A: My predecessor Jim McCartin brought me in to moderate a panel a few years ago on the legacy of Pope John the 23rd. I’ve attended the events too; they’ve been top quality since Peter and Peggy Steinfels started it back in 2004. I started my career at Vatican Radio, which is run by the Jesuits, and now I’m at Fordham, which is also run by the Jesuits. So it’s a bit of a homecoming.
Q: What do you see as CRC’s strengths? event that you covered or attended?
A: Well, as a journalist I covered one event on the role of religion in peace-building around the world. It was one where the presumption was, ‘Oh, religion’s always a good thing for increasing peace around the world,’ but there were some good contrarian opinions. I think that’s one of the real strengths of the CRC. It’s not here to confirm your opinions, but to challenge you and maybe surprise you a little bit.
Q: How might your background in journalism affect the way you approach programming?
A: Something I’ve enjoyed in these last few years is explaining things, and explanatory journalism is on the upswing. I’m also not an academic, and although I’m here at a university, I’m not supposed to know it all. As a journalist, I’m someone who can find the people who do know it all, or who know part of it. If I’m curious about particular issues, I think our audience will be as well.
Q: Let’s talk about those issues. What areas where religion and culture intersect do you want to tackle through future programming?
A: I really want to do something on Star Wars.
A: Yes. Pop culture is great and right now Star Wars is my shorthand for pop culture. Getting young people interested is a priority for me—not just by looking at Star Wars either, as fun as that can be. What does it say that people are drawn to stories that have such profound and genuine religious content and messaging, even if it’s not religion as we would normally recognize it in our galaxy? Science fiction, futurism, all of these kinds of things that fascinate so many people, raise genuine religious and moral issues. Technology and social media are also fascinating. What are the ethics of Silicon Valley? Is it a dystopian vision of the future, or is it really something that can improve our world and engage us ethically?
Then there’s religion and the “resistance.” You see so many people who are “woke,” as we say. From climate change to Donald Trump, there are a lot of young people who are really engaged and passionate about protesting and pushing for social change. What can we learn from religious traditions when it comes to social change? There’s more to protesting and resisting than just putting out a Facebook post or having everybody show up.
The Vatican Synod on youth is coming in October, and we want to explore whether anybody in the next generation will be going to church or not. Will it all be spiritual but not religious? Will they even be spiritual? Where do people find meaning?
Q: It sounds like you want to diversify your audience.
A: I think we need to find a way to get younger people interested. It’s not an “either/or” though; it’s a “both/and.” We have a great loyal audience, many retired people, that’s been coming, and they’re terrific. I don’t think every event is going to hit every button for everybody, nor should it.
Some events will hopefully draw an older generation as well as younger, like on just war, and whether nuclear weapons or the death penalty should be allowed under Catholic teaching.
Q: There seems to no shortage of talking today, but not a lot of listening. Do you see a role for CRC in reversing this trend?
A: Yes, I think that ties in with my larger hope for the mission of the CRC, which is to challenge people and to model what a genuine dialogue and conversation can be. For example, we had an event in November, “Has America Lost its Moral Center?” It was pivoting off the Trump presidency, and not so much talking about Trump as talking about what he represents. We had Peter Wehner, who’s a lifelong Republican, an evangelical Protestant, and a “Never Trump” conservative.
We also had our own Fordham Law School Professor Zephyr Teachout, who’s very progressive. Even though these panelists come from diverse political points of view, they were in sync on so many issues about the need for social mores and a social fabric, and their laments were so similar. I think one central challenge of our day is our moral compass.
Q: Assuming Pope Francis is not available, what’s your dream panel?
A: Joe Biden and John Boehner, moderated by Marilynne Robinson. Can you imagine these two Catholic altar boys, one a Democrat who grew up to be vice president, the other a Republican who became speaker of the house? They’re both fresh, straight-talking people who in their own perspectives brought Catholicism into the public square. A conversation between those two would be really enlightening. Joe and John, if you’re listening, please call my office.
To hear to an extended version of this interview, visit the Fordham News podcast or listen below:
ull transcription below.
Patrick Verel: How familiar were you with the Center on Religion and Culture before you took on the job as director?
David Gibson: I knew it pretty well because I had moderated, I think, at least one panel. Jim McCartin, my predecessor, had brought me in to moderate a panel a few years ago. Of course, I like to attend the events. They’ve always been just top quality since Peter and Peggy Steinfels started it. I started my career at Vatican Radio over in Rome, which is run by the Jesuits, so now at the other end of my career, I’m here at Fordham University, also run by the Jesuits, so it’s a bit of a homecoming.
Patrick Verel: What would you say is the most memorable event that you covered or attended?
David Gibson: There was one in particular that was … I don’t know why it sticks in my mind. The one I moderated was on the legacy of John XXIII, but there was one I covered, it was on the role of religion in peace building around the world. It had Shaun Casey, who was then at the State Department, and Scott Appleby from Notre Dame. It was one of those things where the presumption was, “Oh, religion’s always a good thing for increasing peace around the world,” et cetera, but there were some good contrarian opinions. It’s like it’s not as simple as that.
