We speak with Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and the first African American to lead the denomination, about systemic racism and the Black Lives Matter movement, the 2020 election and President Trump’s use of faith as a political prop. “The church must not be used for partisan political purposes,” Curry says. “The faith, the Christian faith, is not up for sale.” Curry’s latest book is “Love Is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
The U.S. coronavirus death toll officially passed 200,000 this week. On Sunday, the Washington National Cathedral of the Episcopal Church marked the sobering milestone by tolling its bell 200 times, once for every thousand lives lost.
Well, to discuss those lives lost and the extraordinary circumstances the nation faces today, we spend the rest of the hour with Bishop Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the first African American to lead the denomination. Bishop Curry is the descendant of enslaved Africans, the son of the late civil rights activist Reverend Kenneth Curry.
Bishop Curry gained worldwide recognition when he delivered a sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018, where he preached about slavery, poverty, and the enduring power of love. On that day, he later said in an interview he could, quote, “feel slaves around the place,” and “it was like their voice was somehow heard that day.”
Bishop Michael Curry was previously the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, a swing state that President Trump visited just yesterday for the fifth time this month to campaign. Bishop Michael Curry joins us now from Raleigh in this key battleground state of North Carolina.
We thank you so much for joining us, Bishop Curry. Your new book is Love Is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times. Bishop Curry, welcome to Democracy Now! Do you think love is enough?
BISHOP MICHAEL CURRY: Well, without love, we won’t make it. With love, we will. But love by itself, obviously, is not enough. But we need love, because love not only — and again, I’m not talking about love as a sentiment; I’m talking about love as a personal and moral commitment to a particular way of living, a way of living that is unselfish, even sacrificial, a way of living that seeks the good and the welfare and the well-being of others, as well as the self. That’s the kind of love that you see in the New Testament teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, that he learned from the Hebrew Scriptures, from Moses.
That’s the kind of love, if you will, that you see when Jesus encountered a lawyer, and they talked about — the lawyer came and said, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said, “What did Moses say in the law? Love God, and love your neighbor.” Jesus said, “That’s it. Do that, and you will live. You will find life.” The lawyer came back — he was a lawyer, so he comes back, and he said, “But could we more narrowly define who is my neighbor?” And that was the point at which Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, of someone who helped someone else who was of a different ethnic group, probably a different set of politics, someone who was of a different religious take on their religious community, someone who was different, someone who was the other. And this man helped that other person simply because they were a brother, a fellow child of God, made in God’s image and likeness. And Jesus says, “Who was neighbor to that man?” And the guy says, “Well, the one who helped him out.” And Jesus says, “Go and do thou likewise.”
The love that I’m talking about is a love that is for the other, as well as the self, that is for God and for all of us. It is a love that seeks to create and make a better world, a more humane world, a more just world. Without that commitment to love, then all the practical details won’t work. But with that commitment, we can find a way to solve our problems together, to bring everybody together, bipartisan, across the aisle, ecumenical, interfaith, all races, all stripes and types, because we share one moral commitment: to seek the good of others, as well as ourselves.
AMY GOODMAN: Bishop Curry, what about President Trump refusing to say — refusing to commit to a peaceful transition of power?
BISHOP MICHAEL CURRY: Well, let me just say this. I am an American. I love America, and I believe in America’s democracy. And in this democracy, there is a peaceful transition of power. That is one of the cornerstones, one of the great heritages — heritage of this country. And so, we must all stand for that. You have to ask President Trump what he was talking about. Let me tell you what I’m talking about. I’m talking about American democracy.
And American democracy — and this doesn’t have to do with red or blue. This is not about Republican, Democrat or independent. This is about, we actually — can I tell you something? One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that we actually share more values than we disagree about. And if we can claim those values, one of which is the — are the basic principles of being a democratic republic, of democracy. Some of those values are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men” — all people — “are created equal.” That’s a value of this country. The Gettysburg Address, that contains values of this country. You can go through the pantheon of this country, above the columns of the Supreme Court: “Equal justice under the law.” If we will stand together for the values that we share, we will find enough common ground to debate and decide and to solve our problems. And that’s democracy. And that’s America.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about what happened in May. During the national uprising against police brutality, National Guard and police officers dressed in riot gear fired tear gas, rubber bullets, flashbangs to disperse peaceful protesters across from the White House in Lafayette Square. Moments later, President Donald Trump walked through the cleared park to have his photo taken with a Bible in front of your church, St. John’s Episcopal Church, often called “the Church of the Presidents,” which was boarded up. When he returned to the White House, Trump refused to take questions from reporters as he pumped his fist and posed for another photo op. This is what he said.
REPORTER 1: Was this your idea, Mr. President?
JIM ACOSTA: Do you have a word for the protesters that were tear-gassed so you could make that trip, Mr. President? Protesters were tear-gassed.
REPORTER 2: Mr. President, what are you doing about excessive police use of force?
JIM ACOSTA: Mr. President, is this still a democracy?
AMY GOODMAN: Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C., immediately denounced Trump’s actions. This is what she said on the PBS NewsHour explaining why she spoke out.
BISHOP MARIANN EDGAR BUDDE: It was a confluence of events in the very short period of time when the images of the president, following the dispersal of the crowds that you mentioned, following his extremely inflammatory, to my ears, remarks in the Rose Garden, and then bringing himself and his entourage into our sacred space, using it as a backdrop and holding the Bible, as if to put on the mantle of religious authority or blessing of what he had just said and done. And I felt it was urgent to remove that association as quickly as possible and to state our position in faithfulness to the gospel as we understand it.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Episcopal Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde. You’re the presiding bishop of the entire Episcopal Church. Your thoughts on the use of your church in this way?
