The New Yorker, November 11, 1996
On a rainy Friday afternoon in November, 1991, a few hundred students gathered on the steps of Harvard’s Memorial Church. That Monday, copies of an incendiary “special double issue” of Peninsula, a conservative undergraduate magazine, had been distributed across the campus. The issue was devoted to homosexuality, and it cited Pavlov, Freud, and the Bible to characterize “gay life” as “immoral” and “pitiable.” The next day, a gay student in Lowell House found the word “FAGGOT” scrawled in nine-inch letters on his door. By week’s end, a meeting had been called to protest such incidents of apparent bigotry on a campus that most people had assumed was as tolerant as it was elite.
After several students and administrators denounced Peninsula, the minister of Memorial Church, Peter J. Gomes, offered a religious perspective. His conservative credentials were impeccable: he delivered the benediction at President Reagan’s second Inauguration and the sermon at President Bush’s Inauguration and had landed on the “wrong” side of several campus debates, divestment from South Africa, for one. So it was unclear what position he would take on the vexed question of homosexuality and the Bible.
The crowd fell silent as the Reverend Gomes began to speak. “Gay people are victims not of the Bible, not of religion, and not of the church, but of people who use religion as a way to devalue and deform those whom they can neither ignore nor convert,” he said. He let the audience know that he spoke about this issue with ample theological authority: as the minister of Memorial Church, as the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, and, finally, as “a Christian who happens as well to be gay.” The explosion of cheers and applause at Gome’s revelation lasted well over a minute. He continued, “These realities, which are unreconcilable to some are reconciled in me by a loving God, a living Saviour, a moving, breathing, healthy Holy Spirit whom I know intimately and who knows me.”
News of Gomes’s “coming our” spread quickly. The next day, on returning from a meeting of the Mayflower Society, he found the entrance to Sparks House-Harvard’s parsonage-blocked by hundreds of notes and bundles of flowers. Meanwhile, a group called Concerned Christians at Harvard demanded his resignation and held a candlelight vigil in order to hasten it. It was not long before the national media picked up Gomes’s story; there were articles in the Washington Post and Time, and appearances on “Nightline.” Lost in all the commotion was the fact that Gomes had little desire to be known as Harvard’s “homosexual chaplain” or to become a “gay activist”–a term he abhors. Cautious and conservative by nature, he was a reluctant revolutionary; in the text of his speech he had bracketed the sentence that declared his homosexuality, in case he wanted to skip over it at the last second. “I don’t like being the main exhibit, but this was an unusual set of circumstances, in that I felt I had a particular resource that nobody else there possessed,” he says. “I have no regrets, but when I saw all the flowers and cards I thought, Oh shit, I must have done something horrible!”
In fact, Gomes had simply added another qualifier to his distinctive persona. Gomes, now fifty-four, is a conservative, black, gay Republican; a Baptist minister with “an Anglican over-soul,” who was named one of America’s “star” preachers by Time. He is a former Secretary of the Pilgrim Society and an honorable fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and his mien owes as much to nineteenth-century England as it does to twentieth-century America. When he is not in clerical garb, he favors three-piece charcoal-gray suits, rep ties, a pocket watch and fob, and a starched white handkerchief, which he tucks into his left coat sleeve. He alternates between pipes and cigars and is rarely seen outdoors without a hat. His rich baritone is three parts James Earl Jones, one part John Houseman. From Freshman Sunday to the benediction at commencement–his is the first and last official voice that every Harvard student hears, and one of the few whose words are likely to be remembered.
In a quarter century at Harvard, Gomes has assumed the role of the university’s board, dutifully proclaiming its history and honoring its hallowed traditions. During Wednesday-afternoon teas, Sunday sermons, and festive garden parties, Gomes never tires of reminding students of what Harvard’s Puritan founder hoped for the university: that it become the New Jerusalem, a moral beacon in a sinful and fallen world. “Peter fears that the acids of modernity will dissolve Harvard’s sense of tradition, and he has taken up the mantle of one who interprets and extends it to newcomers,” Ronald Thiemann, the dean of the Divinity School, says. Henry Rosovsky, who has twice been the acting president of Harvard and was the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, describes Gome’s role similarly: “As Harvard has become larger and more bureaucratized, he is one of the few university-wide citizens who will communicate with everybody.”
