Washington, DC
RNS

Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, captivated a global audience earlier this month when roughly 1.9 billion people tuned in to watch the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The Most Rev Curry’s charismatic, love-centered homily during the service sparked a media blitz that rocketed him to stardom and landed him interviews at virtually every major American news network.

At a time when both political and spiritual matters are often marked by division, the praise for his sermon — which focused on Jesus’ message of love — was a rare moment of unity.

Curry 1

Bishop Michael Curry, centre, leads an interfaith march during a Reclaiming Jesus event in Washington on 24th May. PICTURE: Jack Jenkins/RNS

But when Bishop Curry ascended to a pulpit again less than a week later on 24th May, it was in a very different context. He was standing in the front of National City Christian Church in downtown Washington, where a crowd of more than 1,000 eagerly awaited his short sermon. The event, headed by a bevy of liberal-leaning Christians, was organised to promote a “Reclaiming Jesus” proclamation in which he and various signers declared, among other things, that President Trump’s campaign slogan “America First” was “a theological heresy.”

The audience erupted before Bishop Curry could utter a word, with members leaping to their feet in a pre-emptive 30-second standing ovation.

"We are not partisan group. We are not a left-wing group. We are not a right-wing group. We are a Jesus movement.”

- Bishop Michael Curry, speaking in front of the National City Christian Church in Washington on 24th May.

It was a dramatic example of how Bishop Curry’s fame is being celebrated by the religious left. But while his ascendancy has coincided with a surge of activism against the Trump administration by religious liberals, questions remain as to whether Bishop Curry will use his newfound global influence to bolster their cause, pursue a broader audience or both.

In Washington, Bishop Curry argued the Reclaiming Jesus statement was itself unifying.

“We are not partisan group. We are not a left-wing group. We are not a right-wing group. We are a Jesus movement,” he declared to raucous applause. He said the event was rooted in the call to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” be that neighbour Republican, Democrat, black, white, Latino or LGBTQ.

“Bishop Curry has now become the love bishop,” said Rev Angela Brown, an attendee at the event and pastor at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. “(His wedding sermon) was very good for me...I just needed to know that love still matters to people...that love is what is going to get us through all of this madness.”

Bishop Curry’s recent conversations with the press do tend to center on Jesus and love. The bishop often pairs inflections of social justice-centered theology with appeals to a broader religious audience, such as when he lifts up his two models for public theology: famed civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr, and evangelist Billy Graham.

“It may be that Billy Graham helped us to understand how to draw closer to and love God through his evangelism, and Dr King helped us understand how do we draw closer to loving our neighbor through social justice and service,” Bishop Curry said in a recent interview with RNS. “It’s the same gospel, just different methodologies and approaches.”

Whether Curry will be able to use that message to bridge the various divides in today’s America remains an open question. Marie Griffith, a professor at Washington University in St Louis and director of the John C Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, said Bishop Curry’s exemplars - while cordial with each other in their time - had followings that rarely overlapped.

“In King’s lifetime, very few Americans were really true fans of both those men,” said Prof Griffith, author of the book Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics.

Griffith

Professor Marie Griffith. PICTURE: Randall Kahn via Washington University in St Louis

Prof Griffith explained that while Bishop Curry “looks to be someone who might be able to pull those groups together,” uniting people of faith across political differences presents major challenges. She said a hypothetical alliance of conservatives and liberals rallied by the bishop “may flounder...on economic issues.”

Bishop Curry’s affiliation with the Reclaiming Jesus event is already triggering responses from conservative faith leaders close to Trump. Johnnie Moore, the de facto spokesman of Mr Trump’s unofficial evangelical advisory board, acknowledged the event in a statement, saying faith leaders should focus on “common good” and calling Bishop Curry “a good man” but “a classic liberal in his theology.”

Fellow Trump faith adviser and Texas pastor Rev Robert Jeffress, who is represented by Rev Moore’s communications firm, was far more direct in his criticism during an interview with Fox Business Networks’ Lou Dobbs.

“I think Bishop Curry and these other pastors are sincere, but they’re sincerely wrong,” Rev Jeffress said, arguing Biblical commandments regarding charity are directed toward individuals, not governments. “I think instead of protesting tonight, these pastors ought to be having a prayer meeting and thanking God that we have a president like Donald J Trump, who is willing to do whatever it takes...to fulfill his God-given responsibility of protecting this country.”

“I’m not sure [Bishop Curry’s fame] changes the way he interacts with those political moments, but it does change the way other people interact with those political moments."

- Rev Kelly Brown Douglas, a theology professor and dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary.

