“I don’t like bumper stickers,” Ray Dubuque told me. He makes a little rectangle with his hands. “What, they must be like 11 inches wide! I’d have to kneel down right next to the boot of a car to even get a look at that!” He chuckles to himself a little, then tells me, “That’s absolutely not how I do it.”
Ray opts for something far larger than a bumper sticker. Attached to the back of his car is a trailer with signs that read “Liberals Like Christ” and “Jesus Would Be Furious.” Between these words is a line of pictures of Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren, Frederick Douglass, and Jesus. If that doesn’t draw enough attention, the bellowing voice of Ray’s pre-recorded sermons might.
The photos of Jesus next to liberal historical figures first seemed odd. To some, “progressive evangelical” might sound like an oxymoron. And, statistically, most evangelical Christians don’t vote for Democrats. According to the Pew Research Center, in the 2016 presidential election over 81 percent of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.
“I don’t buy the 81 percent of evangelical number cited constantly by pundits,” said David Swartz, associate professor of history at Asbury University and author of Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism. “That number does not count black evangelicals, Latino evangelicals, and the millions of evangelical immigrants from Africa and Asia—all of whom resonate theologically with white evangelicals.” This group typically agrees with evangelicals on core issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights—which have historically aligned the evangelical bloc with the political right—but they often vote for Democrats.
I had seen Ray’s car around Yale’s campus frequently, so I reached out to him to understand what he means by “Liberals Like Christ.”
Ray looked nothing like I imagined. Though he was much taller than my five-foot-almost-four self, I had imagined him even bigger and perhaps more brooding.
In a voice much softer than his bullhorn, he asked, “Are you Mey-her?” Sticking my hand out, I thought about correcting his pronunciation of my name, but before I could, he said gently, “That sounds like Mayor. You should just call yourself Mayor, that’s a very important position here!” I couldn’t help but return his smile.
Ray settled into the leather chair inside the common room of Grace Hopper College to start the interview. Born in Chicago and raised in a “very Catholic” Franco-American family, he became interested in the Catholic Church at age 10 because he admired a priest at his parish. Though Ray is unable to remember his name, he defined his memory of this priest by his “unusual involvement and concern with social issues.”
After attending seminaries in the East Coast for twelve years, an experience he described as his “tour of America,” Ray joined the Roman Catholic church as a priest.
But he soon became disenchanted with the Catholic priesthood.
“It wasn’t long from when I started that my dream of becoming a priest became a nightmare,” he said. “I didn’t find what I expected in the priesthood. What I found was that the higher up that I went into the hierarchy, the more corruption and dishonesty and hypocrisy that I found.”
After three years, Ray left the Catholic Church and became a United Methodist priest. That was when he met his wife, Jane. Ray choked up as he spoke of Jane’s illness and treatment at Yale-New Haven Hospital. In 2015, after 45 years of marriage to Ray, Jane died. He told me about her love for social work that led them to adopt five disabled children over the course of their marriage. When asked why they chose to adopt, he answered: “The world is overpopulated as it is, and there are so many children in need.”
Ray considers Jane’s dedication to social issues a core Christian value—one that, he says, aligns best with liberal ideals. But not all Christians agree.
One of the key issues that has maintained evangelical support for the Republican Party has been abortion. Swartz believes that Hillary Clinton’s pro-choice position might have lost her the election.
“Many evangelicals preferred Clinton to Trump on immigration, health care, diplomacy, and nearly every other issue. But since abortion rates are so high and are seen as such a life-and-death issue, some felt like they had no choice, despite the uniquely repugnant candidacy of Trump,” he explained.
Elizabeth Bruenig, an editor at The Washington Post and a prominent Christian leftist, echoed Swartz’s ideas.
“They were concerned about long standing evangelical issues: abortion, which they perceived Clinton as especially zealous about, religious liberty, and rhetorical deference to Christianity in government,” she said. “While Trump didn’t really bother with even appearing personally committed to any of that, he went through the motions with various evangelical leaders, and won endorsements from key groups that made him seem to be at least a more credible candidate for Evangelical interests than Clinton.”
But Ray wasn’t swayed.
“Jesus did not talk about abortion or gay marriage. What he did talk about was divorce, and this president is on his third wife,” he said.
Though Trump made a case to evangelicals, he does not attend church regularly.
“He is not an active member,” a representative from his Manhattan church told CNN.
Swartz cited a statistic about Trump supporters’ church attendance.