It’s clear that Gomes’ personal charm has served both him and Harvard well. The actor John Lithgow, who is a former Harvard trustee, calls him “a completely magnetic and open man,” and he adds, “The first time I met him, I felt as if I had known him my whole life.” Deval Patrick, the Assistant Attorney General for civil rights, was an undergraduate at Harvard in the race-conscious seventies, and recalls that Gomes used to refer to himself jokingly as an “Afro-Saxon,” in order to underscore the widely different identities available to black students. “In being so relentlessly himself, he creates the most unlikely allegiances, whether they be Price Charles or a kid from the South Side of Chicago.”
The temptation to reduce Gomes to any one of his institutional, racial, sexual, religious, or political affiliations is almost as overwhelming as the temptation to cubbyhole hole him as an eccentric, multicultural hybrid. “The oddest thing about being an oddity is that there are very few oddities like you,” he says. Gomes then relates what I later realize is a parable about the dangers of failing to appreciate his deep New England roots as a “black Yankee”Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½one of those African-Americans whose forebears have lived in the region since the eighteenth century. It seems that when Elliot Perkins, the great-grandson of John Quincy Adams, was an undergraduate at Harvard, he decided to become better acquainted with George Washington Lewis, the formidable black steward of the Porcellian Club: “So one day Elliot began to make conversation and asked, ‘Mr. Lewis, when did your people come up North?” To which Lewis replied, ‘Mr., Perkins, my great-grandfather fought in the Battle of Bennington, which is in Vermont, as you may know.'” After we share a laugh at poor old Perkins’s faux pas, Gomes scrutinizes me and says, “I certainly hope I never say anything as stupid as that.” He means, of course, that he hopes I don’t.
It is late afternoon on the first Sunday of the term, and Gomes is relaxing in his elegant study, smoking one of his beloved Griffin cigars. This morning, he preached to a church full of Harvard freshmen, who will graduate in the year 2000 (“the class of oughty-ought,” in Gomes parlance.) In his sermon, he compared their predicament with that of the Jews of Exodus, who when they arrived in the land of milk and honey were disappointed by what they found. “After the novelties of Harvard Yard have worn off and you have met the twenty-fifth valedictorian, the fiftieth varsity rower, and scads more ‘interesting people,’ some of you will discover that the promised land can be rather tedious, and will long for the flesh-pots of Egypt,” he intoned.
After church, Comes held a five-course luncheon at Sparks House to commemorate Dean Thiemann’s first decade at Harvard. It was a stately affair, and between courses of sole with ruffed dill mousseline and crÃƒÂªme brulÃƒÂ©e with Cointreau, Gomes was the consummate host, puckishly assuring each guest that he or she had “been seated next to the most fascinating person here.”
Sparks is a yellow clapboard house, nestled incongruously beside several large academic buildings. It is surrounded by a well-tended English garden, which Gomes designed, and is filled with rugs, ornaments, books, antique furniture, and landscape paintings, which he has spent a lifetime collecting. Marble busts of Greek and Roman dignitaries peek out from the tops of bookshelves, staid Oriental rugs cover the floors, and small framed prints of English clergymen and literary figures dot the walls. A grand piano separates the dining room from the enormous drawing room, and on it sit pictures of Gomes at state occasions with George Bush, Ronald Reagan, and others. “Those are there to offend my liberal friends,” he says, mischievously. “I got such grief, when I prayed for Reagan-it was as if I had come out for the sterilization of American youth. I finally decided it was ludicrous, and said, ‘Just think how bad things could have been if I hadn’t prayed for him!'”
Presidential Inaugurations aside, Gomes’ descent into politics has been a gradual one. Since the controversy surrounding his coming out, he has entered the fray only infrequently, lending his name to select causes, writing the occasional editorial on an issue of note. Referring to the military’s historic uneasiness with integration, he wrote in the Times, “If the generals were so wrong about race in 1948, why should we think today’s generals know any more about sexuality in 1993?” This month, with the publication by William Morrow of “The Good Book,” an engaging study of the purported Biblical roots of homophobia, sexism, anti-Semitism, racism, and other prejudices, Gomes fulfills his larger promise. Both a Biblical primer and a critique of the religious right, “The Good Book” is intended for the vast group of secular Americans who have only a passing acquaintance with the Scriptures but want to know more; Lord Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, louts it as “easily the best contemporary book on the Bible for thoughtful people.” Given the other Good Book’s status as a perennial bestseller, Gomes’s publishers have high hopes for his, which they reportedly acquired for more than three hundred thousand dollars in a heated bidding war. When I ask what he intends to do with so much money (Wealth is not a sin, but it is a problem,” he writes in “The Good Book”), he smiles broadly and summons his best Old Testament growl: “My dear man Jesus saves, but Moses invests.”
