Billionaire businessman-turned-climate-activist Tom Steyer has emerged as an unexpected player in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, recently polling among the top contenders in South Carolina. Known for his environmental advocacy, Steyer, like other candidates, has made a point of referencing his faith often while on the campaign trail — and even referred to religious activists while on the debate stage.
Still, less is known about Steyer’s personal approach to matters divine. He spoke with Religion News Service to discuss his faith, how it intersects with his policy agenda, and the overlap between religion and politics in the United States. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You had an interview with The New York Times recently in which they misunderstood your religious history, so I want to give you a chance to clear this up: Can you tell me a little bit about your faith journey?
I don’t know what made me do it, (but) somewhere in my early thirties I had sort of a midlife crisis, finding God as an adult … It could’ve had to do with having kids. At the time I just felt, like, “Wow.” I also had an Episcopal priest who is a good friend of mine and started going to her service with our family. So that was serendipitous.
I think it really had to do with, at some level, becoming an adult and taking responsibility for myself. And feeling that I needed a framework of meaning in my life.
You now draw the Jerusalem cross on your hand. Why that symbol?
You know, I’d never heard of it. I was just drawing a cross on my hand and then I kept filling it in to remind myself to be steadfast, be truthful to what you think are the deepest meanings. Don’t give up on that.
And you identify as a Christian?
I definitely do. Enough to identify … as an Episcopalian. I used to mock my mom for being a contradiction in terms: A devout Episcopalian.
In 2015, you called out Democrats running for president after Pope Francis released his encyclical on the environment, asking them to heed his call to take action on climate change. Now that you’re the person running for president, do you see yourself as following Pope Francis’ call? And how does your faith inform your activism and positions on climate change?
If you listen to what the pope was saying, he was saying your responsibility is to take care of the most vulnerable amongst us, and to preserve God’s earth. This is a question about human suffering. It seems like, to me, the pope really nailed it.
It’s up to us together to change and do the right thing — and that’s what I’m calling on people to do. We have got to step up on this. I thought the pope was correct in saying we have a responsibility to act, and people at this point have got to take responsibility for themselves. I think people have got to change. It’s time.
You recently visited the church of the Rev. William Barber — a prominent progressive faith activist and head of the Poor People’s Campaign — in North Carolina. Why did you see that as an important place to visit, and what did you take away from that experience?
Well, Bishop Barber is an amazing spiritual leader. I think he’s one of the most articulate and insightful people about what’s going on in the United States. I’ve known him for several years, I’ve spent time with him, and I have a ton of respect for him. I was planning on going and speaking during his church service in July when I announced I was going to run for president. But he said, “Tom, you can’t speak during the church service because that would, you know, threaten our (nonprofit status).” Then we arranged for me to come down several months later and speak after the church service in a nonreligious fashion.
I’ve had a ton of respect for Bishop Barber for years — what he stands for and also his honest-to-God brilliance.
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Source: Religion News Service