Rob Schenck is an evangelical minister, activist and public theologian. For many years, Schenck was involved with Christian nationalism and was known for his aggressive opposition to legal abortion. Schenck’s views are now much more moderate.
“I live with regret,” Schenck told NPR in 2018. “I remember women – some of them quite young – being very distraught, very frightened, some very angry. Over time, I became very callous to that.”
Schenck’s memoir, Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love, tells the story of his transformation from strident Religious Right activist to moral theologian. He now runs the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute in Washington, D.C. You can learn more about him at www.revrobschenck.com.
Schenck was interviewed recently by Church & State Editor Rob Boston.
Q. I’ve known you for several years and have even debated you on Fox News. You were closely identified with the Religious Right for many years and took conservative stands on issues such as abortion, LGBTQ rights, the role of religion in public life and others. Your views have clearly changed. So, my first question is an obvious one: What happened?
Schenck: For most of my adult life, I could not admit to anyone that I harbored any doubt about what I professed to believe – in terms of faith, social sensibilities or political positions. My community viewed certitude as a cardinal virtue. On the other hand, doubt was seen as infidelity to God; in other words, as sin. The truth was, I did harbor doubt in all three areas.
Over time, I could no longer resist my own conscience. Then I met the remarkable Abigail Disney, the businesswoman, philanthropist and filmmaker, who respectfully asked me, “How is it that you pro-life evangelicals are so pro-gun? You decry abortion, but you embrace the NRA and popular gun culture. You’re the most likely subgroup of Americans to own a firearm. Why is that?” The question haunted me. When she challenged me to investigate that reality on camera, I took the dare. I knew it would cost me, but it seemed the safest doubt to pursue. It was in that context I began looking at the politicization of American evangelicalism, eventually incorporating that investigation into a late-in-life doctoral dissertation. My research included examining the complicity of the German Evangelical Church in the racist and mass-murdering Nazi regime. The parallels between what happened there and then with what was happening here and now were striking. It really shook my social, political and even theological certainty.
Q. What sort of reaction do you get from your former allies in the Religious Right these days? Do they even talk to you?
Schenck: Some do talk to me, but it’s mostly from a cool distance to an outright contempt. Many see me as a traitor, turncoat, heretic or fool. I have tried to preserve my friendships, even with those with whom I now vehemently disagree, because, after all, I was one of them. As the hackneyed adage puts it, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Their hearts and minds are simply still located where mine once were, which helps me not only understand them, but feel some sort of empathy, or, at least, a concern for them.
Q. In your book Costly Grace, you wrote, “[I] saw how expansive God’s grace is and how universal his invitation is to it. I no longer believe you’re excluded if you’re homosexual, or if you’ve had an abortion, or if you perform them.” What sort of interactions have you had with the LGBTQ community and reproductive rights activists in recent years? Have you sought forgiveness?
Schenck: I have. I started privately, careful not to insult or add to the pain I had already inflicted on my interlocutors and many more. I was a little more visible when I apologized and asked the pardon of Bishop Gene Robinson, whom I met at the headquarters of the Human Rights Campaign in Washington. Since then, I’ve enjoyed new friendships with LGBTQ+ folks, including a close working relationship with my colleague and professional partner at The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, Rev. Hope Christensen.
Q. Tell us about your work at the Bonhoeffer Institute. What are your goals? What can Americans learn from the legacy of Bonhoeffer?
Schenck: Bonhoeffer was a young, brilliant and brave church leader in Nazi-era Germany who challenged the racialized dictatorship of Adolf Hitler and paid for it with his life. But before he was killed, Bonhoeffer left us a wonderful corpus of literary material on ethics, moral philosophy and the proper role of the church in society. We use his insights to help shape ethically courageous leaders to meet similar challenges today, and we curate what we call prophetic voices who are already speaking effectively to these issues. We chose Bonhoeffer because he is equally admired by liberals and conservatives, left and right, traditionalists and progressives.
Q. Consider the state of evangelical Christianity in America. Donald Trump’s support among white evangelical Christians actually increased between the 2016 and 2020 elections. Yet this is a man who is clearly biblically illiterate and hardly a paragon of moral virtue. How do you explain this?
