Following the stunning 2020 Presidential election win by Oprah Winfrey, stephenmcalpine.com spent some time with her running mate, one time evangelical pastor and now US Vice President Rob Bell, to see what makes him tick. Here is the transcript of that interview.
SM: Hello Mr Vice President, thanks for taking the time.
RB: Not at all. Have some dukka. I’ve had it flown in especially from Egypt after the peace summit. Call me Rob by the way.
SM: Thank you Mr Vice Pres…er, Rob. And congratulations on the outcome of the summit – your speech was spell-binding. Mmmm, tasty.
RB: Yes, you can’t get that from local producers. And yes, others said “spell-binding” too. Mind you I’ve had a lot of practice at speeches that bind spells.(laughs). So what do you have for me?
SM: So how does a one time evangelical pastor who planted a church with the word “Bible” in the title get to be Vice President of the United States of America? That’s up there with Lincoln isn’t it?
RB: Hell yeah! I mean, hell no! That’s a joke by the way, I wrote a book about hell once, you know.
SM: Yes, I read it.
RB: You did? So What did you think?
SM: It’s not really my place to say Mr…Rob. But back on topic, why do you think Oprah chose you as her running mate?
RB: Well I’ve been on her TV channel for years now. I’ve been her spiritual guru in some ways. Me and Deepak Chopra tag-teaming that role for her. We ran workshops together on spirituality for several years before my tilt at politics and they tapped into something special.
SM: What do you think that “something special” is? Is it what Ross Douthat said in the New York Times, the third way of doing spirituality in America that lies between orthodox religion and secularism? He wrote that a few years back after that famous Golden Globes speech.
RB: (chuckles) – Oh yes, I remember that. It all seemed so surreal that someone without any political experience, economic credibility or international expertise could become president.
SM: Unless you factor in the President’s predecessor of course!
RB: (laughs). Ah yeah, poor old Donald. Pity what happened to him in 2019 really. Mike didn’t know how to handle the fall out. It was all downhill after the Donald.
SM: And now here you are.
RB: Yes, here I am, and it’s not bad. But you were saying, Ross Douthat? Never liked him much. Too religious and reactionary for my liking. Don’t know why the New York Times persists with him.
SM: Well here’s the quote:
“…in between secularism and traditionalism lies the most American approach to matters of faith: a religious individualism that blurs the line between the God out there and the God Within, a gnostic spirituality that constantly promises access to a secret and personalised wisdom, a gospel of health and wealth that insists that the true spiritual adept will find both happiness and money, a do-it-yourself form of faith that encourages syncretism and relativism and the pursuit of “your truth” (to borrow one of Oprah’s Golden Globes phrases) in defiance of the dogmatic and the skeptical alike.”
What do you think of that?
RB: (wrinkles nose) He makes it sound like that’s a bad thing. Let’s face it, if you’re going to get anywhere in the public square these days that’s the way you’re going to have to go. I tell you, the old, dying religion of the fly over states is never going to influence this country again.
SM: And that’s a good thing?
RB: Absolutely. Did you see the damage they did? Evangelicalism had to change or die. I saw that well ahead of the curve.
SM: That’s been a constant narrative for you hasn’t it? Being ahead of the curve?
RB: Oh absolutely, it’s change or die, all of the time.
SM: So how did you move from being a pastor who opened up difficult parts of the Old Testament and preach them more or less as is, to being someone who organised spirituality workshops with Deepak Chopra? That doesn’t sound a particularly normal evangelical pathway.
RB: I changed or I would have died. Wait, are you saying I’m not evangelical any more? What does that label even mean these days? Aren’t we supposed to jettison it anyway?
SM: Well you’d have to admit you moved a long way. I’ve listened to some of your early sermons online.
RB: What? The security services were meant to scrub all of those. How did you access them?
SM: Met a guy in an alley.
RB: Really? Are you joking?
SM: Hell yeah!
RB: (laughs) That’s a joke right? Had me there for a moment.
SM: But what about Douthat’s claims that you simply succumbed to the zeitgeist? He goes on to say this:
“The trailblazers included, among others, Iyanla Vanzant, a spiritual teacher of New Thought, a 19th-century movement with links to Christian Science that emphasizes the idea of God as “infinite intelligence” and the human capacity to think our way toward godlike power … Rob Bell, an erstwhile evangelical megachurch pastor who has reinvented himself as an itinerant preacher of the vaguest sort of Christianity …”
What about those words that he quotes about you: “the vaguest sort of Christianity”? Does it alarm you that people as astute as Douthat think you merely reinvented yourself? Do you feel that you may have given up something important?
RB: Not at all. And I don’t get alarmed these days – merely aligned (Gotta write that one down for later!). Besides I like to concentrate on the start of that quote “The trailblazers.” That’s the America I know and love – the land of blazing trails. Besides Douthat thinks that what Oprah and I espouse can bring the land together, even if he doesn’t think it’s orthodox. And goodness knows the country needs to be brought together. The likes of Douthat are dinosaurs, espousing a Christianity that doesn’t work anymore.
SM: That’s an interesting comment. Why do you think it doesn’t work anymore? And how did you shift away from what doesn’t work?
RB: Well, second part of your question first. Slowly. To put it simply, no one ever just junks orthodoxy, they move away from it slowly.
SM: Like asking things in a more questioning way?
RB: Exactly. And then what you first question, you then challenge, and then what you challenge, you present as problematic, and what you then present as problematic, you reject as outdated and possibly dangerous.
SM: And you see the stuff you used to preach at your church as dangerous?
RB: Absolutely. That’s why we’ve done our level best to erase it. Which alley did you say by the way? Was it here in the capital?
SM: Chicago I think. Can’t remember. But what about the first part of my question: Why it doesn’t work anymore.
RB: It just won’t attract people. It’s harsh, angular, unloving, unkind, doesn’t satisfy scientific and psychological advances we’ve made.
SM: Yet plenty of people still believe and practice it?
RB: (snorts) Yeah, but like they’d ever vote for me!
SM: Just a final question Rob, because I know you’re a busy man these days…
RB: (Sighs) Yes, I’m about to jump on a plane to visit some troops somewhere. One thing we’re consistent with with our political opponents is that we never know how to close out a war.
SM: Well, I’ll let you go with this. Douthat said this in his article:
Health-and-wealth theology is a rare pan-ethnic religious movement, as popular among blacks and Hispanics as among Americans with Joel Osteen’s skin tone, and when Oprah touts something like “The Secret,” the power-of-spiritual-thinking tract from the author Rhonda Byrne, she’s offering a theology that’s just Osteen without Jesus.
Do you think Oprah and you can unite the country without Jesus?
RB: (laughs). If I said “hell yeah!” would you believe me? Oh absolutely. Anything that can bring this divided country together is alright with me. It’s all about building community, right? Isn’t that in the Bible?
SM: Well you tell me Mr Vice President, you’re the theologian. Is that in the Bible?
RB: Think so. Tell you what, I’ll Google it later and get back to you. Chapter and verse, I promise. Anyway, it’s been great. But I gotta fly. (gets up, humming the tune of “I’ll fly away, oh Glory, I’ll fly away”). Ha! Hard to shake the old habits eh?
SM: Thanks for your time Mr Vice President.
RB: The pleasure is all mine. I’ll arrange some of the dukka to be sent to you. I’m sure I’ll be in the Middle East again some time soon.
If you want to read the full Ross Douthat article in the New York Times, you can read it here.