Thursday, June 2, 2011

99 Seconds with Bill

The call came at noon on a Monday. Brent, my boss at Faith in America, had a question for me (Faith in America is an organization that combats religion-based bigotry against LGBTQ people). Would I be willing to go on the Bill O’Reilly show tonight and talk about hell?

I’m not sure if this is a joke or a complicated pun. Some people would consider going on the O’Reilly show to be a form of hell, so I hesitate before responding. Brent quickly explains that an Evangelical minister has written a book calling into question a literal hell, and all hell had now broken loose in Evangelical circles. Time magazine had even done a cover story about it, so now O’Reilly wanted to debate the question with a religious leader who would agree with the author.

In a flash I see myself standing before the congregation of First Baptist Church in Pecos, Texas preaching my first sermon at the age of fifteen. The topic? Hell, of course. Only then I was a big believer in it and insinuated in my best Billy Graham impersonation that all those fine Baptists were in danger of going there. Now, a lifetime later, I have seen the damage done by the church’s insistence that God loves us, but if we don’t love God back correctly, we get to spend eternity in a lake of fire. That’s some kind of conditional love if you ask me.

As I come back to present time I hear myself asking Brent why Faith in America would want to put one of their spokespersons on the O’Reilly show to debate hell. After all, Faith in America’s work is devoted to challenging the church’s anti-LGBTQ bigotry, not engaging in the theological skirmishes on cable television.

Just as I say the words, another flash crosses my mind. I start to see the faces of LGBTQ people I have counseled over the years who believed without question they were going to hell. Dozens of conversations with kind, decent people who lived in the spiritual anguish that comes from having religious leaders tell you that hell is in your future because of an attraction you cannot control, or a gender identity that doesn’t match up with your physical body. As soon as those faces finish their parade through my consciousness, I tell Brent, “I’ll do it.”

And so it was that a few hours later I found myself in a tiny studio in North Raleigh about to tape an interview with Bill O’Reilly on hell. In this small room there is a camera, a camera operator named Johnny, and a chair. There is no monitor for me to see O’Reilly; I can only hear him in my ear. It is a surreal environment to try and have a natural-looking conversation, especially about such an unusual topic.

As I wait for the interview to begin, I recall a conversation a month earlier with a man who works with Faith in America to try and get their spokespersons on these kinds of shows. Peter used to be O’Reilly’s senior producer, so he knows the game well. He was giving me and the other FIA representatives tips about how to do these kinds of interviews, but all I can remember him saying is that in a five minute interview, you will only have 90 seconds of air time. “So,” he said, “be sure and use your 90 seconds wisely to make the points you want to make.”

This is the main thing on my mind as I hear O’Reilly’s voice in my earpiece beginning the interview. He wants to talk about Hitler’s fate; he wants to talk about his Catholic upbringing and why his church’s view of hell is more nuanced than the Evangelical viewpoint; he wants to insist that without a hell there is no basis for the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Each of these remarks feels like bait. I’m tempted to bite on every one of them, but I keep saying to myself, “I’m not here to talk about Hitler; I’m not here to debate theology; I’m here to say one thing.” And finally O’Reilly stops his monologue long enough for me to say it.

If you're talking about eternal damnation for people, that is a very psychologically debilitating thing. I see it all the time in my counseling practice. I see good, committed Christians, for instance, gay people, good, committed gay Christians, who have been told they're abominations; they're going to hell forever. It does enormous damage.

It doesn’t feel eloquent, but it is the one thing I came on the show to say and it has been said. Later, after the interview aired on FOX, a friend of mine timed how much of the six minute interview was actually me speaking. He said I got 99 seconds of air time. I guess that was 9 seconds more than I was expecting.

The aftermath has been interesting. Dozens of ugly letters, emails, and calls from Christians across the country telling me I’m going to hell whether I believe in it or not. Two childhood girlfriends who are very disappointed in me. And one desperate gay man in San Diego who saw the interview and called me looking for support in a time of terrible crisis.

Whether or not there is a hell in my future, the man in San Diego made it all worth it.

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About Me

former pastor who is now a pastoral counselor and consultant (mckinneycounseling.org); married with two teenagers; progressive in my politics and theology