The Gospel According to Reverend Billy

Coilhouse is pleased to introduce a new project by Jeff Wengrofsky (Agent Double Oh No). Jeff explains: “The Syndicate of Human Image Traffickers (SHIT) is an independent film production nexus whose mission is to provide exposure to art, cialis artists, movements, events, and organizations that we believe are unusual, timely, and provoking. Our current project is a series of short (10 minute) documentary films that examine the politics and aporias of creativity. “The Gospel According to Reverend Billy” is the first in this series. It is being published on the Coilhouse blog and is very much an extension of my work for you folks. We hope to web publish a little film once a month until the close of 2010.”

“Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.” – Rousseau

Film courtesy of the Syndicate of Human Image Traffickers.

The prime, often countervailing logics of 21st century America – capitalism and democracy – seem dangerously out of balance today. Meanwhile, vestigial factors, like Puritanism, sometimes affect public life in surprising ways. Since the Giuliani years, America’s largest city – New York – has seen lower crime, infrastructural investments, an infusion of capital, a proliferation of chain stores, a vast profusion of surveillance devices and, perhaps, the general evisceration of democracy. Just recently, Mayor Michael Bloomberg ignored widespread opposition to the construction of two billion dollar stadiums and the much-maligned Atlantic Yards construction project. More egregiously, he bullied our City Council into overturning a term limits law that had been passed fifteen years earlier by public referendum. Now running for his third term, Bloomberg’s campaign war chest has intimidated all prominent Democratic challengers.

As politics appears as (yet another) massively-financed spectacle of buzzwords, scandals, outsized personas and deep psychology, is it possible to enter the political fray without selling your soul? Can you get the attention of the public eye by taking on an identity at once striking and also familiar to our public culture? Fifteen years ago, William Talen began the process of becoming a New Yorker and re-inventing himself as “Reverend Billy.” Today, armed with this identity, he enters churches of consumption – like the Disney store in Times Square – to project a powerful message opposing corporate retail, a culture of consumerism, and the encroachment of our public spaces.

Reverend Billy’s charisma, energy, and smarts have gathered him a gospel choir, the attention of CNN, a documentary film by Morgan Spurlock, and now the nomination of New York’s Green Party for the 2009 mayoral race. Reverend Billy combines a Nixonian charm with the overly stylized tropes of a preacher, and, perhaps as prime mover, a rich Calvinist heritage. America has a long history of Calvinist preachers – you may know them as “Puritans” – who rail against impure desires, “the moneychangers,” and fret mightily for the souls of their congregants.

All photos by Tina Zimmer.

COILHOUSE: Words like “community” and “neighborhood” have a special resonance for your choir. Are you a New Yorker?
REVEREND BILLY: I grew up in Watertown, South Dakota and Rochester, Minnesota, and I always dreamed of being a New Yorker, the way you can dream of New York on the prairie. When the satellites would go up across the night sky, I used to think they were New York City flying through space. I first moved here in 1974, stayed a couple of years. Moved back again in the early 80s and, for a longer period of time, in the late 80s. I was like a hitchhiker, I would come and crash in the Lower East Side. In March of 1994, I don’t know why exactly, my commitment became permanent.

Do you feel like a New Yorker?
I do now because I perform in so many neighborhoods. I marry, baptize and bury New Yorkers in so many different boroughs. We – me and Savitri and the choir – some of us were born here and many of us are immigrants, we like the idea of a homemade spirituality that does not necessarily come from an organized religion. That idea became a New York idea after 9-11. Many of us gathered in rooms. The Reverend Billy idea of a different God or Goddess every day with another name, staying out of trouble with deities that cause us to kill each other, that kind of fellowship, I needed it, too.

[Interview continues after the jump.]

Is there a distinctive meaning to being a New Yorker, as opposed to other large cities, like Cleveland (with all due respect to the citizens of Cleveland)?
There’s a kind of harsh dance in New York. I’m a refugee from the theater world. When we aim for that proscenium arch that is the space between two buildings and there are too many of us, we just hit each other. We laugh and seduce and swear and culture happens. That’s New York. I’ve been in love with that for a long time. New York has its own eccentric, yet universal feeling.