That’s, I think, one of the real strengths of the Center on Religion and Culture is it’s not just to confirm your opinions, confirm your expectations, but it’s also to challenge you and maybe surprise you a little bit. I think it’s really important, again especially in these days of polarization and everybody in their silos, and nobody reads newspapers, they just get a news feed tailored to their views, it’s important to challenge your presumptions and challenge your perspectives, and really make you think and hopefully see the other person’s position, and maybe even revise your own.
Patrick Verel: The CRC describes itself as a place that explores the complex relationship between religion and contemporary life in a manner that advances beyond the caricatures and misapprehensions that often form public perceptions and color media coverage about faith issues. Can you expand a little bit more on what this means to you?
David Gibson: Well, I think it’s really about going deeper and broader into issues. Most journalism can only skim the surface, and of course with social media, amplifying that kind of 140 character bite-size information packet delivery system. We have a real opportunity, and I think a real audience, for people who want to go a little more deeply into issues and go beyond headlines and what’s presented just in the media.
Patrick Verel: Your background is in journalism, and I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about how you expect that to affect the way you approach this job.
David Gibson: Really, that’s something journalistically I’ve enjoyed doing is explaining what it means. We talk about the Twitter-sized bites of news, but the other thing that really draws people is explanatory journalism, analytical journalism, not just opinion journalism. But it’s really trying to get behind the headlines, really explain where and why things are happening, where it fits historically, give it some context. I think that I bring that kind of template, that outlook, to my job at the CRC. I also think that it’s … I’m not an academic, and I’m here at a university, but I’m not someone who’s supposed to know it all. I’m someone who can find the people who do know it all or who know part of it.
Part of being a journalist is just being curious. I’m curious to learn about particular issues that are confronting us, and if I am, I think our audience will be as well. One final point I’d make about my journalism background is that it is important. Even though we plan our events largely months ahead of time, it is also important to frame events that are relevant to what people are thinking about and talking about, so that there is a certain headline quality to something you present.
Patrick Verel: Let’s talk about those issues. What specific areas where religion and culture intersect do you really want to tackle through future programming?
David Gibson: Well, I really want to do something on Star Wars.
Patrick Verel: Really?
David Gibson: Yeah, why not? Pop culture. Pop culture is great. Basically, Star Wars right now is my kind of shorthand for pop culture. Getting young people interested in events and in current events and in topics and in discussions and in live discussions, live feedback, is really a priority for me. Look at the religious values in there. These are Jedis as Jesuits. The similarities, the parallels, the analogs there really are fascinating. It’s not just looking at Star Wars, as fun as that can be, but looking at what does this say about why people are drawn to stories that have such profound and genuine kind of religious content and messaging, even if it’s not religion as we would normally recognize it in our galaxy at least? Again, science fiction, futurism, all of these kinds of things that are so fascinating to so many people and raise genuine religious and moral issues.
I also think technology and ethics, social media, it’s fascinating. I’m on Twitter all the time, et cetera, but what is it doing to us? What are the ethics of Silicon Valley? There’s a real libertarian strain to that whole culture out there. Is it just a winner take all kind of thing? Is it just about getting your eyeballs into it? Is it one of those futuristic dystopian visions of the future? Or is it really something that can improve our world and engage us ethically?
Religion and the resistance. I think it’s wonderful. You see so many people who are engaged, who are woke, as we say. You see people really active, and for good reason, and for scary reasons. There’s a lot of climate change to Donald Trump to whatever. There are a lot of people who are really … young people who are really engaged and passionate about protesting and pushing for social change. But how is that done? It seems that so many movements today spring up and then wither away without any lasting change. What can we learn from religious traditions and religious examples for social change from abolition to civil rights, which were grounded in a moral and religious vision, but were also promoted by houses of worship? There’s a lot more to protesting, to resisting, than just putting out a Facebook post and everybody showing up. Those, I think, are key lessons to learn for this generation, and we really want to explore whether anybody in the next generation will be going to church or not. Will it all be spiritual but not religious?
Patrick Verel: I assume you’ve read Charlie Camosy’s commentary on The Last Jedi.
David Gibson: I have it linked here, yes.
Patrick Verel: Okay. Okay.
David Gibson: Exactly. I was going to look at that. I’m just fascinated by the level of engagement and passion about these things. I think people get a little bit too critical of it all, and I think Charlie gets too critical sometimes for my taste, but I think it’s … I think look at the lessons about sacrifice for the greater good and hope and things like that that are … Fundamentally, to my mind, the Star Wars movies and things like that are very old-fashioned, but they’re getting young people coming through the door. They’re getting us old folks arguing about it, which is basically an argument over our childhood and whether you’re being fair to our childhood or not so-
Patrick Verel: It sounds like one of the things that you’re trying to do when you bring out things like pop culture and Star Wars is to diversify the audience.
David Gibson: Yeah. I think we need to get younger, find a way to get some younger people interested. You know, it’s not an either or. It’s a both and. I mean, the people … We have a great loyal audience that’s been coming, and they’re terrific. It’s kind of the nature of the best. They tend to be often people who are retired, who have the time to come to these things, who have the wherewithal to come to these things, and they’re going to be a core of what we always do, but you wanna diversify.
