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A Conversation with David Gibson, Director of the Center on Religion and Culture

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Photo by Leo Sorel

Q: How familiar were you with the Center on Religion and Culture (CRC) before you took on the job as director?

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.

Q: Really?

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:

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