Too radical for America's tech overlords: liberal Baptist pastor rattles Silicon Valley

I first saw the story in the Guardian with this headline -- “Elitist den of hate:” Silicon Valley pastor derides hypocrisy of area’s rich liberals.”

There's more. The sub-head proclaimed: “Gregory Stevens resigns after tweets about Palo Alto, slamming tech industry greed and empty social justice promises”

Whoa. I had to read that. Textured stories about the religious left aren’t easy to find. Plus, when “rich liberals” slam someone, it’s usually a conservative, not one of their own. Not only that, here was a person taking on Facebook and other tech companies.

So I dove in:

A Silicon Valley pastor has resigned from his church after calling the city of Palo Alto an “elitist shit den of hate” and criticizing the hypocrisy of “social justice” activism in the region.
Gregory Stevens confirmed on Monday that he had stepped down from the First Baptist church of Palo Alto, an LGBT-inclusive congregation, after his personal tweets calling out the contradictions of wealthy liberals in northern California surfaced at a recent council hearing…
“I believe Palo Alto is a ghetto of wealth, power, and elitist liberalism by proxy, meaning that many community members claim to want to fight for social justice issues, but that desire doesn’t translate into action,” Stevens wrote, lamenting that it was impossible for low-income people to live in the city. “The insane wealth inequality and the ignorance toward actual social justice is absolutely terrifying.”

My first question was to wonder what sort of Baptist we’re talking about: The centrist/liberal American Baptist Church or the vastly more conservative Southern Baptist Convention?

That distinction should have been drawn out -- pronto. It’s an ABC congregation, their web site says.

The underlying messages to Stevens’ tweets, however, touched on continuing tension in Silicon Valley, where some of the world’s wealthiest companies and entrepreneurs have pledged to better the world through innovations, yet working-class families and poor residents struggle to afford the most basic necessities. The region has one of the worst homelessness crises in the country and a huge shortage of affordable housing, forcing tens of thousands of low-income workers to commute more than 50 miles to work.
Stevens, who is queer and has lived in Palo Alto for nearly three years, noted that his church was located in one of the richest neighborhoods in the city, with houses worth anywhere from $5m to $15m.

This article didn’t point out what some other media did: That Stevens was an associate clergyman on the church staff, not the church's main pastor.

I wasn’t seeing much in other local outlets that actually examined Stevens’ premises, so was glad to see a more reflective piece come out in The Atlantic. Its writer, who drove in for the interview said that Palo Alto residents were giving the cold shoulder to this pastor’s ideas of income inequality.

His radical approach to tearing down the system means he has very few tangible solutions to the inequality that plagues Silicon Valley. When I asked Stevens what Mark Zuckerberg or other billionaires should be doing to eradicate inequality, he said the Facebook founder should “transform” the way his business is structured, perhaps dividing shares among employees, maybe turning the company into a worker cooperative. 

OK, I would have liked to have seen some quotes from insiders at tech companies about this guy. The reporter has some pretty cogent observations about how unradical today’s upper working classes truly are.

Stevens may be right that some sort of greater changes are needed to reduce inequality, but talking to him, I was more struck with how far his ideas were from something that most people in Palo Alto -- and really, in California -- would accept. Perhaps a few decades ago, people in the Bay Area were willing to believe in revolution -- to tune in and drop out, protest against Vietnam, join the Black Panthers. But today, the vast majority of liberals in California seem to have embraced capitalism and the tech industry. 

As someone who was a teen during the era of the Mammas and the Pappas' lyrical California rock music, it surprises me that California is as conservative on economic matters as Stevens says it is. 

He could not understand others accepting a world where people are starving and yet church neighbors live in houses that cost $30 million. He recalled a dinner party he attended with the staff of a wealthy family foundation, where people talked about how they had no worries about money or security. ... Stevens cringed when Palo Alto residents expressed their support of Earth Day by organizing a “Ride & Drive” in their $100,000 Teslas, or when they talked about calling the police on homeless people outside their homes.

There are some delicious anecdotes on how spiritually empty Stevens felt the citizens of Palo Alto are. This isn’t flyover country here; this is the upper 1 percent whose ideas influence a nation and now the world. And yet Stevens called them all liberal hypocrites.

Yes, the article does ask the “what would Jesus do” question.

While (senior pastor Rick) Mixon doesn’t agree with the ways Stevens publicly criticized the community, Stevens, Mixon told me, is doing some of the same things Jesus did—challenging the system loudly and dramatically, rattling the cages of the people in power.

It was unclear to me whether many people in First Baptist itself were following Stevens. Looking around, I saw this 2016 piece in Buzzfeed about a Silicon Valley church that is very much appealing to rich tech folks and has a very different message. The Buzzfeed story revealed that less than 5 percent of Silicon Valley residents attend a church, which may explain why Stevens got so little react. The folks he’s railing against are all non-affiliated or “nones,” rather than committed believers.

So here’s a rare glimpse of a debate within the religious left and of one man too radical to fit within those parameters.

One other angle I didn't see much of is whether his being gay radicalized this pastor. Had he been married with kids, would he still be this radical?

Still, I appreciate the publications who pursued this guy and hope there will be more stories like it.

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