Beyond Religion: Interview with Robert Jensen

Last year, around the same time Hemant Mehta (the eBay atheist) was visiting various churches, atheist and journalism scholar Robert Jensen joined one. Jensen, a journalism scholar at the University of Texas at Austin, said he joined St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin as a political act of moral solidarity.

In his article, "Why I Am a Christian (Sort Of)," Jensen wrote that his joining affirmed that he: "(1) endorsed the core principles in Christ’s teaching; (2) intended to work to deepen my understanding and practice of the universal love at the heart of those principles; and (3) pledged to be a responsible member of the church and the larger community." Needless to say, criticism was fierce. The Reverend of St. Andrews, Jim Rigby, was roundly condemned by various Christian commentators.

Earlier this year I spoke Jensen about his personal beliefs regarding religion and how he got involved with the church. In response, Jensen challenged freethinkers to open their critical analysis to all potentially corrupt power structures, not just religion. He also urges rational minds to strip away all of their illusions, be they illusions about supernaturalism or societal constructs.

Jeff Nall: Are you an atheist?

Robert Jensen: It depends on what one means by the term, it’s been developing. The piece I wrote where I called myself an atheist who is now a Christian was sort of meant to provoke discussion. Here’s the point–I just had to answer an email from a guy was telling me I should stop mucking around in the church all the time–I think that throughout human history people have struggled with that which is beyond the human capacity to understand. There are some fundamental questions that are simply not answerable through reason and science, a whole bunch of them actually, obviously. And one of the ways that people try to understand all of that mystery is through what we call religion. Now when religion gets calcified into rigid beliefs that there are forces outside of ourselves that direct us and that we have to sort of bow to those forces that take a kind of human form, either through an anthropomorphic god or organized religion. I think that’s very counterproductive. And in a post-Enlightenment, post-scientific revolution world, it’s actually rather silly. But if religion and the stories that come out of religion, the myth, the poetry, the parallels, the lessons, if those can be understood as that ongoing human struggle to understand that which is beyond us, and convey those in a way through ritual and story that are meaningful to people, well, then I’m a religious person.

But in traditional terms, yes, if you ask me do I believe in a God as a force or a being, no; do I believe that Christ was resurrected and rose from the dead, no. But I do believe that religion is a vehicle that, if we can sort of turn it in this direction, is important. It’s an avenue I’m willing to explore. It may turn out that, you know, eventually I think it’s hopeless, and give it up. But for the time being I think it’s very powerful and will continue along that line.

Nall: Shortly after 9/11, you criticized America, citing our nation’s foreign policy as equally evil as the acts of the suicide bombers. (I know you also came under intense scrutiny.) Some that are part of the secular-humanist/atheist movement seem convinced that Islamic terrorism or terrorism rooted in the Middle East is simply motivated by nothing short of religious zealotry and hatred of the West. I wonder if you feel that those with an aversion to religion equal to the aversion some fundamentalists have for secularism, become ripe to fall into what some might think is a simplistic analysis of the issue?

Jensen: Just my experience talking to people is that being a critic of religion and making the atheist turn doesn’t guarantee one is sophisticated in one’s political analysis. You hear all sorts of what, to me, are really very superficial and thin analyses of how the world works from people on all fronts. I mean, I hear religious people who don’t seem to care about dealing with facts and complex analysis.

I think, underneath your question is a kind of disappointment that people who are willing to subject one of the fundamental belief systems, religion, to an intense scrutiny and willing to call it out for its failure, are unwilling to do the same thing to the concept of the nation state, especially their own nation state. And I think that’s true.

My own political project has sort of been, slowly over time, cause I’m not very bright and it takes me a long time to do these things, to look at the fundamental structures of power and the institutions through which they work and ask: is this consistent, when we look honestly, when we look in the mirror honestly, which, you know, is difficult; is it consistent with our best articulation of principles of justice, equality, dignity? And to my mind, every major institution we live in comes up short. Certainly the organized church comes up woefully short. The nation state, especially the United States that at this moment is the imperial power, comes up short. The corporation and capitalism comes up short. More systems like patriarchy and white supremacy, which aren’t the same as capitalism and the nation state but are the structuring systems of our consciousness and many of our institutions, they come up short obviously. So I think principled people should apply the same scrutiny to all of the systems they live in. And I think if we do that we get really depressed and we drink a lot — I’m just kidding –, because they all come up short. This is what’s hard for people, I think.

If you look around there is nothing, I think, in what we might call the conventional society that holds out much hope. You know like people want to do Green capitalism, they say, well if we can just get capitalism on board with sustainability My point is that capitalism is fundamentally at odds with sustainability. Then they say, well you know if we could just appeal to American values. What American values? It’s a stripping away of illusions that, I understand is very painful, because I’ve gone through it and I still go through it. Every once and a while I get caught short realizing I haven’t gone deeply enough but that’s what we have to do. Religion is one of them, all these others are equally open to critique.

Nall: Talk about your motives for joining St. Andrew’s Presbyterian, a church in Austin, TX.

Jensen: Like a lot of things in life, it’s not part of some grand strategic vision I laid out ten years ago. It’s a product of who you meet and how you’re moved by the world. In this case, the story is very simple. The pastor at St. Andrew’s, Jim Rigby, is really quite, I think, an exceptional person. He’s both extremely bright and critical and self critical, doing interesting work theologically, as well as politically. He’s well known in Austin for his defense of gay rights, risked his own ordination on that issue. So, after 9/11, I think he sent me a note saying, hey I liked your piece. And I said, well, hey I like a lot of work you did. We had lunch. A friendship develops. He invites me to do political programs at the church, giving over the church space to an explicitly progressive political agenda, which is rare. It’s hard to find. It’s actually hard to find an overtly left point of view into the church. You can do nice liberal discussions and things but there aren’t a lot of seriously left ministers in this country, in conventional churches. So eventually he invited me actually to preach, using the term loosely, on a Sunday. And all of this built on trust. It’s built an intellectual dialogue and a political dialogue between not only me and Rigby but me and other members of the church.

I got to know people on the social justice committee, and then at some point it seemed to me: this is a church that doesn’t attempt to narrow and calcify the discussion of spirituality, but is really trying to broaden it out. That’s an important part of any progressive political agenda at this point in history, I think. So almost as a sign of my commitment to being part of the community I thought it was important to join. And Jim was wiling to allow me to fashion the vows that you say when you stand up in front of the congregation in a way that was consistent with my beliefs, so I wouldn’t have to, you know, lie to join the church. And it was, I thought, a natural evolution of my involvement of the church, with church members politically. And I think it’s a reminder that, a lot of us are looking for a place to root in community; and it’s a culture that is so fragmented and so isolating that to some degree we’ve got to create community where we can, often in very new and creative ways. But I think we shouldn’t turn our backs on those institutions that are good at community building. And churches are good at that. Sometimes in ways that are too exclusive and to exclusionary, obviously, but the struggle is to build on what’s positive in the church both theologically and institutionally and avoid replicating all of the ugly elements of the church.

Nall: Do you feel that your political involvement in the church violated the separation of church and state?

Robert Jensen: I don’t mix any church activities with state. My values inform my politics, as is the case for all people, whether those values are religious or secular. I find the secular claim that organizing through churches is somehow a Constitutional issue to be odd. I engage in political activity through secular organizations and a church. None of it seems inappropriate in a democracy. Church/state separation is a concept involving government policy.

Jeff Nall is a writer and activist. He is a graduate of Rollins College , Master of Liberal Studies (MLS). His work can be viewed at