A three minute report by Ross on this subject ran earlier today on Good Morning America — John at Balloon Juice posted it, thank ya sir — and, at least for the moment, can be found on YouTube here:
Much of what’s in it has already been addressed, and as to be expected there’s some oversimplification at work. The new details via the first minute:
- A Rev. Howard Bess is interviewed, pastor for a local church called the Church of the Covenant, claiming “It wasn’t just simply a matter of her using the religious right to get elected — she was one of them.”
- Palin’s membership at the time in the Wasilla Assembly of God is noted.
- There’s a fairly vague claim that ‘around the time’ of Palin’s election, that church and ‘other conservative Christians’ were none too pleased about ‘certain books’ available both in bookstores and the library, mentioning two books in particular — Go Ask Alice and a book of Bess’s own, Pastor, I Am Gay.
- Bess is briefly interviewed again, saying “The whole thing of controlling information…censorship…that’s a part of the scene!”
From there the report discusses the council meeting where Palin asked Emmons directly about censorship, while Anne Kilkenny and Judy Patrick, a former deputy mayor for Wasilla and a Palin supporter, rehash some old ground (Kilkenny retells the story as quoted in the ADN article and elsewhere, Patrick says that Palin simply ‘inquired about the policy about removing books from the library’).
Needless to say I was immediately intrigued to learn more about Bess, and it turns out that he’s quite a well-known figure in the area, a recently retired Baptist minister who had actively preached for fifty years, and who confounds stereotypes of both what evangelicals and supporters of gay rights are ‘supposed’ to be like. This article from ADN from a couple of months ago, which I suspect is almost immediately going to be one of the most well-read things in the archive, presents a very positive view of him. To quote some of it:
In an interview Monday, he said he has several goals to keep him busy, such as helping convicts released from prison with housing and other needs, and developing a foundation that would seek support from longtime city residents to pay for city needs.
In addition to leading Church of the Covenant, Bess helped found Valley Christian Conference.
The broad coalition of churches oversees nonprofit organizations that provide housing for special-needs clients, resources for the mentally ill, funding for local charities and food for those who can’t afford groceries.
He’s also championed fair treatment in churches for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people in Alaska and across the nation.
He organized efforts to enliven Palmer’s economy and create new arts and cultural opportunities.
Belief in the church as an agent of social change is a concept Bess said he grasped early in his Fairbury, Ill., upbringing.
“I do believe the gospel is not just something you believe, but something you do,” Bess said.
Bess’s activism often bled into his role as a pastor and, more than once, landed him or his congregation in hot water.
It was while he was a pastor in Santa Barbara, Calif., in the 1960s and ’70s that he first championed fair treatment of gays and lesbians.
When a married man in his California congregation, at an office appointment, told Bess that he was homosexual, Bess said he worked to understand how to address the issue while remaining true to his beliefs, including that a minister must never reject someone.
He wrote a research paper and read it to his congregation, aware he was taking a big risk.
“What happened was more people started coming out of the closet,” he said.
…(the Church of the Covenant) gained notoriety when Bess’s book, “Pastor, I Am Gay” was published. The church was kicked out, or “disfellowshipped,” of the American Baptist Churches of Alaska.
But thanks to connections Bess had with the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., the church stayed under the umbrella of the larger organization.
“I can’t speak for other members. I just know that to me, it seemed to fit in with the philosophy of being American Baptist,” said Sarah Welton, a Matanuska-Susitna Borough School Board member and daughter of an American Baptist minister.
“We’re supposed to have the freedom to choose to interpret the Bible, as long as we’ve done our study.”
Welton said Bess’s stance on social justice issues, and his willingness to welcome everyone into his church, drew her in.
That’s not to say the group is a bunch of radicals. People are surprised at how traditional the services are, Welton said.
Covington said a Sunday morning study group is more free-thinking, sometimes reviewing books and other times using current events to spark discussion about how congregants can help their communities.
Meanwhile, an article published by Bess a year after his book was published is quite striking reading. I will quote some of it at length:
I am an evangelical Christian. I use that word, not in the context of present national political divisions, but in the context of a particular movement in the Protestant Reformation. We evangelicals believe our tradition is firmly rooted in the Bible.
We evangelicals have seen enough transformed lives that our confidence is unshakable. It is this mindset that is brought to the homosexual phenomenon.
