The Best Time An Interview Subject Wrote About Me
Presenting the interview I think about probably weekly at this point.
A heads-up to those who came here because of the Seinfeld newsletter: not all of these will be funny. Sorry not sorry. ENJOY!
I did a story last June, one that I thought was...fine. It was fine.
It was on the decline in religion in the U.S., and what that means for the Republican Party (which, you may be aware, relies a lot on religiosity -- particularly that of white self-proclaimed evangelicals -- for its strength).
I don't know if it's bad to admit that I thought it was a middling story as far as my stories go. But then, this is a newsletter about demystifying political journalism, and I figure it's best to just be transparent here.
The issue in this particular case is that I bit off more than I could chew. The subject of the relationship between the GOP and white evangelical Christianity, it turns out, is bigger than the 5-minute radio story I ended up making.
And biting off too much is a problem I have. I tend to step up to the plate and try to hit a dinger on every single story, and smack the guts out of the ball while I'm at it.
(I get the sense that my editor desperately wants me to quit this habit. He can assign me a tight 3 minutes on the polling for the 2022 midterms, and the next day I'll FaceTime him with a pushpin-and-yarn crazyboard in the background and the idea that "ok but what if we did 9 minutes on how generic ballot polling has been totally undermined by polarization and is also an inherently flawed concept?" And he will hang up and, I dunno, sigh heavily and take some Xanax. As is right and proper in this situation.)
Anyway. While the story didn't meet my outrageously high standards, it also didn't miscast anything. I think I captured reality fairly, and in that, it was a success. In that sense, even a perfectly mediocre news story is a success.
(Spicy take: this means that most news stories are successful, in my pretty seasoned opinion.)
For the story, I figured I'd stick to a swingy area nearby -- so, the Virginia suburbs of DC (which, dingdingding, is by far the most overcovered geographic area in U.S. politics).
I looked at how Republicans talked about religion in the past -- enter Ronald Reagan with his earnest, actorly public praying. I looked at Donald Trump's bumbling around Christianity. I talked to a college Republican in Virginia to see how the Future Of The GOP thought about this. I talked to a Republican pollster.
And I went looking for a Virginia church where the pastor had done some preaching on politics. To do this, I spent a day on YouTube consuming sermons.
And this is how I came to know the good Reverend Christian Gaffney, the interview subject who I think about more than pretty much anyone I’ve interviewed over the last year. And that's partly -- but only partly -- because our interviewer-subject relationship ended up entirely upside-down...which is to say, he ended up writing about me.
Rev. Gaffney is the pastor of Expectation Church, a large church in the wealthy suburb of Fairfax. I met him there, and while the church is large — the lobby gave me the feel of a small airport concourse — I don’t believe it is big enough to qualify as a “megachurch.” It is towards that end of the spectrum stylistically, though, which is to say that it’s far from the pipe-organ-and-pulpit vibe. It’s the sort of place where the young, floppy-haired pastor (Christian) wears a headset mic and paces the stage or leans on a stool while he cheerfully relays his sermon.
What inspired me to reach out to Christian was a video of a sermon he gave talking about some then-new masking guidelines — that if you were fully vaccinated, you didn’t have to wear a mask anymore. This was, in those bright late-spring 2021 days when people were getting their first vaccination shots, and something in the ballpark of "normal life" felt tantalizingly attainable.
In the sermon, Christian was trying to make a couple of points. One was that the Bible tells people to follow the laws of the government, if those laws don't violate scripture. And because the Bible doesn't say anything that would make masking a sin...well, maybe just put on the mask if you’re not vaccinated (and he himself was a few days away from being fully vaccinated).
And by the way, he added, masking can be a kind and godly thing to do for the immunocompromised people around you.
The thing is, Rev. Gaffney was/is also no dummy. He knew/knows that people's very identities are tied to their Strong Mask Feelings (perhaps particularly if those feelings are Anti-Mask) -- which is to say that people's political identities connect to every other part of their lives these days. This, I imagine, is why he stopped seemingly every other sentence to caveat what he was saying — “Anytime I say something about this, I feel like I’m walking through a minefield,” he said at one point.
I picked him because of all this — not only because he preached about politics, but because he was also quite open in his anxiety about doing so.
Which is its own form of courage. My sense is that pastoring is like being a hyper-scrutinized politician -- one who does a weekly town hall, except the people in the crowd have your personal email address, and also "vote" in the form of offerings, or even by leaving the church altogether (or calling for you to be booted out).