Gomes says that he wrote “The Good Book” out of dismay at our culture’s wholesale ignorance of the Bible; one survey found that ten per cent of Americans thought Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, and that thirty-eight per cent believe the New and Old Testaments were written immediately after Jesus’ death. But even more disturbing than this lack of knowledge, he adds, is the fact that the only group addressing it is the religious right. “For the past twenty years, the mainstream church has been so busy ending the war and constructing the good society that it has abdicated its role as keeper of the Bible,” he says. “The religious right filled that vacuum I admire them in that they affirm the kind of Biblical literacy and piety which I believe ought to playa large role in our culture. I don’t disapprove of their impulses. They have a hunger and look to the Bible for answers that they can’t find elsewhere. And that is the problem. They attribute to the Bible a kind of functional credibility that it was never designed to have. They idolize it.”
Gomes argues against the zealous interpretive impulse that manifests itself in the sins he calls “Bibliolatry” and “literalism.” To make the Bible the object of veneration is to ascribe to it a glory that should be reserved for God; to worship the literal text of the Scriptures is to make the letter superior to the spirit–and this error leads the literalists to apply God’s Word in a mechanistic, unreflective manner. A further temptation, afflicting the religious left as well as the religious right, is the lure of what he call, “culturalism,” which uses passages of the Bible to legitimatize prevailing mores.
In order to avoid these interpretative pitfalls, Gomes advocates a holistic approach that looks beyond the Bible to the larger truths of the Christian faith-religious principles that transcend both the historical context of the original writer, and the prejudices of contemporary interpreters. “The Good Book” is ultimately a meditation on the difficulty of balancing the competing demands of Biblical pier, and modern realities. What sets it apart from more partisan attempts to reconcile the secular and the sacred is Gomes’s keen sense of what is at stake; namely, the authority of the Bible as our culture’s most potent sacred symbol, and its relevance to the good life, however we may seek it.
Gomes’s scholarly critiques of Biblical hermeneutics speak directly to the most contentious political debates of our time. The oft-cited Biblical injunction “Thou shalt not kill,” for example, may not be as applicable to abortion as its opponents believe; Gomes points out that the Hebrew original (“Thou shalt do no murder”) complicates a literalist reading. “There are many valid and moral extra-biblical grounds for opposition to abortion, but the literal, and commonsense, reading of Exodus 20:13 renders a weak and inadequate proof text against it,” Gomes concludes.
More often than not, contemporary interpreters treat the Bible as a “spiritual trampoline,” in Gomes’s view, using Scripture to advance a partisan reading tailored for a particular audience. In contrast to this exclusionary practice, he argues that the Bible is a thoroughly inclusive book, that it engages us precisely because it is filled with the stories of ordinary people who are very much like us-“people who are confused and confusing, who are less than exemplary but who nevertheless participate in a developing encounter with God,” he writes. For Gomes, the Bible is not a book of history, theology, or philosophy but, rather, the authoritative account of the dynamic relationship between man and God.
Borrowing from Celtic mythology, Gomes discusses those “thin places” where the visible and the invisible worlds come into contact. For him, the Bible is a guide to such thin places, which may be places of worship-monasteries, temples, mosques-or areas of conflict, such as Northern Ireland, South Africa, and the Middle East. In short, they are likely to be found where the suffering has been greatest and where those who have been marginalized and excluded happen to dwell-a circumstance in which Gomes finds reason for hope. In “The Good Book,” it’s clear that Gomes is offering far more than a reading intended to find a hospitable place for minorities in the Bible; he is offering a bold theological argument. “The place for creative hope that arises our of suffering is most likely now to be found among blacks, women, and homosexuals,” he writes. “These outcasts may well be the custodians of those thin places; they may in fact be the watchers at the frontier between what is and what is to be.”