Without question the dominant evangelical Christian opinion of homosexuality is that it is a perversion of the intent of the Creator. The homosexual is a sinner by definition and any same sex action is sin. It is entirely understandable to this evangelical person why a transforming experience with Jesus Christ ought to be considered the solution to such a perversion of creation as homosexual attractions and expressions.
It is a shock to such an evangelical Christian when dramatic conversion does not work with a homosexual person.
To further understand the tensions between evangelicals and the homosexual population, a person must grasp the importance of the Bible to an evangelical. The typical evangelical has rejected most if not all forms of hierarchical church authority. Authority rests in the local congregation–and the Bible is the tangible source of that authority. Evangelicals pride themselves in being people of the Bible. They are not easily influenced by psychological, sociological, or biological discussions or studies.
If evangelicals in any significant numbers are to rethink their determination to address homosexual orientation by dramatic conversion, two things must happen. First, we each must engage in honest discussion of all pertinent Bible material. Christians who do not hold a high view of scriptural inspiration and authority will never be an active part of the discussions. If there is an appearance that the authority of the Bible is being undermined, evangelicals will leave the discussion table. However, within evangelicalism there has always been healthy debate about the interpretation of the Scriptures. Evangelicals are not theologically monolithic. I believe many evangelicals are ready to talk about the Bible, theology, and sexuality. Now we need people who are kind in nature, gentle in spirit, and gracious in discussion to provide leadership so that the conversations can begin.
Second, honest discussion must begin to happen about a very sensitive area: homosexual lifestyles. Is there such a thing as a healthy Christian same–sex lifestyle? No progress will be made until communication is established between evangelicals and gay and lesbian Christian couples who are living in long term, committed, healthy relationships. Such couples are tightly closeted. They leave their closets of safety at great peril. Who will create the opportunities for sharing that will not hurt such couples and at the same time respect the concerns of evangelicals?
American evangelicals are not bigots, as some of my gay and lesbian friends perceive. Gay and lesbian persons are not evil people, as most evangelicals perceive. Each group needs desperately to be talking with the other.
I believe that tens of thousands of gay and lesbian couples are living in virtuous, healthy partnerships that can be honestly affirmed by evangelical, Bible–believing Christians. Further, the evangelical tradition is a rich expression of vital Christianity. It is my tradition. The possibilities are marvelous, if only communication can be established.
I admit I initially wondered upon seeing this report if Bess simply had an axe to grind. I’ve no doubt, especially based on the news article, that he takes a very active role in these matters and in those of the community, and as I noted earlier, the conflict between Emmons and Palin can be one simply of strong personalities at play. Bess seems no less strong or forthright.
Yet — if I may say — Bess strikes me as someone who has not made his decisions and conclusions lightly, and who is both well aware that his conclusions are not those shared by many in his wider theological community but does not believe that any ground is gained by shutting either their concerns, as he phrases it, or those of the other side out. Communication and greater understanding appears to be the highest goal. And I do find that very admirable — and a wider object-lesson, not least for myself.
In the meantime, there’s still more to learn…but I will conclude with a selection from a piece that Bess published in the Frontiersman last year, which further confirms that he takes a very long, considered view on issues both of faith and good citizenship. Whatever is going to be said about him, and I fear there will be a lot of attention he’s about to receive, not all of it polite, he cannot easily be placed into a box:
Recently the editor of Christianity Today, David Neff, and four other high profile Evangelical leaders spent time with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rice freely identifies herself as an Evangelical Christian. I have no idea whether Secretary Rice has given the same access to Roman Catholics, to Latter-day Saints or to mainline Protestant religious leaders. At this particular meeting only Evangelical leaders were present.
Is this an infringement on church-state separation? Not at all. Evangelical leaders have the same right of full participation in the public square as does the National Rifle Association and the American Federation of Labor.
I commend Neff for pulling off such a meeting. He and his cohorts were entirely within their rights to be there.
Churches have a political restriction. Churches cannot be involved in partisan politics or support particular candidates for public office. This restriction has nothing to do with First Amendment issues. Churches are nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations. That exemption and the rules of nonpolitical activity come from the IRS, not the First Amendment. Their tax exemption is no different than that of the Mat-Su Miners, the Palmer Arts Council or the Palmer Skateboard Association.
The real tragedy in the present political campaign is that Americans have so little understanding of separation we tolerate asking candidates religious questions when they run for office in this clearly secular nation. The best answer to religious questions asked of a political candidate is, “none of your business.”
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