Man of faith

Rev. William Chrystal

Since before the Iraq war started, one Reno figure who has been involved in the public discourse over it is Rev. William Chrystal, pastor of Reno’s historic First Congregational Church. It troubled him from the start and continues to do so. He is also known for portraying Alexander Hamilton in tandem appearances with Clay Jenkinson as Thomas Jefferson. One of his favorite words is thoughtful, and he believes there is too little serious thought by many of our leaders. Chrystal has a Web site at

You were once a military chaplain. You have a son who served in the military in Iraq, another son who served there as a news photographer. You need to have the confidence of your congregation. How have all of those things played a role in your decision to oppose the war? How do you sort them out?

Well, I don’t know how well I sort all of that out. I think, generally speaking, I’ve tried not to be political throughout my career, tried not to make public pronouncements that would offend parishioners. But in the case of Iraq, I felt that it was just too important not to speak, and it’s probably because Phil was there, and John was there that I have such a strong feeling about it, you know? I just—I felt like this was such a botched thing from before the very beginning. I just thought it was a horrible thing to embark on. I thought they were making a terrible mistake, and I just felt like I needed to say that.

A lot of the things that led us into this war were foreseeable if we had absorbed what happened in earlier wars. Are you surprised that we are right back here again?

Yes, I am. I really honestly thought we’d learned some of the lessons of Vietnam that have proven to be such parallels. I really was surprised. Like I said, I was just dumbfounded that I debated Congressman Gibbons on KUNR about this thing before it started, and I was just amazed at his attitude that we need to trust out leaders, we need to believe them. And I said, “No, the lesson of Vietnam is that we can’t afford to believe them without getting them to give us their best judgments about things.” I felt very strongly that blind obedience is the worst thing we can do. … I never doubted that we would score some sort of quick and decisive military victory, but I was sure that something was going to be on the heels of it that was not going to be quick and easy. And here again, I was amazed that other people didn’t see it.

How do we get out in front of these things before they happen, and what is the role of people of faith?

How do we get out in front of these? That’s a great question. I think we need to demand greater accountability of our elected officials. The next time somebody starts talking about how a particular war is necessary, I think we need to heat up the phone lines, the computer circuits and demand that they give us clear, thoughtful answers to these questions we have. I wrote all of them [members of the Nevada congressional delegation] before this thing started, and I got to tell you, Harry Reid’s answers weren’t any more thoughtful than the rest of them, you know? I think that’s the only thing we can do as citizens is demand that they be accountable, and if we don’t like what they’re saying to us, we need to make sure it reflects the next time an election takes place.

Do you think we’ll be back in this same position in 20, 25 years?

You know, if you’d have asked me that 25 years ago, I would have said, “No way. We learned too many lessons from Vietnam.” But in the light of today, yes, I think it’s entirely possible we’ll be back here 25 years from now saying, “Weren’t you guys paying attention?”

What’s the role of the clergy in preventing that?

Well, I think that clergy need to take a role along with everybody else who’s thoughtful and who really believes that it’s important that we don’t rush into world-wide wars that we aren’t going to be able to extricate ourselves from easily. I think ministers need to speak out. I think all sorts of people in all sorts of positions—none of us can afford to just let them do what they do without holding them to a higher accountability.

There are some who are critical of members of the clergy who speak on political issues. Is it difficult negotiating those shoals, deciding what to say and when?

Well, like I said, I always tried not to be one of those people who was doing it because—well, first of all, I don’t do it in church because that’s a one-way forum. I’m the only one that gets to talk, so I think that where there’s no exchange of ideas, that’s not a fair use of the church’s facilities. I’ve done what I’ve done as a private citizen. You know, when I speak up it’s out of my own conscience. I’ve always tried to make that distinction as clearly as I could, that as a pastor and as a church we’ve tried to be just as supportive as we possibly can be to the young folks who are in the military, but as a private citizen believing that there’s nothing more supportive than to try to hold our public officials accountable. I’ve spoken up every chance I’ve gotten privately.

There are, however, in this war, issues that come before you as a minister. You did speak from the pulpit about your concern over “us versus them, Christianity versus Islam.”

Mmm-hmm. And I have spoken … as well at how shameful it was when [Sparks soldier] Eric Morris was killed, and nobody from any of the congressional delegation sent a representative to his service. I thought that was criminal, you know, to send them to war but not to be there for their funerals, not to support their families. But I think those are kind of consensus issues. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that, would they?

One hopes. You spoke about Christianity versus Islam on New Year’s Eve ("Tolerance lesson,” Dec. 28). We’re now in March. Do you think that problem’s on the rise or in decline?

Well, I think it’s pretty easy for people to look for a simple solution to a complex problem, and there’s nothing easier than saying Islam wants to destroy Christianity. Yes, I think there are lots of those people out there, and I think every time they speak we need to challenge them. And here again, I don’t see that as a controversial issue, either. I don’t know any thoughtful Christians who really believe that Islam as a whole is out to destroy them.

How have your congregants reacted to your Iraq views?

Well, some of them haven’t liked it, I think. There have been a few that have indicated to me that they didn’t appreciate it. But I’ve tried—you know, insofar as I could—I’ve tried to let my position be my position, and I’m not speaking for the church when I speak out. That’s a part of who I am, but I’ve tried to speak as a chaplain, a former chaplain and as a father of a young man that’s been there who was certainly shaped by that year.