In arguing the importance of the role played by those custodians of thin places, Gomes finds the use of the Bible to condemn homosexuality to be an instance of a spurious literalism. Given that the word “homosexual” was not invented until the nineteenth century, he argues that a crucial element has been garbled in the translation from ancient text to modern sensibility. Gomes explains that when the Apostle Paul supposedly denounced homosexuality in the Epistle to the Romans (“Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error”), all he knew was its most debauched, pagan version. “The biblical writers never contemplated a form of homosexuality in which loving, monogamous, and faithful persons sought to live out the implications of the gospel with as much fidelity to it as any heterosexual believer,” Gomes writes. “All they knew of homosexuality was prostitution, pederasty, lasciviousness, and exploitation. These views, as we know, are not unknown among heterosexuals, and to define contemporary homosexuals only in these terms is a cultural slander of the highest order.”
Though Comes has occasionally visited a gay bar, he hasn’t really explored the culture of homosexuality. Indeed, he is skeptical about whether such a thing exists. “There has been a feverish effort to construct a notion of a homosexual life style,” he says between puffs on his cigar. “Does it mean one likes disco music and Bette Davis? Is it what Oscar Wilde did, or what was done in pre-AIDS San Francisco? I tend to be very suspicious of those who prefer descriptions of homosexuals in much the same wav that one would describe the Inuit.” But then, he says, he is hardly the right person to ask for a definition; with his crushing work schedule and busy social life, Gomes has neither the time nor the inclination for romantic entanglement. “I do not have a partner, I have never had a partner, and I don’t expect ever to have one,” he says with a mock bluster. “I have been in love only once and that was with a woman whom I loved in principle but not in fact. I think I am vocationally called to the single life.”
The grandson of a Baptist preacher, Gomes was always expected to become a man of the cloth. On Sunday afternoons as a child in Plymouth, he would retreat to the basement to play church, repeating that morning’s sermon (“with considerable improvements,” his mother would say) while standing behind a pulpit he had fashioned from cranberry boxes. Gomes’s mother, the former Orissa White, came from a family that was a pillar of Boston’s black aristocracy; born on Beacon Hill, she was a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music and became the first black woman to work in the Massachusetts State House, where she was a principal Clerk. His father was born in the Cape Verde Islands and was a student at a Catholic monastery when he was fifteen, he and his father moved to Plymouth, where the cranberry bogs drew laborers from around the world. One of Peter Gomes’s earliest memories is of watching his father-who knew Portuguese, Spanish, and English–compose letters for old men to send back to the islands. “He would read a letter in Portuguese and the man hearing it would reply as if he were having a conversation with the author,” he says.
Gomes’s parents met one day while his mother was on a drive in the country and stopped to tour an elaborate vegetable garden that Peter’s father had cultivated near the bog. For him, it was love at first sight; after a few tentative letters, he started taking the train into Boston, and then walking all the way from South Station to Cambridge to court her. Orissa White-then forty years old and, Peter says, “a professional old maid”-wasn’t inclined to marry anyone, and certainly not a Cranberry farmer who lived in the country; but eventually his charm and good looks won her over. “If a woman of my mother’s background and a man of my father’s background asked me to marry them, I would tell them that it would never work,” Gomes says. “Fortunately, my parents didn’t ask me.”
It is often commented that Peter Gomes was born an old man and has since grown progressively younger. An only child, he was raised in a distinctly Victorian household, where he enjoyed his parents’ full attention; in exchange, he was expected to be an exemplary son and was treated like a “ittle adult” from his earliest years. Despite the family’s modest means, no expense was spared on his education: there were piano lessons, excursions to Boston’s museums, geology kits, stamp sets. Every night, his mother would read him such authors as Dickens and Maupassant.
Just before he started first grade, his mother took him aside. “I never had the lecture that most black children get about what to do if someone calls you a nigger,” he says. “Instead, she told me, “Whatever you do, remember that you are a son of kings.’ She wanted me to know that I was descended from Zulus, and that even though this was a one-horse town and my ancestors didn’t come over of the Mayflower I was somebodyÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½I came from special people and was therefore accountable to them.”
