Mixing Religion and Politics


By Stephen Collins '74 and Molly Boehmke '05
Photography by Fred Field

A lecture by Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, the church's first openly gay bishop, prompted a variety of reactions from students in attendance.
Illustration by Fred Field
Anyone who believed the college guidebook canard that "Colby students ignore God on a regular basis" would have been set straight November 4, when Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire visited Lorimer Chapel. After the bishop spoke and took questions for more than an hour, a throng of students and other members of the community surrounded him, basting him for another hour with expressions of gratitude, questions, challenges, and, most memorably, stories about their relationships with their own churches and congregations.

As the church's first openly gay bishop, Robinson stands at the center of a polarizing debate over the Episcopal Church's attitude toward gay and lesbian parishioners and clergy. "We've always had gay bishops," he told the Colby audience. "I'm just the first one who's talking about it."

Robinson's visit came just two days after the national election, in which the issue of gay marriage was used as "the greatest weapon of mass deception," he said, quoting Senator Barbara Boxer. He had prefaced his remarks by saying, "Tonight I'm going to do what your mother told you never to do. I'm going to mix religion and politics. And in case you hadn't noticed, it's been happening a lot."

Robinson's appearance attracted enough students to fill the chapel (balcony and all), and his remarks were the subject of intense discussion the following week. Some questioned his qualifications as an analyst of American politics, but most were impressed by his ability to connect with and inspire a large audience.

"I thought his message about finding community was very important," said Melissa Yosua '05 of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, a member of the Colby Christian Fellowship. But she worried that certain remarks seemed to counteract that message. "His comment about the religious right being 'neither religious nor right' could have come across as offensive."

Matt Ruby '05 from Monson, Maine, a leader of The Bridge, said students were impressed by Robinson's ability to reach beyond his own progressive politics to accept alternate views: "especially his saying [that] he knew the bishop from South Africa, who says that gay people are lower than dogs, will be with him in heaven."

Mark Chapman '05, from Zimbabwe, said he took issue with some of Robinson's talk and was upset by some comments related to the African Anglican Church, Chapman's own religious background. Overall, though, Robinson is a pivotal figure, he said, and called it "fantastic" to have him speak at Colby. "I was particularly encouraged by his message that Christianity need not be cut off from liberal, activist, and social justice issues." "Stephen Collins '74 and Molly Boehmke '05

A forum on the place of religion in our culture"and at Colby—"was held on campus in November. Read about it at www.colby.edu/mag/religion.