavily on the scholarship of John Caputo who, as I mentioned above, is one of my theological heroes.
The Hyphenateds is a collection of essays I edited related to the changing landscape of ministry in postmodern contexts. It features essays by some of my favorite progressive church leaders, including Nadia Bolz-Weber, Carol Howard Merritt, Stephanie Spellers, and several others.
Toward a Hopeful Future offers progressives an introduction to emergence Christianity and highlights the ways emergents are increasingly drawn to progressive communities of faith.
What do you plan to work on next?
I’m in the process of collaborating with Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt on an exciting new book that will be the first of its kind. We are collecting sermons from a variety of fantastic preachers, all of which are welcoming and inclusive of gays and lesbians. If I would’ve known my City Council speech would become so popular so fast, we would’ve rushed the publication in order for it to already be available! The working title is Silent No More: Sermons of Welcome and Affirmation. Contributors include Jay Bakker, Christian Piatt, Monica Coleman, Rita Nakashima Brock, as well as several others.
I’m also writing another book tentatively titled Being Christian: Without Having to Believe Twelve Unbelievable Things Before Breakfast. The subtitle plays on a quote that goes back to Mark Twain and Lewis Carroll, and I explore the ways that a person can engage Christianity in a fresh way that values both the mind and the heart. This has been an incredibly fun book to write and I can’t wait for it to be available.
Talk to the person who doesn’t know anything about Springfield, mainly tries to ignore Christianity, but who has just seen your video and is giving you a standing ovation. What do you want to say to that person?
First of all, I’d like to say thank you. Secondly, I’d like to say I’m sorry. I’d like to thank you because of your support and affirmation. And I’d like to say I’m sorry because of the ways that Christianity is far too often used as a tool of exclusion rather than inclusion. I’d also like to say that there are many other pastors and people of faith who share views such as my own. My speech just happened to go viral on the internet, but I have a ton of colleagues doing similar things all across the U.S. on a regular basis. We may not receive as much publicity as the highly-funded voices on the religious right, but I am hardly a lone voice.