Cory Booker, the Democratic mayor of Newark, New Jersey, talks (and tweets) about his Christian faith as readily and comfortably as any pastor. If there’s a major theme that I’ve discerned in his prolific faith tweets it’s “walk the talk.” He shows little patience for religious utterances in the absence of love-directed action.
I’ve been trying to schedule an interview with Booker for a year, ever since we engaged in a brief direct message conversation about coffee on Twitter last April. He replied to my initial interview request with a DM that said, “I hope we can talk soon. I’d enjoy the conversation.” In June, after I inquired again, he gave me a number to call and said he’d try to make it happen. Since then, I’ve exchanged encouraging emails with his press liaisons, but the interview never happened. Meanwhile, I’d see Booker tweeting about his latest appearance on one national television news broadcast after another and eventually realized if I wanted to talk to him, I’d have to make it happen myself. So, I decided to attend his 2012 “State of the City” address at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center March 1. When I requested a press pass from his staff via email, I asked for five minutes of his time after the event and was told I could have it.
A Day in the Life
My cameraman and I drove the hour and fifteen minutes to Newark on that promise, arriving a few minutes late to the 6:30 p.m. address because of traffic diversions related to the event. Although we didn’t see them, NJ.com reported that 100 people, mostly from the Newark Teacher’s Union, were outside protesting the mayor’s plan to close seven public schools.
As Booker spoke (with members of the Newark Municipal Council seated behind him on stage), a woman two rows in front of us argued with him so relentlessly from her seat that people turned around to tell her to be quiet, one even quoting from the book of Ecclesiastes in his rebuke. Another audience member countered her jeers with cheers throughout Booker’s speech. Two council members walked off stage after Booker called out council members for failing to reduce salaries and staff when the city had laid off 25 percent of its work force and then challenged the council to act on the deterioration of the city’s water supply infrastructure. Booker looked toward them and said, “If you can’t take the heat.” One of the council members told NJ.com “moments” after leaving the stage that Booker was lying. Through it all, the mayor stayed on message. When a pastor from New Hope Baptist Church offered a benediction, he bowed his head in prayer. Then, in a private room upstairs, he fielded questions from reporters.
For every one he was asked, Booker offered a long, passionate response. The press conference ended sometime around 9:00 pm and he was still going strong. His staff, however, was lagging. They looked tired. I was tired. The liaison who had promised me five minutes with the mayor was overruled in that moment by a senior aide. Eyeing me with apparent irritation, she said I could ask one question, not the five I had prepared. When I introduced myself and UrbanFaith to the mayor, there was no hint of recognition, but he smiled and said he could use some “urban faith.”
A day’s worth of research was whittled down to this: “Why do you think you don’t get punished the way other politicians do for talking about your faith and grounding your public service in faith?”
“I think the fundamental of the faith is humility, and you need to talk about it with that humble heart. I believe God is the infinite. How can I, as a finite person, ever have a conception of what God’s grace, God’s glory, is? That means recognizing that God’s truth might lie also in other faiths. And that means actually taking the time to study those faiths. I’ve studied Judaism. I’ve studied Hinduism. I’ve worked with an Islamic leader here to learn more about the Quran. I think you really can’t love someone as Christ called me to do unless you know them, unless you take the time to respect them and understand them. How can you do that without knowledge? So, I often worry that people use faith more as a bludgeon to hurt or to hit or to condemn rather than to use faith in a way to embrace, to love more deeply, to love more richly. That’s what I try to do in my public dialogue about faith, to use it as a door opener, not as one that slams or divides,” Booker said.
With the senior aide looming, there was no opportunity to follow up, to ask him how his statement about multiple sources of religious truth meshes with exclusivity claims not only in his own religion, but in others. The press liaison asked me if I was satisfied. I frowned. She said perhaps I could ask a couple more questions on the way out. It was the senior aide’s turn to frown, but she acquiesced. So, as we walked toward two flights of steps, I told the mayor I had read that the city’s first public school for boys was announced at Metropolitan Baptist Church that day as a public-private collaboration. He smiled again and nodded enthusiastically. I said the mayor of New York City had been in trouble with some church leaders recently for his unwillingness to repeal a Board of Education policy there that prohibits religious groups from meeting in public schools. In light of these differences in approach, I asked what his thoughts are on church/state separation.
Booker said he didn’t know enough about the New York City situation to comment on it specifically, but offered this: “As long as there’s free access for everybody, whether you’re a Christian group, a Muslim group, Bahá’í group, I think those are public spaces and we should allow people to use them as long as they’re not doing it in a way that undermines the freedom and the liberties of other groups. … In general, I think auditoriums and things like that should be used for the public. People should have open access to them. If a Muslim group wants access to that auditorium to hold something, as long as everybody else is on the same footing, I think that’s fine.”
As we moved down the stairs in lockstep with his staff, I asked about the role of faith groups in Newark, particularly their contributions to crime prevention and reduction, because he had told reporters that these groups are vital to those efforts.
“There’s tremendous, tremendous leadership from the faith community around crime, tremendous involvement. I just feel blessed by the religious communities here in Newark. They’re very, very involved in public safety, in the arts, in every aspect of our city really, education. It’s just great,” he said.
I dropped my recorder at the base of the stairs. The mayor bent down to pick it up. I thanked him for that kindness and for answering my truncated list of questions. He replied politely and kept moving towards a waiting SUV. Another aide told him he did well as he got into the vehicle. He thanked her and was gone.
I didn’t get to ask Booker about his vocal support for same-sex marriage. I wanted to know if it is grounded in his understanding of civil rights or something more personal and how faith groups respond to this part of his platform. In January, after Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage in New Jersey and suggested the issue should instead be decided by referendum, Booker argued from civil rights history that “we should not be putting civil rights issues to a popular vote.” Still, there are those unanswered questions.continued on page 2