From Times Online
November 6, 2008
Barack Obama asked gay bishop Gene Robinson what it was like to be 'first'
The full interview
Barack Obama sought out controversial gay bishop Gene Robinson not just once but three times during his campaign to become President of the United States, The Times can reveal.
Bishop Robinson, the 80-million strong Anglican Communion’s only openly gay bishop whose consecration in 2003 has left the Anglican Communion on the brink of schism, was sought out by Mr Obama to discuss what it feels like to be “first”.
Bishop Robinson, who received death threats after his election as Bishop of New Hampshire and was advised by police to wear a bullet-proof vest at his consecration, also discussed with Mr Obama the risks incumbent upon being a high-profile leader in a country such as the US.
Bishop Robinson said: “At the end of the day you have to decide whether or not you are going to be paralysed by threats and by violent possibilities or whether you just move on and do what you feel called to do despite the risks.
Bishop Robinson, in London as a guest of the gay rights group Stonewall for its annual “Hero of the Year” awards dinner at the Victoria and Albert Museum tonight, said that Mr Obama’s campaign team had sought him last year and he had the “honour” of three private conversations with the future president of the United States last May and June.
“The first words out of his mouth were: ‘Well you’re certainly causing a lot of trouble’, My response to him was: ‘Well that makes two of us'.”
He said that Mr Obama had indicated his support for equal civil rights for gay and lesbian people and described the election as a “religious experience”.
Bishop Robinson described his conversations with him as part of Mr Obama’s “extraordinary” outreach to all religious communities, not just Christian groups. Mr Obama, although not a member of The Episcopal Church to which Bishop Robinson belongs, is a committed Christian with the United Church of Christ.
He said that the Mr Obama was taller than he had expected and described him as “Lincolnesque”, both literally and metaphorically. They discussed the dangers both of being demonised by opponents and idealised by supporters.
Bishop Robinson said: “And I must say I don’t know if it is an expression here in England or not but he is the genuine article. I think he is exactly who he says he is.”
The bishop, who services on The Episcopal Church pension fund board at national level, said that another member of the board, who had been friends with Mr Obama since college days, shared this view.
The bishop said: “He is impressive, he’s smart, he is an amazing listener. For someone who’s called on to speak all the time when he asks you a question it is not for show, he is actually wanting to know what you think and listens.”
He said that this made a refreshing change from the Bush regime. "We’ve had eight years of someone who has listened to almost no one.”
He added: “To see the tears in the eyes of African-Americans, it’s just been a profoundly, I would say religious, experience, very exciting.”
They spent more time discussing international issues than lesbians and gays. “He certainly indicated his broad and deep support for the full civil rights for gay and lesbian ... I pressed him on the Millennium Development Goals. I wanted to know whether he thought more about them than just they were a good idea but whether he had any intention of pushing for their full funding and so on.”
Bishop Robinson said he feared that the economic crisis might affect this agenda. “I hope the United States will not shirk its responsibilities in aid to the developing world. That’s going to be a hard-fought fight, not just with President Obama but all the powers in Washington.”
The Anglican church’s first gay bishop and the United States’ first black President-elect discussed in depth the place of religion in the state.
Bishop Robinson said: “He and I would agree about the rightful place of religion vis-a-vis the secular state. That is to say, we don’t impose our religious values on the secular state because God said so. Our faith informs our own values and then we take those values into the civil market place, the civil discourse, and then you argue for them based on the Constitution. You don’t say to someone, you must believe this because this is what God believes.
“I think God gives us our values and then we argue for those on the basis of the Constitution and care of our neighbour. And I think the Bush administration got very very close to the line if not going over the line in terms of offering support to religious-based groups who were using their social service arms to proselytise and evangelise which I would say is inappropriate.”
Bishop Robinson said that Mr Obama had not hesitated to talk about his faith.
“I find that remarkable, not only in a politician but also in a Democrat. For years it’s only been Republicans who wanted to talk about religion. All the Democratic candidates felt disposed to do so this year.”