A decade after leaving Princeton Theological Seminary, Jennifer Butler, MDiv ’95, solidified her calling as founder of Faith in Public Life, a network of more than a 50,000 multi-faith leaders and activists who are diligently working to advance social justice policies and reshape the narrative about the role of faith in politics.
“I happened to be in the right place in the right time,” Butler says, “to go at the set of problems that were speaking to my heart … to bring what I see is truly Christian theology to a world in which Christian theology had been captured by voices that were using faith to discriminate and to do harm.”
An ordained minister armed also with a master’s degree in social work from Rutgers University and a bachelor’s degree in education from the College of William and Mary, Butler spent her early years working for international human rights representing the Presbyterian Church (USA) at the United Nations. She is former chair of the White House Council on Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships and had served the Peace Corps in Central America.
“I came to lead Faith in Public Life in 2005 with the goal to reinvigorate a progressive prophetic public voice for faith leaders,” Butler explains from her Washington, D.C., home. “To encourage people to stay grounded in their unique faith tradition and to speak out and model dialogue and respect for other faiths.”
Butler grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, as a member of a mainline Protestant church during the height of the 1980s nuclear arms race. “I was terrified to think that human beings had the capacity to destroy one another,” she says. “I saw Jesus as a peacemaker, but I didn't really see that issue being discussed in the church. I would stay awake at night just thinking about this.”
Additionally, as part of the first generation in the south to attend integrated public schools, Butler says, she began to “wake up to the fact that racism was rife in the south and even among family members.”
This dissonance between what Christians said they believed and how they operated and how Americans claimed to embrace democracy haunted her throughout college and her early career.
“We were doing nefarious things in Central America. Our foreign policy was hurting other countries and didn't subscribe to human rights practices,” Butler explains. “I came to Princeton with all of that in my head, trying to put those pieces together and trying to have a theological articulation of the Jesus I knew,” she says. “Princeton Seminary gave me the words to speak and think theologically. I especially discovered that feminist and Black liberation theology really articulated what was bubbling up in me.”
Butler says there were times, as a woman in ministry, she doubted her own voice and leadership.
“I didn't know if there would be a place for me in the church because of some of the things I'd seen and experienced,” she says. She chokes up recalling Dr. Brian K. Blount, MDiv ’81, now president of Union Presbyterian Seminary, as a favorite Princeton Seminary professor and one of many who helped her find her voice. “And he did it in a way that was both pastoral and prophetic. It made me feel like I belonged somewhere,” she adds.
Her fellow students were also instrumental in her growth. “We formed a tight community of support,” Butler says, “and I'm still very much in touch with them.”
She encourages today’s students to do the same: “Invest in deep friendships with people who you can walk with through life and through ministry,” she advises. “Dig deep, and advocate for what you need. And try to do all
of the reading,” she adds with a slight laugh.
“I hope I can look back on this moment and say that Faith in Public Life helped reinvigorate a progressive faith voice. And that my book [Who Stole My Bible?] helped lead lots of people into a new theology and out of the wilderness of a broken faith,” she concludes.