We often hear from the religious right, but on this episode of World of Ideas, Bill Moyers sat down with Reverend F. Forrester Church, a liberal religious leader.
WATCH A CLIP
BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Good evening. I’m Bill Moyers. For the past eight years we’ve all heard a lot from the religious right about virtue and sin, goodness and evil, the Bible and the devil. Well, tonight we’ll hear a voice from the other side; from the liberal wing of Protestantism. The words sound familiar, but the music and the chorus make this a very different hymn. Tonight we’ll explore why even the faithful should cultivate their doubts, how we should question our virtues, and what we could learn from an evening with Jerry Falwell. Join me for a conversation with the Reverend Forrester Church.
[voice-over] Twenty years ago as a college student, Forrest Church was certain about a lot of things, including the fact that his father, the late Senator Frank Church of Idaho, was wrong about everything. Now, he’s a clergyman and confronts the ambiguities and contradictions of a ministry in the very heart of New York City. He has led the congregation of All Souls Church to become one of the most active in Manhattan, reaching out to the homeless and to victims of AIDS. On Sundays, it’s often standing room only as Forrest Church preaches on the devil, angels and the seven deadly virtues.
[interviewing] What do you mean, in The Seven Deadly Virtues, when you say that the devil almost always appears in drag?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Well, the devil is evil is disguise and often disguised as goodness, even as I would call angels goodness disguised, often wrapped in brown paper bags, tremendously ordinary. One has to be particularly careful, therefore, in something like the celebration of virtues because virtues can veil — particularly, great virtues — can veil great evil. I think that we’re, in this day and age, much less likely to do harm in the world, either to our loved ones or to our neighbors by virtue of our sins — which we’re often very aware of and quite ashamed of and they keep us humble than we are by our virtues.
I listened to Oliver North’s testimony as he was speaking to the Senate committee and he was able to justify every one of his acts according to the highest of virtues: faith and love and hope and fortitude and justice. The testimony, I think, was so powerful to the American people because, rhetorically and superficially, it represented everything we admire. But, for that very reason, it’s the more dangerous because the flip side, the dark side, isn’t being seen and we can do tremendous evil in this world in the name of good and in the name of God.
BILL MOYERS: What’s that line in the tenth chapter of Romans that refers to “zeal without understanding”?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Without understanding. And most of us would understand that but when that person then wraps him or herself in the American flag and holds the Bible, that person is dangerous, not only to him or herself, but also to us because we respect the American flag and the Bible. And we who do respect the American flag and the Bible are likely to follow a person who is wearing the one and brandishing the other, but that person may be leading us right down the wrong road.
BILL MOYERS: I agree with you about Oliver North but much of the country thought he was a hero. What does that say to you?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Well, I think it says that we’re a profoundly moral country, ironically enough, because he was speaking from what he considered to be, and eloquently articulated as, a moral posture: liberty, justice, fortitude, the Bible, God, freedom.
BILL MOYERS: A Holy Crusade against Communism.
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: A Holy Crusade. And he’d say, you know, “Those Contras were living and dying young men and women,” and everyone would say yes, we have to help them, forgetting the fact that the Sandinistas were living and dying young men and women. There’s a great lesson from history, by the way, which is that we must choose our enemies carefully because we will become like them. And what I see happening with the Oliver North episode is that he would have been much more comfortable, in effect, in the Soviet Union where he could do everything in secrecy than he was in the United States which he was trying to protect from the Soviet Union.
BILL MOYERS: Was there a time when you could have been Oliver North?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Oh, I don’t know whether I could have been Oliver North but there was a time when I was very sure I was right, in the late ’60’s, and so positive I was right I was on the other side of the issue from Oliver North.
BILL MOYERS: Anti-war, anti-Vietnam?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: That’s right, and I was so, so certain, that I was dangerous. There’s no question about it. I thought my father, who was a U.S. Senator at that time who was leading the battle –Frank Church — against the war and had been, I thought he was a corrupt member of the pig establishment. And I was so blinded by my own certitude that I saw no shadings and no nuances and, yes. If I —
BILL MOYERS: Did you tell him this?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Oh, yes, as inarticulately as only I could at that time.
BILL MOYERS: Did your certitude estrange you from your father?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Of course, it did.
BILL MOYERS: Severed the relationship with him?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Well, it didn’t sever it because he had an enormous tolerance for my adolescence.
BILL MOYERS: This is an incongruity. You were against the war in Vietnam and, yet, you
and your father were estranged although he himself was one of the first and few senators to oppose Lyndon Johnson and the war. I would have felt you would have been soul mates.