Gomes was an exceptional student and consistently elected president of his class, where he was the only black student. A precocious child, he had a flair for running things: in the afternoons, he would stage elaborate plays in which he acted out all of the roles, while the other children were forced to play the “part” of the audience. He also threw his energies into the church, where he preached his first sermon at the age of twelve. “I loved it for all the theatre and pageantry,” he says. “Church is for me what the basketball court is for most black kids: a place where my imagination was unleashed and I was given free reign on a stage.”
Gomes’s mother was a deeply religious woman who played the organ and directed the choir at the mainly white Baptist church every Sunday morning. On Sunday evenings, mother and son would attend the Bethel A.M.E. Church to worship along with Plymouth’s other black Christians, of whom there were a handful. In the summer, though, the little Bethel Church was packed as the town overflowed with wealthy white families escaping the sweltering heat of the cities, bringing their black servants. “The lady of the house would give the chauffeur the car for the afternoon, and he would bring the maid, the cook, and the babysitter,” Gomes says. “The music on these summer days was incredible, and white people All over the neighborhood would set out their-garden chairs and just listen to us sing.”
It is a testament to Gomes’s tenacity as an antique collector that his house in Plymouth is as crammed with fine furniture and paintings as Sparks House is. Perched beside Burial Hill, the oldest Pilgrim graveyard in America, the house is a cozy eighteenth-century affair, pans of which have been subtly renovated. An efficiency kitchen flanks one wall of the study; a bookcase stocked with Anglophile porn-videotapes of the complete episodes of “Jeeves and Wooster,” “Fawlty Towers,” “Upstairs, Downstairs,” and “The Pickwick Papers”–stands along another.
When I meet Gomes there, he has just returned from the funeral of a member of one of Plymouth’s oldest black families. Trading his gray pin-striped suit jacket for a well-worn, baggy poplin coat, he takes me on a tour of Plymouth, pointing out grand houses where he once worked where he once worked when he was a teen-ager; and the historic gravestones in front of which descendants or the Pilgrims have laid colorful wreaths. Gomes is something of a celebrity in Plymouth and is greeted every few blocks by old friends and acquaintances. When we arrive at Plymouth Rock, I am surprised at how small it seems compared with the elaborate mythology it has inspired. Gomes sighs and rolls his eyes. “Alas, that is the universal reaction,” he says. “I’ve been bringing people here my entire lire, and all they ever say is ‘Oh my, is that it?'”
On this spot a few years ago, Gomes oversaw a swearing-in ceremony of new citizens to commemorate Plymouth’s three-hundred-and-seventy-fifth birthday. Descendants of the hundred and two original Pilgrims, in full Puritan regalia, were to escort a hundred and two new citizens through the event. Supreme Court Justice David Souter (“a Lowell House man,” Gomes notes) was to preside, and in the weeks leading up to the occasion Gomes received several stem official notices informing him that, given the secular nature of the proceedings, he was forbidden to invoke the name of the Deity. “I could hardly contain my glee,” he says, “when, at the end of the ceremony, each of the new citizens said, ‘God bless America, God bless you all, I thank God for being here.”
Today, Plymouth provides Gomes with a respite from the bustle of Harvard Square; but when it came time for college, in 1961, he was eager to get away from the prying eyes of the small town in which he had grown up. He was also unsure whether he wanted to be a preacher, after all. “I just didn’t know if I had the call,” he says. Although Gomes chose to attend Bates College, a Baptist institution in Maine, he majored in history and fell in love with the more secular dimensions the life of the mind. “I thought religion was for nice but weak-minded people believed I had to give it up if I wanted to become a real intellectual,” he says. Gomes went so far as to transform the Bates Christian Association into the Bates Campus Association-“I preserved the initials so as not to waste stationery,” he explains.
As Gomes entered his senior year, religion was the furthest thing from his mind; he applied to Winterthur’s program in connoisseurship and dreamed of becoming the first curator of American decorative arts at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. That fall, he was approached by a Bates professor of religion, who argued that Gomes had never confronted an intellectual challenge in terms of religion and suggested that he spend a year at Harvard Divinity School, after which he could become a museum curator.