I don’t think every event is going to hit every button for everybody, nor should it. Some are gonna … You’re gonna have a Vatican II generation more interested in some events, for example, and you’re going to have other events that they’re gonna say, “What’s a Jedi?” You know? And you’re gonna have a younger audience, hopefully, that will come to that. That’s fine.
And some, hopefully you’ll get a mix on just war and whether nuclear weapons or the death penalty should be allowed under Catholic teaching. Those are the kinds of things you can draw, I think, on an older generation who remembers the ’60s and ’70s and activism. Then, look at this younger generation. They’re amazingly passionate.
Patrick Verel: And we’re living in a time now where there seems to be no shortage of talking about important issues but not a lot of listening. Do you see a role for the Center in reversing this trend?
David Gibson: Yeah, very much. I think that that ties in with my larger hope for the mission of the CRC, which is, again, to challenge people a bit and to model what a real, genuine dialogue and conversation could be.
We had, for example, an event in November, “Has America Lost its Moral Center?” It was pivoting off the Trump presidency and all those issues that it raised, but not so much talking about Trump but talking about what he represents. Trump is a symptom in my view not a cause, and there’s something else going on in America. We had a good range of panelists.
You gotta like the fact that we had Peter Wehner who’s a lifelong Republican, evangelical protestant, former Bush and Reagan administration official, New York Times columnist, but a never Trump conservative. A real, I think, I admire him very much, a real, a genuine principled conservative. And Zephyr Teachout, our own Fordham Law School professor who’s on the very progressive end of Democratic politics, has run for office.
It was just fascinating how, even though they come from such diverse political points of view, they were in sync on so many issues about the need for social mores and a social fabric, and their laments were so similar even though some of their policy prescriptions, many of them, would diverge. They were able to really come together, I think, on what is the central challenge of our day, which is our moral compass.
Patrick Verel: Yeah. You know it’s so funny about that panel ’cause I covered that, and I’d heard this phrase, and I wish I could remember who said it first, but it always sort of stuck with me. At that panel it came to mind that what’s happening these days is that our politics has been religiousized and our religions have been politicized.
David Gibson: Yeah. That’s exactly right, and it’s important that we not just opt out, people of faith not just opt out of politics. But, again, I think making that distinction between being political, being involved in politics, and being partisan, just championing one party over another. That’s where, I think, we get into trouble.
Patrick Verel: Assuming Pope Francis is not available, what’s your dream panel and what do they talk about?
David Gibson: I guess Pope Emeritus Benedict would be out as well.
Patrick Verel: Yeah. We probably have to exclude him as well.
David Gibson: Okay. No Popes panel, but a dream panel, and if they’re listening, I think Joe Biden, former Vice President and John Boehner, former Speaker of the House, moderated by the novelist Marilyn Robinson, who is just one of my intellectual heroes. I just love her stuff.
Can you imagine these two Catholic altar boys grown up to be Vice President, a Democrat, and Boehner, a Republican Speaker of the House, but they’re just both fresh, straight talking people who, in their own perspectives, brought Catholicism to the public square. I think a conversation between those two would be really enlightening. Joe and John, if you’re listening, please call my office. And Marilyn Robinson, basically, I’d have you here for anything.
Patrick Verel: Speaking of high profile events, did you get to cover when we had Colbert and Dolan?
David Gibson: Only from afar. Yeah, unfortunately I could not be here for that one. That was an awesome event, though. I followed it afterwards, and I think that’s the kind of thing, also, that would be great to do. I’d love to do something on faith and comedy. There’re just so many, often Catholic, but also Jewish, so many people who are people of faith but who are also funny men. In that one you had Colbert and you had Cardinal Dolan who’s funny as can be. He’s hilarious. Now we got Cardinal Tobin over across the river in Newark who’s also right up there, gonna give Dolan a run for his money in terms of the humor department.
People like Jim Gaffigan, Catholic Eucharistic minister, Jimmy Kimmel. So many people out there, people of faith. We have Bob Mankoff who’s here at Fordham for a semester or something, isn’t he? The New Yorker cartoonist.
Patrick Verel: That’s right.
David Gibson: And it’s one of the things, I think, at the CRC that our real mission is as well. We’re a little bit on the frontier, let’s say, at Fordham in the sense that we’re here at the Lincoln Center campus down in Manhattan. We’re sort of a portal to the wider community. This isn’t just something that’s internal to Fordham. We want Fordham students, we want Fordham faculty, etc. to be part of our events, but it’s also …
These events are open to the public. They’re free. We also want this to be a signpost, a billboard for Fordham to the wider world that we can discuss anything very much the way Pope Francis does it at the Vatican. They have all kinds of events, and they have people from all walks of life who have expertise in all sorts of areas.
I think that’s really key as part of the Jesuit mission of intellectual exploration. We can ask any question, and we can honestly debate any issue, and we can still be grounded in our own beliefs and in our own tradition. We have that kind of confidence. We wanna project that to the wider city, to the wider world, and we want to invite them in and show them what we’re about at the same time.