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Well, I should have been, but, you know, often — and this is telling, in terms of people with extreme opinions, religiously and in every other way – -it’s almost as if a light were coming through a prism and I was perhaps on the infrared spectrum but I looked over and I said, all the colors are the same. It is only infrared that is true. I was my own kind of fundamentalist of the left during that period, and so I certainly recognize the extent to which that kind of passion and assurance can skew one’s own thinking and stop one from seeing the whole light.
BILL MOYERS: Did you think that even though he was against the war he was compromising too much?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Oh, yes.
BILL MOYERS: And you didn’t like compromise?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Oh, absolutely. No compromise. No compromise was permitted, I mean, we were shutting the university down because of its involvement in the — Stanford University –involvement in any kind of the war machinery. We went so far,and I didn’t myself but it’s been a lesson to me, to turn our American flags upside down, I remember. Even some people burned the American flag and one of the things I’ve thought about more recently in dealing with the new religious right as a religious liberal is there’s a tremendous tendency to see people who seem so irrational and judgmental banging on their bibles and to say, therefore, there’s something wrong with the Bible, to turn the Bible upside down, to say it’s theirs, not mine.
What I would like to do in this case, having learned from that experience as it were, then, I think my father, certainly, and even some of us who were more extreme in our opposition had equal claim to patriotism with those who were so strongly in favor of it. In the same way, with the Bible, I feel that it is my obligation to do everything I can to preach the good news of Jesus as I understand it, which is to heal the sick and house the homeless and visit those who are in prison. That’s the nature of the gospel as I see it or the gospel of Micah; do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. Those are my scriptures now. I read them differently but my own understanding is part of that spectrum coming through the prism of the Bible and is part of the truth. It may not be the whole truth.
BILL MOYERS: And Senator Church, your father, gave you the book that Thomas Jefferson produced when Jefferson was at the White House, in which he went through — tell me about that.
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Jefferson, when he was in the White House, put together a bible for himself and he went through the gospels and cut out a lot of the miracles and parts he couldn’t understand.
BILL MOYERS: Theology?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Yes, and a lot of the narrative, and put together what he believed were the essential teachings of Jesus. It’s not unlike what many scholars were doing in the 19th century to try to determine what the layers of the patina were and which of the teachings of Jesus were most likely to be original with him.
BILL MOYERS: So you had the ethical —
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: The ethical. He called it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. He did it in four columns, he did it in English, French, Latin and Greek and had as his bedside reading. Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale and I are going to be putting out a new edition of the Jefferson Bible next year, but it’s a wonderful example. It starts out without any virgin birth and it ends with the rolling of the stone against the tomb. And for me it was a revelation.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Because the hero died. I knew how the story was supposed to turn out, but the hero died and it became a kind of a touchstone for my own theology, which is not to deny death in order to live forever, but to live in such a way that our lives will prove to be worth dying for. And Jesus lived in that way.
BILL MOYERS: And your father gave you this. What impact did it have on you, in the ultimate reconciliation between you and him?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Over time a tremendous one. I was very grateful that I had a chance to go back and campaign for him in his brief attempt at the presidency and he and I again quickly became best friends.
BILL MOYERS: What are your own deadly virtues?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: My own virtues? The deadly ones?
BILL MOYERS: Any virtues?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: The deadly ones?
BILL MOYERS: The killing ones.
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Oh, probably self-deprecating humor which everyone celebrates me for so much that I now use it as a device to gain fans rather than as something that comes spinning just out of me. Tolerance. I think probably I’m far too tolerant than I should be of things that I should not tolerate and not nearly as respectful as I should be of things and people I do just tolerate. Freedom. I think, too, I have become so much a celebrant of individualism and freedom that I don’t nearly as often practice what I preach as I ought to. Reason. I think I still am crippled by a need to know more than can be known, certify more than can be certified and don’t let myself go into the trans-rational realm and enter into the mystery and just say yes to life. If each one of us would take those things that we’re most proud of, I think he or she could put together a list of his or her seven deadly virtues.
BILL MOYERS: And you think they are more dangerous than our sins?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: I think so because we’re blinded to them. We don’t see them and others don’t see them, either. They’re beautiful garments. There’s no ugliness, no superficial ugliness, about them and therefore it’s a way in which we delude ourselves and others. And also our virtues, to the extent that we celebrate them, potentially block us from bonding with others, from establishing the kind of kinship we need.
BILL MOYERS: “Holier than thou;” you can’t establish any.
