Jane Dealy was one of 1,000 progressive Christians standing in front of the White House on Thursday night, all holding tiny candles and saying “Jesus” in unison in the direction of America’s seat of power. For weeks, Dealy had considered attending the vigil but then she heard a certain wedding sermon, and her decision was sealed.
Along with the rest of the world, Dealy heard the sermon Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry gave at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, a passionate, positive, Jesus-filled homily about love as a healing balm for the world.
“That was it!” Dealy, 78, said from the White House plaza, after the vigil. “I said, ‘I’m going down there!’ ” Her primary concern is the prejudice stirred up in the United States in the last couple of years, “and Bishop Curry can change people’s hearts. He’s done more for Christianity [with the wedding sermon] than anyone I can remember.”
In 14 minutes (the length of a sermon that was either too long or just right, depending on one’s perspective), Curry rocketed to the top of what in 2018 is an extremely short list: celebrities of the religious left.
People in airports are chasing him for selfies. Media from Fox to the BBC are doing interviews back to back. Just by taking the podium Thursday night before the vigil — before even speaking — Curry triggered a 30-second standing ovation among the packed National City Christian Church in downtown Washington.
The 65-year-old priest is now the repository of hope for progressive Christians who want to reclaim their faith from conservative evangelicals. In fact, that was the name of the event Thursday — “Reclaiming Jesus.”
“This is our opportunity to say: ‘This is what we think. This is what we think Jesus says. We think [the conservative] interpretation is wrong. We love the Bible, too.’ And suddenly, in part because of the royal wedding, people are listening,” said Jim Naughton, a longtime communications consultant for faith-based groups including the Episcopal Church.
Judging from the event Thursday, which had been scheduled long before the royal wedding, Curry thinks he can thread a pretty thin needle. Every religion poll shows that Americans pulling back from affiliated life are often fed up with what they see as too much mixing of partisan politics and faith. But often that’s the GOP they’re talking about, polls show. Now Curry and a host of popular progressive Christian clergy want to march up to the White House, preach about lies and blocked refugees and white supremacy, and draw a neat line saying it’s not “political.”
“This is not a protest march!” Curry preached at the pre-vigil worship service at National City. “We are not a partisan group, we are not a left-wing group, we are not a right-wing group. We are a Jesus movement!”
Anyone using the word “march,” was quickly corrected by Curry or his staff. Yet even if the program and speakers never used the word “Trump,” the president and the negative forces unleashed by the 2016 election were all over the hour-long service.
“Racial bigotry is a brutal denial of the image of God. White nationalism and racism are in our nation on many fronts, including at the highest levels,” said Barbara Williams-Skinner, an activist and co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation prayer breakfast and one of the speakers at the service.
Tony Campolo, a sociologist and prominent progressive evangelical pastor, said: “We reject the language and politics of political leaders who would have growing attacks on immigrants and refugees. We won’t accept the neglect of the well-being of low-income families with children. I know it’s easy to get discouraged, but I’ve read the Bible, and I know how it ends. WE WIN!”
The Rev. Walter Brueggemann, hoping to drive home without names that the anti-Trump force is the Christian one, boomed, “We reject the pattern of lying that is invading our political and civil life. The way of Jesus is the truth.”
For his part, Curry says his role models for religion is public life are an odd couple: Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr. King, he said, focused on building a world where people wouldn’t get hurt and abandoned. Graham, he said, was all about finding out how people related to God. The goal is not to think in this binary way, public action or faith, but both, Curry told The Washington Post.
The events Thursday spun out of the work of a group of top progressive Christian clergy, including Curry.
The Rev. James Perra, an Episcopal priest outside Baltimore who has seen Curry preach in person and is now watching his trajectory from afar, said Thursday that it’s clear the bishop is going to “unabashedly capitalize on the moment.” Perra knows, he said, because the bishop is an evangelist.
While Curry has been known through his career for speaking up on issues including voting rights and gun control, people said he has been focused, since becoming presiding bishop over the Episcopal denomination, on evangelizing — for the end goal of having us all “reconciled with our Creator at the end of whatever this is,” Perra said.
Perra has a bumper sticker on his car with Curry’s words: “I’m from the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement.” To Perra, that’s about the idea that not everyone needs to be in lockstep on policies and strategies. They just need to be committed to the enduring love of Jesus.
Conservative evangelicals, Perra said, have built their public witness around specific policy objectives — traditional gender values and opposition to abortion, specifically — which is “an easier position” than the one he sees religious progressives in, with a broad array of priorities, and a “wide-eyed optimism, where we just want everyone to love.” That’s a harder movement to lead. It “does put [Curry] in a tricky position.”
Curry is working hard in his recent public appearances to emphasize inclusion across the political and demographic spectrum and to shift attention from positions on specific policy measures to doing what is broadly seen as morally right. Asked about the message sent by walking to the White House, he told The Post that the night was “for all of us, including the administration, Republicans, Democrats, independents, liberal, conservative — whomever you are, we’re going to go to the White House, and when we’re there, we’ll go in a silent candlelight procession. It’s not a protest march. We’re going as Christian people. And when we get there, we’re going to pray.”
This debate about what constitutes progressive faith values and how to activate those as a political force has been going on intensely since the early 2000s. There was agreement that people had ceded huge moral ground to the religious right and it needed to be taken back. The effectiveness of that campaign has waxed and waned.
Mike McCurry, who served as President Bill Clinton’s press secretary and now runs the Center for Public Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary, said he thought the Obama presidency years saw a dip in activism because the left controlled the White House and took on the mind-set of insider.
The election of Trump has pumped huge energy into the religious left, with a lot of agreement that topics like protecting immigrants and the environment and fighting white supremacy are core expressions of Christian justice.
But more than anything, said John Carr, a longtime policy advocate with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who now runs a center at Georgetown University on faith in public life, Curry and other faith leaders must make this period about Christian values — not party.
“By focusing on Trump … we miss the fact that he’s doing great damage to the safety net, to the environment,” Carr said. “We have to begin with our faith, not our politics. People don’t come to church for political expression. I think the story these days is not the rise of the religious left but the religious middle.”
Post video journalist Jon Gerberg contributed to this report.
Walter Brueggemann’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this report. This version has been corrected.