Where, when and why did you first become politically active?
We were always political, the Church of Stop Shopping, which became the Church of Life After Shopping during the recession. I was complaining to the choir that I was screaming “Stop shopping!” to people who were broke. That might have been a prophesy last year, but now we have to think about how to live after the consuming culture, with all its pain and glory, has crashed. It was always political. In the late 90s, when I was preaching in the doorway of the Disney Company: “Mickey Mouse is the Antichrist, my child. Don’t bring your little tourist family into this den of iniquity. They’re sweatshop products, every one of them. You don’t want to buy those Pocahontas pajamas!”


What was it that drew you into politics and when? Was there a moment, when talking to a teacher or parent or friend, when you thought that the world isn’t as it could be?
As far as the psychological damage in me that makes me want to help everybody, I don’t know. I’m a Dutch Calvinist from western Michigan and these are severe, right-wing, judgmental people who are terrified: hell is very close and heaven is not promised. John Brown, who started the Civil War with Harriet Beacher Stowe, the lady who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. [Brown] was a Calvinist. Abraham Lincoln was a Calvinist. I think that Calvinism is not something that’s so directly a religious bequest as it’s a fascistic psychic presence, as it is for me. I was raised by them. I was supposed to be in the Dutch Reformed Church.

As a parishioner or as a minister?
Reverend Billy: The difference is not that great. It’s a cult. It’s not quite the same thing as the upper crust Dutch of [Martin] Scorsese’s “Age of Innocence.” It’s more like the Afrikaners who invented Apartheid…

…or the people Max Weber wrote about in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism?

At it’s base, in terms of Weber, Calvinism leads to a certain disquietude, a neurosis, because the Elected are few in number and we are so great in number can never know who is so destined since acts themselves cannot bring us to heaven.
God is the ultimate elect, though the high end of the Chamber of Commerce may to persuade you that they are, so you become culturally neurotic.

Now, you, yourself are running for “election.” An interesting twist, isn’t it?
You gave me some goosebumps – you’re getting too close! Running against a God-like figure, with his Falcon-900 jets and his eleven million dollars a week that he makes, there is a certain psycho drama there. A shrink would have a field day with the whole thing.

Bill Thompson got the endorsement of the Working Families Party. Why didn’t they give you the endorsement?
They didn’t even invite Reverend Billy to the debate. They got their signals crossed. Two different sides of the office were telling mutually-exclusive falsehoods. One part of the office was saying, “You didn’t respond to our request,” which was not true, and the other part said, “You’re a protest candidate, and we love that, but we’re interested in people who can win.” What we really need in New York right now [is] new voices, new imaginations, new ideas. We need to not default back to traditional solutions – they’re not working. It’s a mistake to exclude third party ideas. They need to come out into the air and we need to accept or reject or argue with or be changed by them.

What more can be done to help prepare New York City, flat islands near sea level, from global warming?
Today we’re sending out press releases, pretending we’re the Intrepid Museum, accepting Bloomberg’s two Falcon-900 jets, saying that he’s so ashamed of his CO2 emissions that he’s donating them to the museum. We need a leader who says, “We’re addicted to the two stroke engine. We’re addicted to leaf blowers and generators in parks.” More than half of New Yorkers still believe that we should drive everyday. We still don’t have a leader who will go into people’s lives and say: “Recycling is not working right now. We sill have a nine mile long convoy of garbage trucks leaving the City every 24 hours – 12,000 tons – and we pay people to take our landfill. When we have a rain storm of a certain size, our sewers overflow into our water system, and we sometimes don’t have filters to keep the water clean enough fast enough.” We don’t have a leader. [Bloomberg] is not the guy who he says he is in his ads in his windbreaker at the corner deli talking to people. That’s a video game. He isn’t that guy. We need someone who is comfortable going into the neighborhoods and saying, “We all have to change now and the rich can’t buy their way out of it. We all have to change together or these streets are going to be under water.”




