“Pastor Seeks to Make Moscow, Idaho A “Christian Town”. That YouTube video title intrigued me enough to click on it. As I watched, NBC news correspondent Anne Thompson interviewed Douglas Wilson, the Senior Minister of Christ Church, who is campaigning to make the liberal college town a haven for evangelical Christians – a place where same-sex marriages would not be allowed and men would be affirmed as “little kings” of their households who dominate their wives and children.
Then I heard a voice of reason. My ministerial colleague Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Stevens, Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Palouse there in Moscow, described the congregation as a “dominionist cult” that represents patriarchy as it fights a culture war. A stained glass window at the Church of the Palouse is of a flaming chalice surrounded by the rainbow colors of LGBTQIA+ inclusion. Meanwhile, Senior Minister Wilson operates a thriving publishing enterprise, which includes hundreds of books for evangelical Christian parents homeschooling their children.
Rev. Dr. Elizabeth and I have known each other for decades now, going back to her seminary days at Starr King School for the Ministry in the late 90s, while I was serving as one of the ministers at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland. I was delighted when she agreed to an asynchronous interview for this month’s PWR Spotlight. – Rev. Carlton E. Smith, Lead – UUA Pacific Western Region
Rev. Carlton E. Smith: You’ve been Minister at the UU Church of the Palouse for a decade now, since the beginning of President Obama’s second term. How has Moscow changed over that time, and the congregation in relation to it, particularly as that regards Christian nationalism?
Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Stevens: Like much of the country, Moscow has become more polarized. The right-wing extremists here in town make up less than 10 percent of the population, but they are very noisy and aggressive. The congregation has responded by living out loud. Our UU values are on display literally and figuratively. We have a reputation in town for making good trouble! In responding to the offensive and bullying behavior of Christ “Church,” the Dominionist cult, it feels vital to us to have our faith community embody and proclaim progressive values AS religious values.
CES: Douglas Wilson’s rhetoric is very much geared toward a pre-1960s world, before the modern women’s movement, the LGBTQIA+ movement, legalized reproductive choice, and desegregation. Where are you seeing the impact of his agenda? Who in the congregation and the larger community is most affected?
ES: Doug Wilson aims to shock and offend, and he is largely successful in this. However, what’s more concerning are the ways cult members are bullying our City Council. Their protests of the mask mandate were vicious and targeted specific city leaders. It was disgusting! Many of us are also worried about the amount of real estate the cult is buying up. They’ve already forced several beloved local businesses to move or close their doors permanently. I’m also in touch with organizations supporting women and children trying to escape the cult. They are the most heartbreaking victims.
CES: So many of our congregations across the region and the country are liberal outposts in conservative states and particularly college towns like Moscow. What advice do you have for UU congregations where the rise white Christian nationalism is active and spreading?
ES: It’s a tricky dance. On the one hand, responding to the outrageous and shameless promotion of Christian Nationalism feels like a waste of time and energy. I mean, who even takes these ideas seriously anymore? On the other, real people are being harmed, so we have to do something. I generally think it’s more effective to be ‘louder’ about what we believe than it is to argue with the ideologies we oppose. Clarity around what we are for is more effective than attacking the beliefs we are against. The Christian Nationalists are particularly good at playing victim.
CES: Where are you finding hope in the midst of the struggle toward justice, equity and compassion?
ES: My congregation is amazing. When I look out into the sanctuary on Sunday morning, I see so many good hearted, deeply faithful people, all of whom are quietly going about making a positive difference in our community as they are able. We recently completed a 2.4 million dollar renovation and expansion- quite an accomplishment for a congregation with less than 200 members! No one wastes time or energy on fake fights. We just do church well, and trust that what we do, matters.
CES: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
ES: I think these times demand deeper relationships between congregations, especially those in rural areas. Idaho has some of the strictest abortion laws in the country, so we will need help getting pregnant people across state lines to access the care they need. We may also need to get trans folks and other members of the LGBTQIA+ community to safety, if things keep going the way they are in the Idaho Statehouse. Those of you living in states where basic human rights are respected? We’ll need you to open your hearts and maybe your homes to people who are under attack from extremists like Doug Wilson.
CES: Thank you, Rev. Dr. Elizabeth!
ES: And thank you!
Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Stephens can be reached at email@example.com. If you have an idea for PWR Spotlight, email firstname.lastname@example.org.