Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Michael Iafrate on Religion Writing in Time of Trump: Limits of Both-Sidesism (&, Again, Why Queer Employees of Catholic Institutions Will Go on Being Booted)

When I wrote earlier today about the hounding of yet another LGBTQ employee of a Catholic institution out of a job — this time, it was Kristen Nelson of West Catholic High School in the Catholic diocese of Grand Rapids, Michigan — I said that the reason we will keep seeing this kind of behavior is that Catholic conversations about these matters are painfully parochial, stifling, and intellectually stutifying. As a result, they simply miss the point frequently. 

Both among so-called "liberal" Catholic intellectual leaders in the Catholic media and the Catholic academy, and in Catholic groups working for greater acceptance of queer people within the Catholic church, much-needed critical voices are not being heard, are not invited to the table. These include the voices of former Catholics, LGBTQ Catholics, feminist Catholics, and others who have been defined out of the Catholic conversation by clericalist definitions of the church.

Intra-Catholic conversations are intellectually stultifying to lots of us because they privilege a few voices at the expense of the many. There is, for instance, only a tiny handful of openly LGBTQ journalists in the American Catholic media. If one is queer, reading articles in the Catholic media or commentary by Catholic journalists and academics on sites like Twitter is, effectively, like eavesdropping on heterosexual (and heterosexist) conversation that apparently doesn't even know it is heterosexist.

It's a conversation in which the unmerited power and privilege that heterosexual Catholic journalists and academics enjoy — apparently without even thinking about how unmerited the power and privilege are — is never acknowledged. It's a conversation in which the ways in which taken-for-granted unmerited power and privilege skew insights and act as blinders as we try to understand the world and analyze it critically are never discussed. 

As a result, many of us seeking deeper insights, more critical perspectives, more honest discussion of  issues like racism in American society and the U.S. Catholic church, or the way LGBTQ people are treated in the Catholic church, simply shrug our shoulders and turn to other discussion venues, where more meaningful conversations — more catholic ones — are to be found. 

After I presented you earlier today with these insights, I happened to read a recent article by Michael J. Iafrate, a Catholic theologian with roots in West Virginia, entitled "Religion Writing in the Time of Trump." It's in a recent issue of Sojourners.

In this article, Michael calls the U.S. Catholic media to task for the heavy responsibility Catholic journals bear in normalizing the racism that fueled Donald Trump's 2016 campaign — by not calling racism out when Catholic journals interview Trump-supporting (white) Catholics, for example, and by claiming that proceeding in this fashion is "healing" and is a way to enable us to move beyond polarization by hearing "both sides." 

Many "liberal" Catholic intellectual leaders in the U.S. including those working in LGBTQ advocacy groups within the Catholic church aim at a both-sides-have-good-points centrism that excludes the kind of truth-telling, side-taking analysis many of us hunger for, as we approach issues like racism or homophobia. And so we turn, as Michael notes in the conclusion to his valuable article, to other, non-Catholic discussion forums, where we find fresh, non-parochial perspectives and hear much-needed critical voices that we simply do not find in the intellectually stifling and very controlled conversations in the "centrist" Catholic media. 

Here's the conclusion to Michael's essay:

Good intentions aside, religion writers and publications can, and must, do better in how we cover the phenomenon of Trumper Catholicism. Those that try to stake out a "centrist" approach to racism, xenophobia, or white supremacy have become largely unhelpful to Catholics who want more analysis and truth-telling. As a result, we tend to gravitate toward the deeper analysis and stronger prophetic approaches of non-Catholic religious publications, or of secular publications that cover religion but are not constrained by the intra-ecclesial baggage of a racist white hierarchy and the white theological and media appendages that largely follow suit. 
Back in September, America rightly called on Catholics to "fight racism at every turn." Yet Catholic media has yet to really give a good example of how to do that when it comes to reporting on Catholic Trump supporters. Normalizing racism as just another set of opinions that "good people of faith" might have — whether extremists like Steve Bannon or the "normal" Catholic in the pew next to us — isn't the way to do it. Religion writers, like everyone in media, have a special responsibility: to fight racism at every turn of the page.

What Michael says here (and throughout his essay) parallels an important conversation that is going on right now about the editorial page of the New York Times, where James Bennet has bent over backwards to include — and normalize — some of the most outrĂ©, most distorted, most Trump-amplifying voices imaginable, in the name of allowing Times readers to hear "both sides." As Ashley Feinberg reports yesterday,  many folks writing for the Times' editorial page aren't willing to put up with this any more, and are pushing back against Bennet's editorial leadership. 

Which is about normalizing Donald Trump and what he stands for, though Bennet would not put the point precisely that way, I suspect. As the high-school students now energized by what happened in a Florida high school recently are reminding us, not every "side" is pointing us in the direction of history's moral arc.

Some "sides" are simply, flatly wrong, and societies — and institutions — have to decide whether they're going to walk down this fork of the road or another one. And at those moral juncture points, centrism, with its both-sides-have-a-point pretenses, is acting not as a spur to moral decision-making, but as an impediment to it. It's acting as a brake to necessary moral changes like ditching racism, dealing pro-actively with the massive gun violence in the U.S., and recognizing that hounding people out of jobs because God made them queer is morally indefensible.

And don't even get me started on the male entitled misogyny now on full display in testimony from the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements — and in the White House. And the destruction of the environment. And . . . .

The photo of Michael Iafrate is from his University of Toronto webpage.

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