Tim Burgess is the ideal candidate for Seattle city politics. Except for one very big thing. It's a thing that goes to the core of his being...
Tim Burgess is the ideal candidate for Seattle city politics. Except for one very big thing.
It’s a thing that goes to the core of his being. And a thing his city happens to be famously queasy about. “I’m open about it,” he says. “My world views, my political views, my lifetime of working for equality and justice — I can’t deny it’s shaped by my religious beliefs.”
Insert sound of chairs creaking as Seattle shifts nervously in its seat.
Burgess is the leading contender to depose an incumbent Seattle politician in this fall’s elections (he’s running against City Councilmember David Della).
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He’s got an impressive résumé as a cop, humanitarian worker and businessman. He has strong liberal views on issues such as the environment and social services. He’s smart and a gifted communicator.
Despite all that, he’s been called an extremist. A closet right-winger.
The reason is partly that his ad agency did work for some conservative nonprofits, including Concerned Women for America, an anti-gay, anti-abortion lobbying group.
But the other part is that unlike any other Seattle candidate I can recall, he’s out and proud — about his faith.
He’ll tell you about how he teaches seminars at his church on the biblical principles in politics, called “How Would Jesus Vote?”
He talks about how he once had a religious epiphany while reading a book on the Sermon on the Mount. It compelled him to quit his job as a cop and serve the world’s poor.
And he called himself a “faith-driven values voter” in an essay in 2005. It was language he picked, purposely, because it was hot-button code for “right-wing Christian evangelist.”
He wrote that to highlight a typecasting — a form of religious intolerance — that he’s trying to dispel.
“Many people in Seattle feel they can’t talk about their faith at all because they’ll immediately be pigeonholed as zealots,” he told me in a wide-ranging, hour-and-a-half conversation about his religious views.
“I think it’s at least partly true. There’s a form of religious bigotry that is tolerated in Seattle. There is such a misconception of people of faith that it makes any discussion of the issues of religion and politics very, very difficult.”
Burgess was raised in a strict fundamentalist tradition, at Tabernacle Baptist Church, which used to be on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. He drifted from that later, especially when he began working with the poor as a police detective in the 1970s.
After doing international humanitarian work, he was drawn to the Christian activist Ron Sider, who, in the ’80s, was speaking out against the intolerance of the Moral Majority.
Burgess says his views today resemble those of liberal evangelical speaker Jim Wallis, who travels the country as a sort of counter to Pat Robertson. Wallis argues the political left should be as bold as the right in invoking the Bible to push for its issues, such as peace, economic justice and environmentalism.
Burgess insists he isn’t running for city theologian, so on the stump he talks mostly about parks or transportation like every other candidate. But he will expound if asked.
He is a strong believer that churches shouldn’t engage in campaigning — he asked his, Queen Anne’s Bethany Presbyterian, never to mention his candidacy. He says the institutional separation of church and state is crucial. The government should never proselytize or favor one religion over another.
“There’s not going to be any praying or handing out of Bibles at City Council meetings,” he says.
But he also says there’s no question religious values affect the public sphere. So why not talk about it?
The reason why not was provided by Burgess’ own campaign consultant, who told him: Seattle may not want to hear it.
It’s been a mixed bag, Burgess says. He’s had extraordinary talks about faith (and many other issues) with dozens of people and groups in Seattle, many of whom then endorsed him.
The political debate, though, has been strident. Some of this is his own fault. He says he has never agreed with Concerned Women for America and now regrets doing ad-agency work for them. He’s also used language in the past that makes people doubt his sincerity today when he says he’s pro-choice and favors gay marriage.
He says he long favored civil unions, but not marriage rights, in part because it doesn’t square with his church’s teaching. He came to realize that stance was furthering inequality, and now he is in the difficult position of being at odds with his own church.
Thousands of Seattleites have these same conflicts. Yet if a politician voices such doubts, he gets branded a right-winger.
“If the voters of Seattle want to apply a purity test, where I have to be in lockstep agreement on all 20 questions on the questionnaire, then I’m not their guy,” Burgess says. “I think we need more public officials who can be honest and vulnerable about how they struggle with some of these issues.
“Life is complex. It doesn’t always lend itself to easy answers.”
When I left Burgess, he was very nervous about this column. About how Seattle voters might react to an entire article about his religious faith a week before the election.
It occurred to me later his worry may say as much about us as it does about him.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.