Lee Salisbury was at one time an up-and-coming charismatic Christian pastor, even a healer! How did he wind up actively involved in the ranks of Minnesota Atheists?
Often, successful Christian activists simply cannot allow themselves to entertain doubts as to the worthiness of their enterprise, but Salisbury had a yearning for critical thought. He left his church and turned instead to a new gospel, that of intellectual honesty and responsibility for one’s own beliefs. Salisbury founded a number of Critical Thinking Club chapters in the Minneapolis, Minnesota, area and is also involved with Minnesota Atheists.
Below, Robert Price, research fellow at the Center for Inquiry Institute and professor of theology and scriptural studies at Colemon Theological Seminary, talks with Salisbury about how he made this astonishing transition. To hear the interview in its entirety, please visit pointofinquiry.org. —Eds.
Robert Price: You were once a successful minister, although not of a conventional church. Would you describe your congregation, its beliefs, and your approach?
Lee Salisbury: We were a product of the 1970s charismatic movement, and so we were into the gifts of the spirit, speaking in tongues, praying for healing, prophecy, word of knowledge, and those kind of things. We started from scratch and grew to a congregation of probably four hundred or so—people from all walks of life. It could have been a big megachurch if I had just had my wits about me. I would be driving around in a Mercedes today and have a private Learjet.
Price: Did you study for the ministry?
Salisbury: My background is in commercial real estate. I had several years experience in doing real estate deals, exercising critical thinking skills in terms of analyzing, say, a shopping center or warehouse or apartment buildings and making presentations. So I had that kind of thinking in my background—that you had to provide evidence and that it had to be reasonable and logical.
I had a profound born-again experience back in October 1970. Eventually I got involved with a church as a business manager. I left real estate. That church had a two-year Bible school for young people, and they asked me to teach. I did that for four years. That was pretty much my religious education—teaching every day, counseling young people, and conducting home meetings. Finally I began a new church on the east side of St. Paul.
Price: How did you build up the membership?
Salisbury: We were very aggressive—we passed out tracts and got people to talk to their friends and neighbors. Back then there was a lot of excitement in the charismatic movement.
Price: You actually had “healings” occur, didn’t you?
Salisbury: Oh yes, we did. We used to have people sit in an upright chair and they’d stick their legs out, and I’d check to see if their legs were the same length. We’d pray. I didn’t want to cheat. I didn’t want to help anybody move his or her leg or anything like that. If one leg was short maybe a quarter of an inch or a half-inch, sure enough that leg would come out. We’d come at it in the name of Jesus and that leg would grow out.
One young man had curvature of the spine and the X-rays confirmed that—at least that’s what I was told. He came forward for prayer one Sunday, and I prayed over him. His mother came up to me the next week and said the doctor had done X-rays and he was all healed.
Price: What do you make of this stuff now?
Salisbury: Well, certain things are psychological, but I can’t explain everything. I don’t think we had a success rate that was any better than if you had gone to a doctor. You know what happens when people get enthused about things they want to believe. They’ll believe whether the results are quite real or not.
Price: You mentioned how evidence was important to you. How did you turn around and think better of your faith and see through it?
Salisbury: I had the church for ten years. By 1986, my sons were getting ready for college, and I decided it was time to take a sabbatical leave. So I got away from church life and got back into real estate. And I began to ponder the things I had taught, what I believed, and what I understood the Bible to say. Certain things didn’t quite line up like they should. In the back of my mind for years I had this question about the Nativity. In Matthew, the threat of Herod is there, and so the very night Jesus is born Joseph obeys an angel and the family flees to Egypt. And yet in the Book of Luke, Jesus is born and the family waits for Mary’s rites of purification—for forty days! One Gospel has Joseph and Mary and Jesus in Bethlehem and Egypt, and the other has them in Jerusalem and Nazareth. You can’t be in two different places at the same time. Maybe Jesus could—he was God. But not Joseph and Mary.
I stumbled across a book that was written in the 1800s by Kersey Graves, The Bible of Bibles. As I began to go through it, I began to realize my faith just can’t be true. I asked myself, “What am I doing?” Eventually I had to say to myself, “I’m sorry, I just don’t see any evidence for God.”
Price: By the way, I heard a rumor that you are a Zeus worshipper.
Salisbury: Absolutely. When my wife and I visited Barcelona, Spain, several years ago, we were trying to find a parking space. I just started saying “Zeus! In the name of the Mighty God!” and behold, we drove right up to the front of a museum and there was a parking space. Now my license plate says “Zeus-01.” I’m his number one disciple. I get a lot of laughs out of that.
Price: This reminds me of the time Oral Roberts said. “Our God is a great god. He can even find parking spaces.” He’s a little slow on the uptake in feeding starving children in Somalia, but those parking spaces for born-again Christians—he’s great at that.
Salisbury: Amen, brother. God’s got to look out for the Christians.