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: That’s right. You see, we’ve got to move from an “I win, you lose” approach in the world, “I’m right, you’re wrong” approach, to some kind of more dynamic interrelationship of mutual respect, self-acceptance and forgiveness.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I agree with those pieties but there is right and wrong in the world, is there not?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Have you not seen evil in New York?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Oh, goodness knows there is evil, there is right, there is wrong. There is also no way, saving the most egregious instances, to instantaneously differentiate between right and wrong. We have to move with tremendous humility and caution in these areas because throughout history, most of the evil that’s been done has been done by people who were absolutely sure they were right. I would say almost all of the real massive evil has been perpetrated by people who were cocksure that they were right and so sure that they never stopped. They never stopped to analyze further the consequences of their actions and furthermore, they were so sure they were right and they were so eloquent in their assuredness that they gained tremendous followings, great crowds who bathed in the reflected glory of the virtuous leader. So while yes, there is a need to act as strongly and vigorously as one can against the little and great evils, one shouldn’t assume that evil always comes dressed as evil. It doesn’t.
BILL MOYERS: What does this mean for the individual life of a single person? For example, when does charity become a deadly virtue?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Charity can become a deadly virtue when one is sort of wholly giving him or herself up to another. We see this in marital relationships. Often a woman will subjugate herself, will in every way be kind to her husband and to her children in every way she possibly can, ultimately be diminished, be used, not be respected. Charity begins at home in one respect only and that is when Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself. lf you hate yourself, you can’t really love your neighbor.
BILL MOYERS: What are the danger signs? When do you know that virtue, carried to excess, is becoming a time bomb that’s about to go off.
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Oh, I suppose when you get to a point where you are absolutely sure that you are better than somebody else and therefore that the ends justify the means in your behavior. I think there’s always a slipover, by the way, from this notion of deadly virtue to a “ends justify the means” ethic or approach to action. Again, Oliver North was able to justify doing what he did ’cause he was so sure his ends were right, but the means themselves are destructive and we have to always watch — once we start rationalizing and cutting comers, we’d better watch out because we may be fooling ourselves and others with the nobility of our goals. We may end up trading arms for hostages. We may end up dealing with drug dealers to protect ourselves from communism. And in anyone of those cases, if you take a look. at the goal, it could be said to be noble but means itself not only destroys the integrity of the action but, in many ways, makes the action much more evil than the enemy that we’re seeking to destroy.
BILL MOYERS: Isn’t it possible that liberals, in particular, can become too accepting?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Of other agendas and just sort of say that all value systems are valid?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: That’s right. That is —
BILL MOYERS: How do you keep yourself from falling into that trap?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Well, that’s — whenever I’m with liberals and whenever I’m with myself, I preach against that. I mean, that’s why I say, what are my deadly virtues; they’re tolerance, tolerance and freedom. But when I’m speaking to a group of people for whom those are not their deadly virtues, I’ll do whatever I can to alert them to their own. Lord Acton said that every institution, and I would say every individual, too finally is destroyed by an excess of its own first principle. And so, each of us has to be wary and mindful of our own first principles, wherever we’re smug, wherever we’re sure we’re right.
Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t act, I mean, that’s — obviously I, as a liberal religious leader, am far more concerned in my own communities about the kind of smug, judgmental, supercilious, arrogant postures of my own people who yet have nothing to show for their own faith and pieties because they don’t ever roll up their sleeves and get out there and do anything. They just talk about the president, as if having a couple of drinks and pulling the president down will solve all the world’s problems. What makes me so proud of my own church, however, is that people act, they go out and work. And they know they’re not saving the world — if they thought they were, they probably would become as dangerous as any other group — but when they’ve done that and come back, then they begin to say, “What more can we do?”
BILL MOYERS: What do you have in common, or do you have anything in common, with Jerry Falwell?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Oh, I don’t know. I’ve not met Jerry Falwell. He strikes me as being a tremendously good hearted and sincere man with whom I profoundly disagree. I would love to have an evening with him. Someone I met once asked me whether I’d rather spend an evening with Albert Schweitzer or Jerry Falwell and I said, well, I guess I’d rather spend it with Jerry Falwell because I’d probably learn more. Schweitzer–
BILL MOYERS: What do you think you would learn?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Schweitzer and I agree so much, although he did it with greatness. But I think I would get more insight into what drives him, what his views are.
BILL MOYERS: Do you fear him?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: No. No, I don’t.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think he’s been wrong — harmful to America, to Christianity?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Oh, those things, only history can judge. The new religious right wreaked quite a bit of havoc but, in doing it, it exposed a fanatical flank that has led the common sense of the American people to be probably less vulnerable to that kind of religious bigotry for the next ten to twenty years. Those people who were the most responsible leaders are moderating, are becoming broader in their own faith and actions and there’s a natural corrective here. They have performed probably a function. They have reminded us of the importance of putting our faith into action and witnessing again to our values. They learned that, by the way, from the religious left in the civil rights movement and the Vietnam protests and now, I think, those of us in the center — and I consider myself to be mainstream Protestant, basically, but I’m probably to a little left of the center — they remind us that it is our obligation to put our faith into action and to witness to our faith in the world and to try to make the world a better place, as we see it. Clearly, we’re going to have to live and work together because we’re brothers and sisters.
