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Indigo Girls’ Emily Saliers on Reforming Religion, Why Trump Must Be Stopped

Singer-songwriter and her father discuss Methodist Church policies against LGBT people

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Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers performed a concert in Portland, Oregon, to support Reconciling Ministries' efforts to change United Methodist Church policies.

Jeremy Cowart

The United Methodist Church’s top policy-making body continues to discuss a number of issues concerning the church during its general conference in Portland, Oregon. Among them is the idea of permitting same-sex couples to marry and the ordination of gay clergy. Last week, more than 100 ordained ministers of the church came out as gay, openly defying their denomination’s ban, by signing a document in an act of civil disobedience. 

Reconciling Ministries Network, an activist group that’s advocating for the UMC to change the law in its Book of Discipline that prohibits the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” and to make the church more inclusive to LGBT people, organized a sold-out protest concert that took place this past Friday that featured the Indigo Girls. Both members of the beloved indie folk rock duo, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, grew up Methodist, and they called the event “one big love-fest,” performing hits “Galileo,” “Shame on You” and “Closer to Fine.”

In an act of solidarity, Emily and her father, Don Saliers – a theology professor, liturgical composer and active member of the UMC – are performing a separate concert together. The father and daughter spoke to Rolling Stone about why it’s important for the church to evolve in its teachings, why music activism is essential and the reason it’s imperative that we don’t get used to Donald Trump’s hateful words.

Why do you think LGBT rights is still an issue that people struggle with? Even with so much progress being made, there are obviously still groups that haven’t come around, especially within religious communities.
Don Saliers: Let me speak first as a clergy-type, someone who’s in the church and who teaches theology. It’s very clear that it has not been solved. There are persons within all the denominations, but particularly in the United Methodist Church, who are dead set against persons who would be ordained. There is also language in the official legal documents of the UMC that is clearly anti-gay and anti-queer. So looking at it from the inside, as one who is in the church and complicit in this injustice, it’s important to resist and protest and see change come.

Emily Saliers: I have my own struggles. My dad and I wrote a book about music and justice called A Song to Sing, A Life to Live. I had a lot of fear about even getting close to anything that was organized religion, partly because of all the suffering many of my queer, gay friends [endured] at the hands of organized religion. People do want to experience their faith through the avenues of organized religions, but they aren’t accepted and there’s a terrible pain. I saw that and said, “I can’t even write this book because I don’t want to get close to that.” Dad has really helped me understand the complexity of the way the church is set up, the structures of church.

But there’s a lot of suffering about religion and identity. Now that things are coming into the light socially, we see [this] in the political realm, with North Carolina’s updated law, and all the protesting against that.

You had a presidential candidate, Ted Cruz, saying, “Donald Trump dresses up like Hillary Clinton – he still can’t use the little girls’ room.” Well, that’s absurd, and he lacks real education about issues.

Everybody knows what the oppressive part of the church is, but not as many people are as aware of the fundamentally life-affirming and augmenting experience of the progressive church. That’s the part of the church that I grew up with and loved. I want to [show] people that this part of the church exists as well. There’s not just one kind of Christian or its works – the Bible, or whatever sacred works. That’s part of the exploration of this for me.

You touched on something thatI wanted to ask you about. Georgia almost passed a law that would have infringed on civil rights of LGBT people, and North Carolina and Mississippi have both already done so. Some are even calling this a “Confederate Spring” in the South. Will this performance and demonstration address this in some way, and is religion fundamentally attached to these actions?
Don: No, religion doesn’t have to be fundamentally attached it. You know what this reminds me of is the notion of strict constitutionalism: “If it says in the rule book, God said it, then I believe in it.” That sort of fundamentalism that we see in the political realm. Here’s how I would put it, as someone inside the church’s language. Whatever happened to the prophetic side of religious faith that we saw in a Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King? Like Dan Berrigan, who just died, and his civil disobedience protesting the Vietnam War.

For me, as an insider so to speak, I’m interested to the church’s own awakening to its own traditions, its own Jewish and Christian prophetic tradition that are alive and well. And I think, in terms of Methodism now, I think there are a lot of people who don’t undrestand the traditions. With United Methodism, there’s an appeal to the work that John and Charles Wesley did in the 18th century. They were essentially social prophets. They went into the mines and outside the Church of England and were interested in singing in places that were outside the church.

There’s a connection with Emily and me as well, since both of us are musicians – one coming from the outside and one from the inside – so that’s another reason why we’re at the general conference.

Can you tell me why you think music is important in this context, as a form of activism? 
It seems to me that any significant social movement in the history of human kind, it relies on music, it relies on song. The civil-rights movement: “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” “We Shall Overcome.” South Africa and the anti-apartheid movement. Any deep social movement has music at its heart because music is a unifier and a motivator.

Emily: I think music stirred our spirits and makes us feel good. For Indigo Girls concerts, I know there’s a lot of singing going on. And I know when people get together in a public forum and sing, it’s cathartic. It’s mysterious, really, but there’s no doubt about it. In the history, when there are human trials, the presence of music has to be there to galvanize people.

