by Tom Avila
Tom Avila is a contributing writer to Metro Weekly news magazine and a staffer for the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA).
Let’s get this out of the way right from the top. I don’t think that Pastor Rick Warren was the right choice to deliver the invocation at the presidential inauguration.
But here’s the thing. My basis for thinking this probably is not what you would suspect. My issue with Warren actually has nothing whatsoever to do with his (debated by some) efforts to ensure passage of Proposition 8, eliminating marriage for same-sex couples in the state of California.
While I find his statements repugnant, I do not hold this belief because of Warren’s decision as a man well versed in mass media and sound bites to compare the decision of two consenting adults of the same sex to marry with pedophilia and incest, or legalized abortion to the Holocaust.
My issue with Warren’s inclusion is the fact that this is a man who has chosen to tightly weave his work as a pastor with his celebrity as a politically influential spokesman for conservative causes. I see him as more media savvy than minister, more gleeful lightning rod for controversy than informed theologian.
And I see the invocation as a religious act, not a political chit.
But that’s my personal opinion of the man and my personal disappointment with President Obama’s decision. I think for some of us, for whom faith plays an important role in our daily life, there was the admittedly naïve hope that religion might begin to play a different role in our national landscape, that this might be another change we would see as we seek to better understand diversity and difference. Religion not reduced to a story of ownership and division, but recognized as a nuanced and multi-layered opportunity for encouraging social and cultural discussion.
But with every statement about Obama’s “reach across the aisle,” that hope grew dimmer. Or, it grew dimmer for me, personally. Personally, as (in a slight modification to what I have written before in this column) the gay Catholic grandson of a Latino Congregationalist minister who believed strongly in the LGBT movement as a civil rights movement.
What has not grown dimmer, however, is my frustration with the reporting that surrounded the Warren matter. And that isn’t personal. That’s business.
From the very beginning the inclusion of Warren was reported as being a battle between the LGBT community and “liberals,” and people of faith. I’ll bypass for now the argument that I have made before that journalists need to recognize that these are not necessarily separate communities. But this polarization, this “them vs. them” construction makes everything very easy. Reporting becomes the matter of a few quick phone calls and, in a case like the Warren invitation, sifting through the flurry of press releases and advisories from advocates on opposing sides of the issue. Stories are so much easier to tell when we allow ourselves to believe that there are only two sides to be covered.
Several years ago, I was invited to attend a roundtable discussion on how to improve public understanding of what the organizers termed “the Muslim world.” The discussion brought together individuals from the news media, journalism organizations, and education and advocacy groups.
The conversation that has hung with me since that gathering was one involving a representative from a Muslim education organization and a newspaper editor. The young woman offered that a critical step in encouraging greater understanding of “the Muslim world” (which she quickly noted was the same world the rest of us occupied) was to explain the diversity of Islam and how greatly various practices can diverge.
The newspaper editor gave a small laugh and said, “That’s an NPR story.”
“Them vs. them” storytelling is a quick and clean framework to assemble, but its inadequacy might actually become more pronounced as we enter this new age where change is supposedly our national cry.
And, conveniently enough, the events surrounding the invitation made to Warren give us a case study to consider.
What if the invitation to Warren was not “reaching across the aisle?” What if Warren’s reading of the Bible and interpretation what it is to be a solid, practicing Christian resonates with the beliefs held by Obama? This is not to say that they might not have areas of serious disagreement, but what if Obama was not “reaching across the aisle” but was instead reaching to shake the hand of the individual sitting next to him?
Keep in mind that I am not saying that Obama necessarily approves of or endorses the sound bite statements made by Warren. I’m talking instead about something far more complicated and messy. I’m raising a question about faith in regard to the invocation, which is a religious act by its very definition.
What if the selection of representatives of communities of faith was far more cynical than has been discussed? What if these pastors are nothing more than players in the carefully choreographed performance that is the inauguration? What if they were not invited for their faith but for their ability to stand as symbols? The Conservative Evangelical. The Civil Rights Champion. The Gay Bishop.
What about addressing the question raised by those who do not understand why a prayer is part of the proceedings at all? Why is an invocation included when we are a country some view as founded on the separation of church and state?
Why is it in this “reaching across the aisle” ceremony that the men participating represent only Christian denominations? Why only men? Why, to celebrate this campaign that made such phenomenal use of grassroots support, does the inauguration involve only church leaders of national reputation? In the case of two of these men, these are national reputations rooted in media frenzy more than pastoral leadership.
What happens when the press releases and media alerts are put off to one side and we give ourselves five minutes to ask, “What story isn’t being told here?” What happens when we move beyond “them vs. them” or the false objectivity of pro vs. con and dig into a single side of the public debate?
We get to bring something new to the public discussion. We get to remind people that the act of committing journalism is not simply amplifying the talking points of various groups and communities but folding and unfolding press releases till we find what’s being said between the lines.
Take apart those old frames and start building public squares.
In this time when news organizations are being closed with all the ceremony of a strip mall mattress store, it’s time to reaffirm the critical role that journalists play in inspiring discourse and discussion, in encouraging the public to consider new ideas and ask new questions of their own.
After all, change is in the air.
Tom Avila is a Catholic who goes to an Episcopal church and has been known to (often) eat a burger on Friday. He also writes opinions in this column that are strictly his own and not those of his employer.