“One very close study of Trump supporters in South Carolina during last year’s primaries showed that the evangelicals who voted for him rarely attend church,” he said.
LGBTQ rights have traditionally been another deal breaker between evangelicals and the Democratic Party. As I walked through the events of Ray’s family life with him, he spoke proudly of his eleven children. He boasted about how his daughter, who was born with hearing issues, now holds two master’s degrees.
“She came out as gay two years after I had started advocating for the LGBT community, so I didn’t care, it didn’t affect me, as I was a proponent of the community before her,” he said.
I was surprised to hear this. But this is Ray’s core message: there is overlap between Christian and liberal values. On his website, there is a picture of Ray in the old school design somewhere between the bright yellow backdrop and tightly aligned block text of Times New Roman. To his left is a picture of Jesus, and to his right is a picture of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“Jesus brought the New Testament and Roosevelt brought the New Deal,” Ray explained. “I connect the two, as I believe that Jesus was a man who wanted to help his neighbour, and that is the spirit of Roosevelt as well.”
The idea of a progressive evangelical in some ways functions in a realm outside of the two party system. Jimmy Carter was perhaps, as Bruenig argued, our last public figure that could have identified himself as one.
Nevertheless, Swartz cited many examples of evangelicals engaging in political activism—on both sides of the political spectrum. Evangelicals denounced violence in Central America, protested apartheid in South Africa, and lobbied against the death penalty in the Supreme Court.
Most recently, Swartz continued, evangelicals “prayed for the unborn and for an agenda of justice and compassion for women and children that will create alternatives to the desperate, painful choice of abortion.”
Progressive evangelicalism, Ray explained, sounds contradictory to some because the evangelical movement has been so publicly associated with conservative figures.
The connections Ray makes between social justice and Christianity contrast comments by those who would separate them. Adam Krok ‘19, who wrote an op-ed in the Yale Daily News titled “Godless Men at Yale,” argues the two themes are incompatible.
“God is dead, and light and truth have replaced him,” Krok wrote in that op-ed.
“To be liberally religious is a double bind,” he said in an interview with The Politic. “You are most certainly not following the word of the Bible (which is racist, misogynistic, sexist and genocidal) and you are most certainly not treating others in a genuinely caring way, rather seeking to soothe your own belief in a liberal God than seeing people’s innate kindness and goodness.”
But Ray said that to identify evangelicalism exclusively with conservatism is to misunderstand its theology.
“Evangelicalism has got a whole new meaning that has little identity to what it actually is. My Christianity, my evangelicalism, refers to Jesus—in the teaching and example of Jesus,” he said.
“Jesus himself was an extremely liberal man,” he continued. “These conservative Christians are on a different tangent. Sometimes atheists are more like Christ than a conservative is.”
Me’Lena Laudig ‘19 interprets Jesus’ teachings in a similar way.
In an interview with The Politic, she described the “heart of God” as one “concerned about feeding the hungry, loving the hurting, aiding the oppressed, welcoming the refugee.”
“When I approach political issues, I try to think about both the heart of God and the truths of the Bible. I don’t have a one-size-fits-all framework for making political decisions and approach each one by contemplating the heart of Jesus and the truths that He teaches,” she said.
Ryan Phipps, lead pastor at Forefront Church in Manhattan, also emphasized the importance of thinking outside of a one-size-fits-all framework.
“So much of what we deal with in this country, when it comes to this strange overlap of religion and politics, it’s very unfortunate that we are always pigeon holed into thinking in binaries, when nothing about life or truth or faith or anything else in the world is binary,” he said.
Ray has spent his life trying to move beyond this binary. As he drove away, I could just barely hear the recorded sermon blasting from the car. Meeting Ray made me wonder, in a time when the political divide is starker than ever, if it is constructive to think in dualities, and whether it is even possible to talk about religion in the same terms that distinguish Republicans from Democrats.
Ray Dubuque is the man who can, at times, be heard from afar, as well as the man who speaks so quietly that one has to lean in just to discern what he says. He is the man who furiously campaigns on sites titled CatholicArrogance and JesusWouldBeFurious.org, but sends thank you emails with the username RayOSun. He is, in his words, a liberal who likes Christ.
Correction, March 9: This article originally stated incorrectly that Ray Dubuque adopted his daughter as a deaf and mentally disabled child. Because of symptoms related to her hearing issues, an adoption agency mistakenly assumed that Ray’s daughter was mentally disabled; however, she was not.