Lesbian folk singer Emily Saliers, one half of the “Indigo Girls” duo, joined with her Methodist theologian father, Don Saliers, to write a book published last year called A Song to Sing: A Life to Live: Reflections on Music as Spiritual Practice. The book strives to meld her “secular” lounge music with the ethos of her father’s sacred hymnody.
“Is there just a plain and simple message of love and caring for each other and the world?” Saliers asked, in a recent interview with Jim Wallis’ Sojourners magazine about her book. “There are some so-called secular texts that speak to that with more passion and power than some of the most well-known sacred texts.”
Saliers and her dad created a minor dust-up when they were featured speakers and performers at a United Methodist Women’s convention in Anaheim, California last month. (You can watch their performance here.) Seven thousand church ladies listened to Emily perform anti-war folk songs and then join her father to sing some Psalms. Don Saliers teaches music at the Methodist seminary at Emory University in Atlanta. Emily is ambivalent towards religion but credits her childhood in the church for inspiring the music she now makes with fellow lesbian Indigo Girl (but not romantic partner) Amy Ray.
Traditionalist church ladies (renewnetwork.org), citing Methodism’s official disapproval of homosexual practice, protested Emily Saliers’ featured role at the assembly, which was attended by 7,000 Methodist women. But a news release from the United Methodist Women’s organization, while admitting that Saliers’ “self-avowed sexual orientation” had “generated controversy,” nonetheless affirmed that the father-daughter team was invited because of their “spiritual and theological understandings and their commitment to justice for women and children.”
The leadership of the 700,000 member United Methodist Women’s organization still holds fast to old-fashioned Social Gospel liberalism. Although it has lost several hundred thousand members over recent decades, tens of millions in endowed funds help the New York-based group ignore conservative trends in American religion. The Indigo Girls’ brand of social activism is seen as a good fit for the Methodist women, or at least their elites, among whom Hillary Clinton is a prominent and much extolled member.
“I want to hang with the Methodists!” Saliers told the crowd in the Anaheim convention center. Her theologian father responded to his daughter, “I love my Bach. But your stuff has taught me so much.” She shared an anti-war song about “blood drying in the desert” that she recalled having provocatively performed before a New York audience immediately after 9-11. He then joined her in singing Psalm 139.
It was an unusual duo, with the straight-laced Daddy Saliers looking somewhat like John Ashcroft, and the red-haired, slightly grungy daughter living up to her counter-culture reputation. The Saliers’ book is unusual too, as they attempt to combine their contrasting stories. She explained to Southern Voice last year that “there is a spiritual path to both secular and sacred music and how the deep human yearnings in them are one and the same sometimes.” Describing herself as a “religious mutt,” she attempts to find commonality with her Methodist father.
Don Saliers teaches theology and worship at Emory’s Candler School of Theology for Methodist clergy. In contrast, she espouses social and gay liberation through her songs. “I can never separate my thoughts and feelings from my identity and the rest of my queer community,” she told Southern Voice. “When you hear a song that expresses what you’ve struggled with for so long, it can be so liberating.”
Emily Saliers’ Indigo Girls website has an “Activism!” section, which urges various causes from “Making Shelters for Transgendered People” to “Say No to War with Iraq!!!” to “The Moratorium Campaign” against capital punishment and “Honor the Earth” vigils. Among her travel memories, she recounts a 1996 visit to Cuba and a warm meeting there with Fidel Castro.
“I was visibly shaking and my eyes teared up as I introduced myself,” Saliers recalls. “I know that this man has participated in his share of violence in the name of the revolution, but his ideals (a ‘man of the people’) seemed to overshadow the reality of war.” Similarly, she admires Che Guevera for “fighting the brutalities of imperialism” but who was ultimately lost in “machismo and violence.” The Zapatistas of Mexico seem to be the “purest movement” she has witnessed, having visited Chiapas some years ago.
Although nervous, she was impressed by Castro. “I told Fidel that I appreciated what he stands for and that I would go home with a bigger heart, then I kissed his hand…hmmm…I don’t know what got into me, and I don’t even remember his response,” she remembers. “He had a peaceful demeanor and struck me as an old spirit who had been through a lot and sometimes may have lost his way. He was very otherworldly yet human.”
No less cordial than Castro, the United Methodist Women’s Assembly received the Saliers’ with generous applause. “Tell them that you belong to an organization that refuses to offer religious excuses or legitimization for violence, vengeance, deprivation and discrimination,” United Methodist Women’s president Jan Love told the crowd, which also heard from Kenyan Nobel laureate Wahu Kaara of the Kenya Debt Relief Network and leftist Bolivian Minister of Justice Casimira Rodriguez Romero, herself a Methodist. There was also a fashion show called “Fashion Resistance to Militarism,” which spotlighted the supposed “subtle examples of militarism in popular culture.”
Some juicy stuff, no doubt, but Emily Saliers remained the star of the event, despite her ambivalence about religion in general and her father’s church in particular. “Without your witness…we’d be immeasurably impoverished,” Daddy Saliers chirpily told the well-dressed and well-coiffed Methodist women. Emily Saliers thanked the church ladies for “being welcoming.” Father and daughter sang “Let Us Break Bread Together on our Knees” from The United Methodist Hymnal before departing.