Gomes accepted the suggestion and, in the fall of 1965, enrolled at Harvard, where he eagerly threw himself into its rigorous course of study. The combined presence of seasoned professors and young turks (like Robert Bellah and Harvey Cox) made it a stimulating time to be at the Divinity School, and Gomes thrived. In 1968, after having earned good grades and the Harvard preaching prize, Gomes received an offer from the Tuskegee Institute to teach history and direct its freshman-studies program. The quintessential New England Yankee, Gomes had never been to the South-or on a plane-and was excited by the idea of teaching at the historically black school and exploring an entirely new world. “It was my roots thing, before there was a ‘Roots,'” he says.
Reports of racial conflict dominated the news in the summer of 1968, and Gomes’s mother worried that her irrepressible only son would be lynched; the Baptist church in Plymouth held a special vigil to pray for his safety. As Gomes drove into the Alabama backwoods on his way to Tuskegee, he feared that he had made a grave mistake. It was Labor Day, and although the only students on campus when he arrived were the football players, Gomes says, “I saw more black people in my first half hour at Tuskegee than I had ever seen in my entire life.” Gomes was well liked by the students, who called him Pilgrim, and sometimes engaged him in pointless conversations just to hear the exotic sound of his voice. “I was the strangest Negro they had ever seen, because I didn’t talk or dress like them,” he says. “I was an absolute fashion disasterÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½it was the late sixties, and I didn’t own a single dashiki or a pair of sandals.
Tuskegee’s founder, Booker T. Washington, was still felt as a presence at the school, although he had died some fifty years earlier. Washington’s reputationÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½in contrast to that of the more radical W. E. B. DuBoisÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½fared badly during the civil-rights years. In an era of growing militancy, Washington was scorned as an accommodationist, and his calls for racial uplift were eclipsed by his acceptance of segregation. Gomes found that he was a fan nevertheless. “Washington was a man after my own heart: ambitious, rigorous, single-minded, demanding, and gifted,” he says. “He liked power and knew how ton exercise it; he was a protagonist who built a mighty empire. Nowadays, it is fashionable to say that he wanted to consign our people to manual labor, whereas DuBois encouraged the Talented Tenth in Boston or Philadelphia, but had you tried that in Tuskegee, Alabama, you’d have been hanged in twenty-four hours.”
Gomes was at Tuskegee for two years before being invited back to Harvard, and says that he would have been happy to stay there for the rest of his life. During his southern sojourn, Harvard had begun the frantic process of refashioning itself to accommodate the social and political upheavals of the student movement. “It was a seismic transformation of the existing order and Harvard fell hard,” he says. “The values I had assumed to be eternal were replaced by a kind of angry anxiety. I felt like an Anglo-Indian who had been devoted to Raj and then returned to India in the mid-nineteen-forties and found the empire about to go under. I felt like Pu Yi returning to China after the revolution: “I know this world, but does it know me?'”
His progress at Harvard was swift, however: after four years, he held the joint position of minister of Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals. At the age of thirty-two, he was taken aback when his mother told him that he should continue to work his way up the ladder. “What do you mean?” he said. “I’m starting at the top!”
From his perch as one of the nation’s preeminent preachers, Gomes considers the state of public speaking in America to be desperate. “When Peggy Noonan is held up as the Demosthenes of our age and Mario Cuomo is compared with Pericles, merely because he speaks in complete sentences, it shows how thoroughly debased public discourse it,” he says. “People like Jesse Jackson’s preaching because he is loud, memorable, and passionateÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½and because they believe they are simply supposed to like black preachers, whether they are good or not. Martin Luther King, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson all sound the same to most white Americans, which is a dilemma for me, because I am a black preacher and I don’t sound like any of them.”
Gomes is reluctant to categorize his own style, although he does situate it between two popular genres of preaching. “A lot of black preaching is “tornado’ preaching,” he says. “It relies on vivid word-painting, repetition, and rhythmic alliterationÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½the click-clack phrases that sound like jazz.” Then there is “clock preaching,” which he associates with the best English sermons. “It has a precise, elegant form of a clock,” he says. “I love the splendor of the tickery.” When he’s pushed, he says that he aspires to a playful hybrid of the two: “Think of me as a “precise tornado.’ I like playing with words and structure. Marching up to an idea, saluting, backing off, making a feint, then turning around. I use the Harvard version of call and response, which is just as effective as all the hooting and hollering of a Baptist church.”
Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate, has often listened to Gomes. “He embraces the old-fashioned grandiloquent style in a manner that is always on the edge of carnival,” says Heaney, who is currently Harvard’s Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. “His style is full of cadence, roguery, and scampishness, which is itself redemptive. With Gomes there is always an element of masquerade as he tempts his audience into complicity.” Of course, it’s a technique that has its secular uses as well. Jeff Melvoin, who was executive producer of the TV series “Picket Fences,” describes a Hollywood fund-raiser at which Gomes spoke: “People out here are so rootless and parched, they drank Peter up as if he were an oasis in a desert.”
On the morning of the first Wednesday of the term, I sit on a hard wooden pew in the chapel of the Divinity School and listen to Gomes address a group of rapt first-year students. He is at the top of his form, wittily lampooning the students’ Ivy League pretensions while simultaneously shoring them up. “There will always be a spectral presence hanging over you here, and it is not the Holy SpiritÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½it is Harvard,” he says. Gomes reminds them that the university was founded by Puritans fleeing England to create a new world order. “They hoped that the world would reform itself in the light of New England: the light of New England was Boston, the heart of Boston was Cambridge, and the center of Cambridge was Harvard,” he lectures. “Therefore Harvard is the light of the world, and you stand in an unbroken apostolic procession stretching all the way back to MosesÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½who would himself had come to Harvard had he had the chance.”
Back in the study of Sparks House, I ask Gomes whether his remarksÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½all those references to the Puritans’ spiritual and political goalsÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½didn’t resemble the religious boosterism he rails against in his book. “I don’t think so,” he says. “I tell them that because nobody else willÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½nobody else here believes this is a world-historic, religious enterprise, with all the moral baggage which that entails.” The greatest poverty of the modern age, he explains, is its lack of high moral ideals against which to measure itself. Our rights-oriented, secular society feels much more comfortable speaking the language of reform than it does speaking the language of sin and redemption. Gomes believes that the absence of this dimension has dramatically diminished our moral imagination and resulted in what he calls “the secularization of virtue.” We have obscured the fundamental difference between spiritually inspired righteous protest and mere special-interest lobbying.
Gomes sees this confusion among many of the groups that perceive themselves as the rightful heirs to the civil-rights movement. “What so many people fail to understand is that the civil-rights movement was not political or social but, fundamentally, religious and moral,” he says. “It was animated by a Christian perception of the Biblical notions of sin and redemption. The secular social movements that are today trying to siphon off the civil-rights movement’s moral reservoir simply don’t run on that fuel.” The recent event that Gomes believes has come closest to capturing the spiritual energy of the civil-rights movement is the Million Man March. “Whatever else one says about Louis Farrakhan, the march was an appeal to the conscience of those who are most easily driven to the margins of society,” he says. “The key to its success was the way it embraced sin, atonement, and redemption, which are not notions I have ever seen the gay, women’s, or antiwar movements embrace.”
Gomes has strong feelings about the role of religion in politics, and the importance of maintaining a community that stands apart from the secular culture, not as its reflection but as its guide. Since we live in such a thoroughly rational, utilitarian world, Gomes believes, the church must play a role akin to that of St. Augustine’s City of God: a reminder that we live in two cities simultaneouslyÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½one that is eternal and divine, and one in which we merely have to get along.
“It is not all that different from my model for the university,” he says. “Harvard is my City of God. We are different from the rest of the world, and we ought to be.” I ask Gomes about his own role in his “city,” and he responds by quoting a line from Willa Cather’s “My Antonia”: “That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” And this, of course, is the great irony of Gomes’s status as an institutional pillar: that he is at once perfectly marginal and perfectly centralÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½a totem, willy-nilly, both of exclusion and of exclusivity.
“I’ve given my life to Harvard, and I have a wonderful sense of the great continuity,” he declares. “I can see the Puritans sailing in, I can see Henry Dunster’s first commencement, and the incredible thing is that I can see me in it! People sometimes say, “Well, in those days, you wouldn’t have been there.’ Please, you don’t have to tell me that. The glory of Harvard is that although I might not have had a share in its past, that past now belongs to me! Now, that is an extraordinary transaction.”