BILL MOYERS: Yes, but we each are particular and it’s hard to think about that idea when you think of the Amish who find their identity in their separation, in fundamentalists who find their identity in being separate and different.
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: It’s a great luxury to find one’s identity in separation. It’s one we can’t afford any longer. The world is too small. We are living cheek by jowl with one another in this world, with neighbors who are every different color and faith and stripe. Now, what do you do with someone who’s different from you, if you can’t retreat to an enclave and protect yourself from them? Well, you either — if you believe that the difference is critical and must be acted on. You either try to convert that person or destroy that person or, perhaps, ignore that person to the extent that it’s possible for you to do so. Now, those three positions aren’t really dynamic or acceptable. The present day calls for something much more like dynamic pluralism, mutual respect and, yet, at the same time looking for some common ground which I would call the commonweal. Because in many of our faiths there is a basic ethical center that could be stood upon and forays could go out from where we could work together. We can certainly work together to help fight homelessness and hunger in this country, as Jesus said that we should. There’s no reason in the world we can’t do that Perhaps we have to put aside for a time, and perhaps to time immemorial, theological differences when they’re as acute as they are, because Jerry Falwell’s not going to convince me and I’m confident I’m not going to convince him.
BILL MOYERS: What’s the role of the next president in this? If you could write a short note that you knew would be read by the president-the next president, at his invitation, and he would say, “Tell me what I should think and do about this issue you’ve been talking about,” what would you say?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: I think, and it may seem like a non sequitur, but I think what I would say is that there has been a shift in the nature of the world. Of course, every generation has said this and Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden —
BILL MOYERS: Were in an age of transition.
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Were in an age of transition, exactly. But with the global communications, the global nuclear threat and the global economy, the world has become more one world. And the one thing I’d like to say, both about our relationship with other countries and also our relationship with our neighbors, is that today — it used to be that our security was enhanced by other people’s insecurity, that we would build up advantages that protected us. And that goes back to the beginning of time with two little tribes battling with one another.
But today, our security is diminished by others’ insecurity and enhanced by others’ security. And that will take a really great leap, conceptual leap, to imagine. The Soviet Union will be much less dangerous to us strong than weak, because its power in its weakness is sufficient to destroy the entire world. Also, when you think of what’s going on at the other side of the world, we can’t just, in protectionism, push aside our relationship with others and secure ourselves, build our bunker up, because in this day and age chaos on the other side of the world is like a tsunami, a great tidal wave that can come all the way over the world and come crashing down on our own shores. So the greatest danger is as we try protect ourselves, we’re making ourselves vulnerable. So as we try to protect ourselves in Nicaragua, we’re making ourselves vulnerable to drugs.
So much of what’s gone on has this paradox in it where we’re apparently acting in our own self-interest by acting against another person or country’s self-interest but, in this day and age, our self-interest at some meta-level is their self-interest and theirs is ours and until we can begin to see this — our interrelationships, our interdependencies, and it’s going to take an enormous amount of rethinking and retraining — we’re not going to be able to survive.
BILL MOYERS: I hear you talking about a new reality which reminds me of a paragraph in your book, which I’ll read. “Much of the time,” you say, “we remain spectators in the great contests, yet every once in a while, even the most passive among us is cast into the interpretive task. A loved one dies, a marriage collapses, we’re given three months to live. Something awakens us, knocking us off our pins, hurtling us headlong into a confrontation with reality.” What was the something that happened to Forrest Church that brought you into a confrontation with reality?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: Well, it’s been a lot of little deaths, probably. I have not had the privilege of a life-changing failure, but my life isn’t over yet so I probably still have that to look forward to. But my own definition of religion is that it’s our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. And the great privilege of my decade of ministry here in New York is that I’ve been invited into people’s lives at their times of greatest pain as well as greatest joy but, often, most poignantly, at times of death. And when another person is dying or when a loved one has died, it takes — it’s like a bracing blast of fresh air that blows all the dust off of your desk, makes all of your own petty grievances and your pride and your anger and your bitterness and your envy meaningless because you remember that this is basically the bond, this mortar of mortality that binds us fast to one another. And ultimately, the same sun is going to set over each of our horizons.
BILL MOYERS: And therefore?
F. FORRESTER CHURCH: And therefore, we are one.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From his study at All Souls Church in New York City, this has been a conversation with Forrest Church. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on March 28, 2015.