Schenck: It’s not easy to explain because it has a long and tortured history. The lead-up to Trump was, arguably, 40-50 years in the making, and has to do with the increasing politicization, cooptation and demoralization of evangelical voters.
I think there are three streams that contributed to the Trump-evangelical tsunami. The first is the massive amount of advocacy mail and other media consumed by evangelicals over the last several decades. Hundreds of millions of communiques go out every year employing a simplistic story arc using liberal villains and conservative heroes and meant to gin up fear and anger, which is good for pulling in big dollars and turn out lots of votes. The second is the naivete of the evangelical electorate, which makes them very gullible. Critical thinking, curiosity, skepticism, even broad reading are not virtues, but vices in many sectors of evangelicalism. That sets you up to be easily bamboozled. Finally, there’s a toxic element within the evangelical belief system, and that’s the predilection for controlling, dominating, instructing others. When you combine that with political influence and, when successful, control over the levers actuating the coercive power of the state, that becomes a shortcut to achieving ends that should come only through moral suasion. Compounding this is the resultant lust for power, which becomes insatiable.
Q. A Washington, D.C., police officer testifying before Congress about the Jan. 6 insurrection spoke of seeing people in the mob who “perceived themselves to be Christians.” I was struck by that language. What went through your head that day as you saw the symbols of a faith you love being pressed into the service of insurrection and violence?
Schenck: I found it abhorrent, disheartening, outrageous and lamentable. At the same time, it confirmed what I have been saying about the demoralization of American evangelicalism. Jan. 6, and the subsequent evangelical support for the insurrectionists, is more than heretical, it’s really a form of apostasy. American evangelicals have rejected the model, method and ministry of Jesus Christ, who is called “the author and finisher of our faith.” I believe the support for Trump and the violence at the U.S. Capitol indicate a moral collapse in American evangelicalism, perhaps a fatal one. If we recover from this spiritual crisis, it will only be after a very long and painful process.
Q. The country seems to be hopelessly polarized. Millions of Americans believe Joe Biden didn’t actually win the election. We have been unable to work together to defeat COVID. Bizarre conspiracy theories such as QAnon roil religious and secular communities. Is there any hope for unity in a country so fragmented?
Schenck: Yes, I think there is. It can only happen, though, if we speak with one another frankly, honestly and without equivocation about what is happening to us. We also must call out those who are instigating it, exploiting it and profiting from it. In the end, though, I think we will not heal substantially until a new generation of religious, political and civil society leaders are firmly in place and the older generation has faded. I tend to be pessimistic on this point in the short term, but I am optimistic in the long term.
Q. It is inevitable that religion and politics will interact to some extent. In your view, what is the proper way for this to happen?
Schenck: Yes, because religion will always inform the moral sensibilities of voters and the people they vote into office, and that’s what I see as the key to the proper place of religion, vis-à-vis public policy.
Churches and other centers of religious life are not designed or meant to conduct political business, nor are parties of other political structures designed or meant to conduct religious life or practice. The influence of religion on politics should be indirect, general and temporary. Whenever it’s been other than that, no matter when or where, it has proved catastrophic.
Q. Americans United is a coalition of religious believers and non-theistic people. What would you say especially to the latter group, who often feel like second-class citizens in a nation where religiosity remains high, religion often plays a ceremonial role at the seat of government and the Supreme Court seems bound and determined to lower the church-state wall?
Schenck: First, nothing about theism makes for a better person. In fact, religion can actually produce a much worse person than non-theism does. The same is true of the wider society. When it comes to Christians, our faith should only result in our awareness of our own shortcomings, not the shortcomings of others. Sanctimoniousness is the antithesis of what Christ taught and modeled. As a country, I think we need to work much harder to reinforce the neutral, secular, certainly non-sectarian nature of the Constitution, government and American ethos. Theistic faith does not make for a better citizen. We must be much better at articulating the universal virtues that do make for a better citizenry.
Q. Is there anything you would like to add?
Schenck: I have deep regrets for much of what I perpetrated during the 30 years I spent on the Religious Right, but, I believe it’s never too late to correct a mistake. All of us have time – maybe a little, or maybe a lot – to change and to help change things around us. If we all do even a little to improve the world around us, we can make a big difference for the good. That’s what I’m trying to do, and I intend to keep trying for the rest of my life.