In recent years there have been some well-known Episcopalians among the media and entertainment elite. Who can forget Robin Williams’s stand-up routine? The Today Show’s Al Roker is an Episcopalian, as are journalists Juan Williams and Ray Suarez. I once spotted the actor Sam Waterston in an Episcopal Church in Connecticut, and it turns out that he has helped advocate for General Seminary. Lady Gaga worshiped in an Episcopal Church on Super Bowl Sunday this year before she performed at the halftime show.
Among this group is Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, whose Twitter following outstrips the Archbishop of Canterbury 9 to 1. Carlson reaches millions of viewers from the 8 p.m. punditry throne room formerly occupied by Bill O’Reilly. Like another famous Episcopalian, Justice Neil Gorsuch, Carlson is decidedly conservative, if notably more inflammatory.
Carlson cut his teeth in the early days of cable news in the 1990s as a bow-tied know-it-all with a mop top and a boyish grin. Carlson has since given up the bow tie, but he is as puckish as ever in pillorying his left-wing debating partners. He is also active in and informed about the Episcopal Church. He mentions his denominational affiliation humorously in this otherwise tense exchange. In this interview from 2013, he wonders why he still belongs to the Episcopal Church despite its libertinism. Carlson is particularly anguished that the Episcopal Church generally supports gay marriage and abortion rights: “They don’t care at all what God thinks of it, because they actually don’t believe in God.”
Ouch … and yet, I get it.
Why would someone like Carlson stay in the Episcopal Church? He says, “Part of it’s inertia. Part is we really like the people. Part is that’s the world I grew up in. I love the liturgy.” He concludes, “I’m a shallow guy! That’s why I still go to the Episcopal Church.” He, like many conservative Episcopalians, has made his peace uneasily but surely: “I just don’t want to think too hard about my money going to these pompous, blowhard, pagan creeps who run the church!” As one of these creeps, I take his point.
Despite his claim, Carlson is no shallow guy. His roots in Anglicanism run very deep. He is a cradle Episcopalian from California who went to St. George’s School in Rhode Island. There he met his future wife, who is the daughter of Fr. George Andrews, the former headmaster. In 1997 Carlson wrote this piece about the Episcopal Church for The Weekly Standard that reveals not merely a lazy familial attachment to the church, but strong formation and identification within the tradition. He quotes the orthodox evangelical giant, FitzSimons Allison, in lamenting the Episcopal Church’s decline. A man who makes his living arguing on television about the ins and outs of the world wishes the Episcopal Church could transcend the culture. Years before we heard about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, Carlson diagnosed the illness of his own patch of the body of Christ as a sad “vehicle for personal growth.”
Carlson has recently discussed his church membership in this excellent New Yorker piece by Kelefa Sanneh. Sanneh notes that Carlson’s wife deserves the credit for “leading him to faith seriously,” again mentioning that they stick with their denomination despite major objections, most notably to abortion. More generally, Sanneh writes: “In many ways, Carlson is a throwback, and a contradiction: a fierce critic of the political and cultural establishment who is also, unapologetically, a member of it.” The same could be said of his churchmanship — a throwback indeed, and a welcome one.
That Carlson remains a part of the Episcopal Church — and could even be its most famous member — is illustrative in a few ways. First, he is a reminder that all innovations are provisional. There is no such thing as a “liberal” or “progressive” denomination. The fight for the faith continues on all sorts of strange and familiar battlegrounds, including the dwindling, wayward Episcopal Church. Second, Carlson is a living reminder that there are plenty of conservatives left in the Episcopal Church — some loud, but many quiet. A very liberal seminary professor of mine once earnestly warned a group of mostly liberal ordinands: “Many of your parishioners are going to be a lot more conservative than you are, no matter where you serve.” Third, Carlson’s choice to remain an Episcopalian is a mark of his genuine conservatism, of a variety that few — even those who consistently vote Democrat or march in the streets for the causes du jour — could genuinely condemn. Here Carlson stands alongside English conservatives like Roger Scruton and Peter Hitchens, who are both proud (and critical) Anglicans. Despite how he may be perceived on television, Carlson’s aim is not primarily to destroy others and then run away. He wants to plant roots, build up, and belong. He wants to play a part in great institutions, and fight for them. What more can we ask of Christians in a fallen world? Carlson concludes: “I think there are always going to be some unresolved problems in this life, and real limits on wisdom and human decision-making. Basically, I think our world is truly imperfect, and always will be.”
Indeed. And on this side of judgement day, so is every part of the Church. I’m glad Mr. Carlson and I are in the same part of it together.