The Common Good

Faith in Action: A Look at Public Theology Professor Mike McCurry

“Public theology is the way in which faith professes action in the public square,” explained Mike McCurry.

Kara Lofton/Sojourners
Mike McCurry sits at his desk. Kara Lofton/Sojourners

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This idea — that there is a connection between your spiritual faith and what you do in politics — is an underlying theme in McCurry’s journey from press secretary for former President Bill Clinton to joining the faculty at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., as professor of public theology.

As a teenager in Northern California in the late 1960s, McCurry was the product of a “fairly religious home,” with a father who was Methodist and a mother who was Presbyterian. His family “split the difference” and attended a Congregational Church near the University of California, Berkley.

The late 1960s were a time of fairly fervent political action.

“Our church youth group used to go over to Berkeley for some of the anti-war protests,” he said. “And you know, Berkeley was just a boiling pot of activism and protest in the late 1960s. And I liked politics.”

McCurry said that once he discovered politics, he found them to be “more interesting than the church.”

He attended Princeton University as an undergraduate. Like many, he drifted away from the church in his young adult years but returned when he and his wife began having children — this time to the Methodist Church.

At this point McCurry was already working in politics on Capitol Hill. For the first time he began to make some connection between “what I felt scripture calls people to do and what I saw happening in the world of public policy.” He put more thought into this connection after he left the White House several years later and was working as a political consultant with Public Strategies Washington, Inc.

One day, the senior pastor of his church in the D.C., suburb of Kensington, Md., approached him and offered him a role that would allow him to do “something truly important [since] you have left the White House. … We want you to become the superintendent of our Sunday school.”

McCurry, who poked good-natured fun at himself throughout the interview, said he felt flattered and puffed up a little and asked why they thought of him.

“Well to be honest with you,” said the pastor, “no one has agreed to do the job in the last 10 years, so it has been vacant.”

McCurry accepted the role and assigned himself the job of teaching the middle schoolers. These kids had real questions, and McCurry soon realized he didn’t have good answers for them.

Around this time, in the early 2000s, McCurry began to get involved with Wesley Theological Seminary due to a partnership the seminary had with his church in Kensington. One thing led to another, and he ended up on the board of governors for Wesley, which both deepened his interest in theological education and his interest in what the church was doing to address social and economic justice.

He found himself asking, “How do people of faith react to things like the budget, immigration reform, gender equality, marriage equality, and issues of sexuality, that are very, very controversial in the secular context, but also very controversial, obviously, in the faith world too?”

Encouraged by former dean of faculty and professor emeritus Bruce D. Birch, eventually McCurry enrolled in the new masters of arts program at Wesley, which he calls “perfect for people who are trying to marry theological education with things they are doing in the secular world.” For McCurry, that meant continuing to work for Public Strategies Washington, while accepting a leadership role as director of the National Capital Semester for Seminarians program at Wesley.

The program puts McCurry into close contact with (mostly) young people who are interested in the intersection of faith and politics. He is encouraged by what he sees and hopes that the current political situation will not dissuade young people from going into politics.  

“I don’t think they realize just how much power they have in the equation and how much they could positively change the environment in politics just by getting engaged,” he said. “The first thing is to understand the enormous difference you can make just by showing up, because people will listen.” 

McCurry thinks that the Millennial generation (roughly those born between 1980 and 2000) is a more tolerant, pragmatic, and practical generation than his own, the Baby Boomers. Millennials, he said, have the power to navigate Washington out of the current political gridlock it has maneuvered itself into.

On the role religion should or will play in politics, he spoke of  “a pretty profound moment of reckoning here in the religious world” — a time when people who profess to being Christians are asking themselves if they are really being true to the gospel. This self-reflection, he said, is sure to have an impact on the political world.

Christians are asking, for instance, “Are we really doing damage to ourselves as a country, in the way in which we are conducting our business?”

McCurry is optimistic: “I think we are capable of some pretty profound and hopeful changes.”

Kara Lofton is editorial/online assistant at Sojourners.

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