BISHOP MICHAEL CURRY: Well, let me say it this way, and I said it at the time. It doesn’t matter to me whether it is a Democrat or a Republican in the White House. It doesn’t matter to me which side of the aisle someone is on. The church must not be used for partisan political purposes. The faith, the Christian faith, is not up for sale to anybody, left or right, Democrat or Republican. And so, the use of the church building, without anybody — we didn’t know about it, the bishop of Washington didn’t know about it, the pastor of the parish didn’t know about it — that is just simply wrong. And the use of the Holy Scriptures for partisan purposes by anybody — by any partisan purposes by anybody, that is wrong. And it is wrong to remove peaceful protesters.
I say all of that — if the president had gone across and asked the pastor of the church, “Can I go in and say a prayer for the country? We’ve got some problems,” or if he had gone across and just simply said to the cameras, “I know you all — there are people who disagree with me, and there are people who agree with me, but we’re all Americans, and we need to pray for our country,” I couldn’t object to that. That’s fine. That’s spiritual, moral leadership. But to use the church, the faith of Christianity or anybody’s religion, as far as I’m concerned, for partisan political purposes is inappropriate and wrong.
Now, having said all of that, though, we’ve got to move beyond that. We have got to find a way in this country to work together, to exercise our vote, to go out and vote, and vote your values. I believe that. Vote your values. Somebody said, “Do you mean — what about people who don’t share your values?” That’s their right in this democratic society. Everybody must go out and vote. Vote for your values on propositions, for the candidates of your choice.
But here’s what we must do, more importantly. And this gets back to the importance of the love that I’m talking about. We must find ways to come together and actually acknowledge and get to know each other as people. And don’t think that that’s mere sentiment. Bill Bishop, in that book The Big Sort, talks about how America has basically resegregated itself. People listen to news media that give them reinforcement of the views they already hold. People who watch MSNBC do not watch Fox News, in all likelihood, and vice versa. My point is, we have actually — people who live in various ZIP codes, we know there are blue ZIP codes, and there are red ZIP codes, and there are a couple of purple ones and different ones. But people live together with people they already agree with. We must find a way to come together as people with differences, first on common ground, that we’re all children of God, no matter who we are.
AMY GOODMAN: Bishop Curry —
BISHOP MICHAEL CURRY: And then — yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to get in a few other questions. And one of them, Scientific American, which hadn’t done this in its entire 150-year history, endorsed a presidential candidate. What can we expect from religious leaders?
BISHOP MICHAEL CURRY: Religious leaders are moral leaders, and we must articulate the moral values that we stand and believe in. We believe first in the moral value, in the primacy of unselfish, sacrificial love. We believe that all men, all people, are created equal. Genesis 1 says that. We are created in the image of God equally. And that means, for me, if we are equal in the eyes of God, we must all be equal in the eyes of the law, and we must all be treated equally as children of God. That means that there are moral — that moral principle governs a lot.
AMY GOODMAN: But will — Bishop, will religious leaders be taking a stand together?
BISHOP MICHAEL CURRY: Now, that — I mean, you know how many religious leaders there are? There are — I’m sure there’s a diversity of opinion among religious leaders on how to live out those values. But I think those values are clear. There are some who wouldn’t agree with me. Well, I can’t change their mind, but I stand on the values of love, equality, human dignity. That means that I don’t support policies that separate children from their parents at the border of this country. I don’t support policies that do not respect the rights and grant equality to all people in this country, regardless of their race, class, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, that we are all equal. That is a value that I believe must be in public policy.
AMY GOODMAN: Bishop Curry —
BISHOP MICHAEL CURRY: So, I’m a moral leader.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the amazing sermon you gave at the royal wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, in which you preached about slavery, poverty, the enduring power of love. Earlier this year, the couple resigned from the royal family, essentially. Afua Hirsch wrote a piece in The New York Times titled “Black Britons Know Why Meghan Markle Wants Out: It’s the racism.” She writes, “From the first headline about her being '(almost) straight outta Compton' and having 'exotic' DNA, the racist treatment of Meghan has been impossible to ignore. Princess Michael of Kent wore an overtly racist brooch in the duchess’s company. A BBC host compared the couple’s newborn baby to a chimpanzee.” Do you think that they were forced out of the church, that they took this stand — or, that they were forced out of the royal family, that they took this stand to protest racism?
BISHOP MICHAEL CURRY: You know, the answer is, I don’t know. Let me tell you what I do know. What I do know is that we, in this country — because I don’t know all the details of Britain, but I know the United States of America. And I know that we have some issues of racism that we must address, that are deeply entrenched in our history. And we have to face those issues in that past.
The reality of what’s going on right now, with the Breonna Taylor situation, this woman who was innocent and she was gunned down, or George Floyd — and it goes back to Emmett Till. We’ve got some issues that are long-standing, that have deep roots in racism in this country. And we must face those questions now and work together to find the reforms and the changes that will be necessary to right the wrongs, and then also to create the kind of community among us where there is room and space for all of us — Black, white, Brown, Indigenous, Asian — all of us.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. Bishop Curry, thank you so much for being with us, the first African American bishop of the Episcopal Church. I’m Amy Goodman.