Don: One subset of that point is that people have to sing about their suffering. If you think about slave songs and how it influenced the civil-rights movement, wherever it happened, hearing and being honest about the suffering – and that’s what we’re talking about here, a form of social suffering. I’m interested in recovering that inside the church.

Rather than rejecting the church, you’re trying to fix something from the inside. Why are you choosing this approach?
Don: I am a reformist and not an anarchist or a revolutionary in that sense. I think we need human institutions, and I’m much more inclined to work from the inside.

I take this from my mentor, Martin Luther King Jr. He called America back to its intrinsic best traditions. We want to call the church back.

There are others who will say, “A plague on both your houses. Just forget it.” But what happens then, you have a whole bunch of people who haven’t understood themselves to have been complicit. It lets them off the hook. And I don’t want them off the hook.

Emily: I have complete understanding for anybody who has experienced oppression within the church. You hear the things like “You’re going to burn in hell,” and it discounts your humanity. I understand that, so I think it’s an individual choice. There are those of us who have experienced some of the profound work that can be done within the church. A lot of my friends who are working on issues like the death penalty, for instance, are all part of faith communities, and how they approach the values of human dignity come from their faith.

“You hear the things like ‘You’re going to burn in hell,’ and it discounts your humanity.” –Emily Saliers

Now, I’m not a cheerleader for the church by any means. I don’t even know what I am. I’m as much Jewish as I am Christian; I see a lot of things in different faiths that speak to me, to my spirit. But I think what’s happened culturally, one hand you have the people who have been oppressed by their church, and they may never want to step in it again. But they may also miss the faith community so they can share about their beliefs with other people.

The way media portrays religion, it’s soundbites; it’s not an an accurate or a whole faction of people in faith communities – Christian or not Christian. They’re in the world, doing very good work and deepening people’s lives and helping people’s suffering. They’re not missionaries; they are just doing social justice work out in the world.

That could also be said of how people perceive Southerners. People lump them together and think of them as one monolithic block of backward thinkers.
Emily: Absolutely. Some of these laws could end up in almost any state in the union. The South gets a bad rap for being conservative, but there are conservatives all over who would pass discriminatory laws in a heartbeat if they could. I always bristle a bit when I see it as an attack on the South, because the South I know is also the South of Martin Luther King Jr and Jimmy Carter, one of my personal heroes, and Congressman John Lewis. And my friend Susan Bishop, who has been a chaplain at the prison for almost 25 years who has been with the sick and the dying. And they’re Southerners! 

Don: I want to say, “Go get a life.” I grew up in Ohio: The segregation was so thick, you could cut it with a butter knife. Emily and I share this – it’s a question of humanity. We are living in a country that is so held captive by generalizations and slogans. The political situation is so bad. You can’t have a discussion without polarizing things. We are convinced that, if we can have a lifelong conversation as a father and a daughter about these differences, then surely this is a way forward.

If you wonder, what are the church people who have changed their minds on the sexuality issue? It’s because they have come to know somebody who is gay. They have a conversation about it, out of their humanity.

What would it mean if the Methodist church changed and became more inclusive of lesbian and gay people?
Don: Sociologically, it’s pretty global and it’s all over the United States, unlike the Lutherans, who are mostly concentrated in the upper Midwest. It’s got to join the Presbyterians, Anglicans and the Lutherans, who have already made this shift. They have a lot of unhappy people, of course, but they’ve made this shift.

So I think if the United Methodist Church, which is fairly strong across the country, could come out on this, it would make a huge difference.

Emily: I believe they will

Don: Besides, Hillary Clinton is a Methodist. [Georgia] Governor Deal, who is a Methodist, and who did veto that damn law … So maybe some of his Methodism got to his brain. 

Now that we know that Donald Trump is the presumptive candidate and Hillary Clinton is most likely going to be the Democratic nominee, what do you worry is going to happen?
Emily: You know, I didn’t even know that Hillary is a Methodist. I am a fan of both Democratic candidates. But you know what we must do, we cannot get used to Donald Trump. We can’t get used to him little by little and say, “This is normal.”

To have the President of the United States to spew bigoted language and be sexist, and at times to be hateful in his spirit and a bully: We cannot get used to that. It’s dangerous for people. When it’s in the media and it becomes normalized. There’s a huge difference ideologically between Republicans and Democrats. 

Let’s talk about Jesus, without turning anybody off. If you want the church to be like Jesus, you are caring, loving them. Let’s say the money tables he overturns are Big Banks, to use a modern-day metaphor. You’re talking about a guy who taught social justice for humanity. You have to look at the parties. You are talking about a party that is taking care of children and working against racism and is working with social programming. The Democrats stand for these things. Jesus was a social programmer! That’s why it’s my party, if you want to live through your values and take care of each other, and have a worldview of inclusion. I’m not some Pollyanna; I have faith that people can grow and evolve rather than shrink and destroy themselves.

In This Article: Emily Saliers, Indigo Girls, Religion


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