Having written an article decrying the evils of shopping malls twenty years ago, I wonder if Reverend Billy’s message is especially timely in an age of ever-bigger, ever-greedier capital. Does working for a big corporation make you an entrepreneur or a bureaucrat? When chain stores achieve virtual monopolies over advertizing media, joint ventures with government, and prime locations, do we shop in them under our own volition?

On the other hand, do Reverend Billy’s antics disrespect your choice to bring your kid to a Disney store without some loudmouth with a megaphone and a choir hectoring you? Is this a case of personal decisions having a truly political nature or is righteousness slipping into self-righteousness? If Billy’s anti-consumerist crusade is, as he says, psychologically rooted in his Calvinist heritage, what can we learn from the history of “Puritanical” movements? How do Calvinists regard freedom of choice? Should his candidacy trouble those fearful of religion (mysticism, spirituality) in politics or is this a lampoon that suggests the opposite?

Just how dire is our condition? Does the repeal of mayoral term limits suggest the eclipse of democracy or are term limits an affront to the free choice of citizens to vote for whomever they choose? Do the excesses of the Bloomberg years require a reformist leader from outside the two-party axis? Are Billy’s moxie and inventiveness necessary for a leader facing dangers created by business as usual? Is the story of his campaign that New York City politics is a plutocracy, a vital democracy open to all voices, or a joke worthy of performance art? Has Reverend Billy‘s experience as a performance artist and political activist provided him with a sense of the City unknown to party machines? Even if he doesn’t win, is his candidacy a success for having introduced a unique and important set of issues? Supposing again that he doesn’t win in his bid for mayor, would a candidate who is solely dedicated to the issues run for a lower elected office or return to protest in civil society?

In practical terms, what would happen to New York City if Reverend Billy was elected? Would we have a greener, more egalitarian, pluralistic city, one more open to entrepreneurship? Or would the wealthy and their enterprises – like the Stock Exchange – merely move out of state? Since the stock market accounts for nearly ten percent of the City’s budget and one percent of tax filers provide nearly HALF of revenue*, would New York City return to how it was in the 1970s, when it went bankrupt and lost a million inhabitants (despite immigration)? Does the addition of one million residents since 1990, at a time when Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee and other cities shrank, suggest the City has been better run by Republicans? Is New York City a hostage to capital? Do bankers make good neighbors? Is it possible or advisable to be principled under these circumstances? If not now, when?

As being and seeming are smudged in postmodern performativity, a question emerges: is Reverend Billy a reverend-turned-activist-turned-actor-turned-reverend-turned-politician, or an activist-turned-actor-turned-reverend-turned-politician or an actor-turned-reverend-turned-politician, or a politician-turned-actor-turned-reverend-turned-politician? You decide – especially those of you who can vote on November 2nd in New York City.

*Thomas P. DiNapoli, New York State Comptroller, Press Release, October 30, 2007.

8 Responses to “The Gospel According to Reverend Billy”

  1. Bertrand Says:

    If you ask me he is very much a stigmata of this consumerism society he is complaining about. Nowadays anyone can tell that “guerilla tactics” in politics are a mere attempt at getting attention from the medias. He blame people working for Disney but at the end of the day he plays the game of Fox News ?!
    It seems this kind of attitude is on the rise : i guess this is hard to picture but it reminds me of Sacha Baron Cohen; Humor or Mocking the people you want to oppose is not the most efficient political strategy for its only reaching the people who already share your views.
    Now i

  2. Steve Mundie Says:

    I had not heard of Reverend Billy prior to seeing this interrogation and video. The Reverend’s authentic presence, like an apostolic Elvis, shines through, unmasking the unholy evandalism of Billy Graham and Michael Bloomberg. Representative figures of religious and political mendacity.

    Now that the election figures for the NYC Mayoral race are in, it is clear that Reverend Billy was right. Bloomie bought term relief and the election but not a mandate. And that is the Reverend’s point, a mayor to be true to the faith of New York must connect or partner with all the people who make up the New York’s community.

