Photo: Shannon Finney/Getty Images

The leader of the Episcopal Church tells "Axios on HBO" that "the soul of America is at stake" and "it's time to speak up" against racial injustice and needed reforms to policing.

  • "I believe in this country and what it stands for: freedom, justice, equality," the Most Rev. Michael Curry said in the interview. "Those are ideals worth standing for. And when they are challenged, we must speak up."
  • Curry is the first African American to serve as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Why it matters: The Episcopal Church was drawn into the protests over the killing of George Floyd last week after protesters near the White House were forcibly cleared and President Trump used the backdrop of St. John's Church as the staging to wave a Bible.

  • "To use the church, a church and the Bible, as a prop for a photo op — I have problems with that," Curry said of President Trump's actions.
  • He said no one in the church leadership was given a heads-up about the president's plans and they learned about it along with the rest of the country. "We all were literally watching television and saw it on television."
  • "Had the president gone over to the church, even if we hadn't known about it, knelt down and said a prayer, and then turned around and opened up the Bible and read from the Bible, that would've been a spiritual act."
  • "I can't read his mind, and I don't know his heart. All I can do is assess his actions."

The big picture: "There have been dramatic changes in American society," Curry says. "I can assure you that in the late 1960s, Michael Curry wouldn't have been presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church." Since then, he said, Barack Obama has served as president.

  • "But this law enforcement and excessive brutality on the part of police and the structures that have and continue that, that has not changed dramatically and significantly."
  • "Most cops are good cops. They're good people who get up and go to work and most of them want to do good. But there are a few who are a problem. But the systemic issue is, the few are often protected and allowed to continue. And there needs to be real accountability built in."

Between the lines: Both sides of Curry's family are descended from slaves in the American South.

  • His mother converted his father, who had been Baptist, to the Episcopal Church in the 1940s because the church allowed her to drink from the same chalice as whites.
  • "He said any church where black folk and white folk drink from the same cup, knows something about the gospel of Jesus that I want to be a part of," Curry recalls.
  • "If we can learn to drink from the same cup together, so to speak, if we can learn to gather around the table of brotherhood and sisterhood together, then we can hammer out our problems."

"The reality is, racism was baked into the very fabric, if you will, of the cake of our country," Curry says. "I really do believe that we've got to face the pain of our past and then work together to create new ways to create a new future."

  • "Young people, for the most part — their protest is a cry for a better way. It's an acknowledgment that something is grievously wrong, not just in this one instance of Mr. Floyd."
  • "Their protest is actually hope for this democracy. All of these protests, there is a positive ferment ... that is bubbling up. Now, it must bubble into something, into tangible, practical ways of reform."

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