Criticism from the religious right may also stem from having to share the national stage with the more liberal Bishop Curry. Rev Kelly Brown Douglas, a theology professor and dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, argued the bishop’s prominence has the potential to raise the profile of faith voices outside of conservative Christianity.

“I’m not sure [Bishop Curry’s fame] changes the way he interacts with those political moments, but it does change the way other people interact with those political moments,” said Rev Douglas, who has known Bishop Curry for years and attended the Reclaiming Jesus event. He is “also challenging the church to be church...Are we going to leave him out there, or are we going to join him?”

Bishop Curry was joined on stage in Washington by a cadre of prominent leaders whom organisers called “elders” - activist pastors, bishops and theologians - largely assembled by Rev Jim Wallis, head of the Christian social-justice advocacy group Sojourners. Rev Wallis lauded Bishop Curry’s sermon several times during various interviews, saying, “God used a royal wedding to have the gospel preached probably to the largest audience at one time.”

Bishop Curry’s fellow elders also acknowledged the unusual nature of conservatives reacting to his activism, as recent years have seen figures on the religious right largely ignore the arguments of liberal faith leaders. Shortly before a press conference on 25th May, several gathered around the presiding bishop to chatter excitedly about Rev Jeffress’ Fox News segment.

Bishop Curry laughed off Rev Jeffress’ comments. Bishop Curry’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the subject. And it certainly hasn’t dissuaded him from participating in political conversations.

“I really do believe that if we will commit to the way of love, this unselfish way of living, that we would have a different politics,” he told RNS. “A different way of doing business and economics...a different way of relating to each other. I just want to be able to help that to happen.”

“I really do believe that if we will commit to the way of love, this unselfish way of living, that we would have a different politics.”

Curry 2

Bishop Michael Curry, right, speaks at a Reclaiming Jesus event in Washington on 24th May, 2018. PICTURE: Jack Jenkins/RNS

He went on to insist that Dr King and Rev Graham “shared a similar message” with “two different methodologies...one more evangelism, the other more social justice.”

“The same Jesus (who) at the end of Matthew’s Gospel says ‘go make disciples of all nations and baptise them and teach them everything I’ve taught you’ is the same Jesus who in Matthew 2 talks about feeding the hungry and caring for the naked and visiting those who are alone, (and) is the same Jesus who in Matthew 5-7 in the Sermon on the Mount talks about loving your enemies and talks about blessed are the poor and the poor in spirit and the persecuted,” he said.

Bishop Curry also appeared on MSNBC over Memorial Day weekend alongside Rev William Barber II, arguably the most prominent modern religious left activist. Rev Barber is co-leading the Poor People’s Campaign, a 40-day initiative to draw attention to issues such as systemic racism and poverty. The Episcopal Church is a partner in the campaign. Rev Barber echoed the presiding bishop’s love-rooted rhetoric when discussing issues of income inequality and health care.

Still, observers note the religious left’s profile began rising long before Bishop Curry gave his sermon. Rev Wallis, an evangelical and longtime fixture of  conversations about religion and politics, pointed out that the Reclaiming Jesus website received one million views prior to the royal wedding.

“It’s a Pentecostal energy,” Rev Wallis said, noting the event - and Bishop Curry’s role in it - were also planned before the wedding.

Several implied that Bishop Curry’s rhetoric, while cast as liberal theologically and politically by Mr Trump’s advisers, is precisely what triggered his success alongside people such as Rev Barber and Rev Wallis.

“His message has filled a hole, responded to a hunger that people have had,” Prof Douglas said, saying public discourse involving faith has long been monopolised by conservative Christians. She noted that Americans are not only captivated by Bishop Curry, but also by his message.

Bishop Curry’s meteoric rise and media savvy have allowed him to occupy spaces of influence other liberal Christians have only dreamed of. Fox News representatives noted he appeared on the network last week, for example, and confirmed to RNS that Bishop Curry has been asked to be a guest on Fox & Friends, a morning news discussion show frequently watched by Mr Trump.

Ultimately, Prof Griffith said, Bishop Curry’s success is a window into the evolving nature of the religious left and also offers a hint at why both the movement and Bishop Curry have been ascendant under Trump. But it remains to be seen how long Bishop Curry will be able to make the most of his moment.

“In a month, will people who watched Bishop Curry be able to remember his name, what the message was, or what all the fuss was about?” she said. “That’s the question: Is this sustainable over time? And there is no way to predict that.”

Correction: This article originally referred to Fox News' Lou Dobbs. It has been corrected to Fox Business Network's Lou Dobbs.