    While the Reverend’s observation that Bloomie’s blandhandling of NYC politics is transforming the City into a series of upscale neighborehoods is not new, this and his other observations are put forth with a warm hearted integrity that Fox News and Sacha Baron Cohen lack. There is critical difference between mocking and satire and Rev. Billy, who has done his homework and paid his dues, is bringing the Good News, whether some of us want to hear it or not.

  3. juiceandsnacks Says:

    You know, Reverend Billy’s been around for a while and I generally like what he does, but reading this I wonder: do performance art/political activism hybrids ever really achieve anything in terms of real change? As art they can be fantastic, but when it comes to changing the status quo they don’t seem very effective. Or perhaps I’m just not thinking of good examples. I wonder if they don’t do more harm than good, in that the stuff just alienates the average passerby. The work of effecting real social change is a lot more tedious and frustrating. Not that social commentary with flare is worthless. But if you’re really out to change the world, is this the best way to go? Anyway, short on answers, long on questions, as always…

  4. Bob Davis Says:

    Bloomberg may have won the election, but the Rev wins my attention and appreciation because of this interview and because of Mr. Wengrofsky’s intelligently penetrating introduction about NYC’s zeitgeist and politics. Dear editors: please allow this kind of insightful journalism to continue to instruct your readers, adding breadth and depth to their knowledge.

  5. Mer Says:

    I’ve been following the Reverend’s antics for about ten years now. He always brings a smile to my face. Steve, I’m personally in complete agreement with you that his personal (fire)brand of satire has a lot of wisdom and heart.

    Bloomie got his ass handed to him, and I’m glad.

    Bob, I’m guessing you’re a first-time visitor to Coilhouse? As noted in this article’s intro, Jeff’s interview with Rev. Billy is only the first in a video series he has planned for the blog. We also have scads more wonderful articles from Jeff (and other contributors) in our archives that tackle some deep and heady subject matter. So please, stay awhile, explore that category list you see to the right, make yourself at home!

  6. Agent Double Oh-No Says:

    Thanks for all of your provocative comments. It seems our little jury is about split: Bertrand and Juiceandsnacks are generally critical of the Reverend while Steve, Bob, and Mer are generally more positive about him.

    It seems as though there are two breakpoints:
    1. dividing tactics (playing to official media, playing a role, ambiguities about his religious content and his past) and message (anti-consumerism, pro-indie).
    2. whether, as an effective activist, Rev. Billy would be a good mayor (this is a point juiceandsnacks really drives home). The two vocations require different skills and, perhaps, different social networks.

    It seems to me as though NYC has suffered for its mainstream success: lower crime, cleaner streets, better schools has also made the City much more expensive and hostile to weirdos and artists.

    Yes, the Syndicate of Human Image Traffickers plans on posting about a film a month, so I hope that folks like Bob will return at least that often (although Coilhouse has such great, unexpected gems that I try to check it out a few times a week).

    Best wishes,


  7. Michelle Mount Says:

    This magazine is incredible! How cool! Reverend Billy is such a trip. I agree with his view that we’re hyper consumers in some areas but seeing that it’s a recession … looks like god already heard his prayer. His platform (which seems like tax tax tax wallstreet and the rich) would surely exacerbate our already nightmarish economic situation. Though that seems to suit him fine because we shouldn’t be buying stuff anyway. WHAT?? I wasn’t shocked to hear his educational background was “Living in Brooklyn” ;-) People will do anything to feel important.

    Isn’t there a still running feudal lord system somewhere he could join? There the rich pay for everything hampering economic trade resulting in zero disposable income and spending amoung the lower class. He’d love it! No Disney pajamas back then.

  8. Ira Katznelson Says:

    This film is fascinating at more than one level, including the
    integration of performance and politics, religion and essentially secular
    positions, malleability and hard views. The film and essay are very well done, and provoke thought by inviting attention to a person and sets of identities and views that are not ordinarily foregrounded.