(True story: a pastor of my childhood church was ousted in part because some congregants thought he held babies weirdly during baptisms.)
Christian's anxiety carried into our interview. I remember the way I'd ask a question, and as he thought out his answer, his eyes flick down to my recorder, with its little red light and glowing counter, ticking the seconds away.
In fact, per my transcript, here is how he started one answer:
Well, it makes me a little -- that's the thing is, so -- I see that red light going and it gets me, um, you know, it -- one time I was asked, we did a Q&A series and that's when people were texting questions live and I was answering them on the spot live.
[It's] um, not the funnest thing to do as a pastor, because pastors, we say dumb things quite regularly and, you know, we're going to get recorded and we'll get taken over. We'll get held accountable for it. And there's nothing wrong with that, but sometimes I think there could be a little bit of grace for saying a dumb thing on occasion.
Which isn't to say he was inarticulate or muddled in his answers, or saying "dumb things"...far from it. The sense I got was of a guy who had thought long and hard about how his politics connects to his religious beliefs.
The basics of what he told me:
He doesn't think declining church attendance will necessarily continue; he noted that it goes in cycles sometimes.
He identified as "very conservative." However, he told me about preaching about race after George Floyd's murder, and about getting some congregational blowback as a result. He said he thinks same-sex marriage should be legal, though he personally doesn't think it comports with his faith.
I asked him at one point if his faith had led him to be a conservative. He waffled around a bit as he thought about it, and what he landed on was: yes, his faith informs his religious views, but there can be "diversity" within the faith: "I think that you can be a Democrat and a liberal and a devout Christian just as much as I am."
Which, in a highly ideologically segregated political moment, felt like a hell of an open-minded statement, and I told him so.
The interview ended, he offered to pray for me, and I left. I reached out to him later, probably to clarify something minor (this email has been lost to the ravages of inbox-cleaning). And he wrote back (again, paraphrasing): "Oh, by the way, I wrote about you!" And he dropped in a link.
A big part of why I think about Christian so much is all of that anxiety I mentioned.
To be honest -- and not that I wish discomfort on my interview subjects -- but it was almost refreshing for discomfort to come out as something other than anger.
At political events, I march up to people with my microphone and can-do attitude and ask, “Hey! What brought you out today?" And a lot of the time, I get an answer. Sometimes, it’s a polite "no thank you."
But also, sometimes, I get a sigh or a sneer and something like "I don't talk to journalists." Some people wait to hear the phrase "NPR" before they get snippy. Occasionally, I get a swear or two.
This happens much more often with right-leaning folks than left, but not exclusively.
None of this surprises me -- polls tell us all the time how much people distrust pretty much every institution in America, and The Media (TM) in particular. But it does sometimes make me irrationally furious.
Anecdote time: Years ago, I dated a guy who lived in an apartment building next-door to the NPR office.
And one night while sleeping at his place, I woke up with a start that journalists know too well -- that cocklebur that hooked into your brain halfway through writing your latest article. At the time of writing, it said, "are you SURE you got that year right? One of those digits might be off, no?" And you were reasonably sure you were right. It was a small thing, anyway. You'd come back to fact-check.
That little prickly bastard woke me up at 3 AM to let me know that, yeah, I definitely got a number wrong in that story, and hadn't fixed it yet.
I didn't have a way to fix it at the boyfriend's apartment. And so I put on my clothes, grabbed my badge, and went over to the NPR building to sit down and fix the thing.
And I am not joking — this happened last night. As I sit and write this on January 25, 2022, I can tell you that I woke up at 1 AM last night realizing that a small but important but small thing in a story going up today was wrong. So I rolled out of bed, went into the closet-recording-studio, and re-recorded one line.
Just imagine how I get (here, I'll do it for you: sobbing heap) when I get something *really* wrong -- when I make a mistake of framing or bias or premise.
Do I have an internal, ever-ready list of all the stories I am positive I screwed up royally, and wish I could go back and fix or just flat-out do over after the fact? Yes, I do. And I suspect (hope?) many, many other journalists do too.
So anyway. When Joe/Jane Blow at the political rally tells me that journalists are biased and awful, I want to scream, "I left my LOVER'S BED TO GO FIX ONE DIGIT I GOT WRONG IN A STORY SO HOW DARE YOU NOT TRUST ME BECAUSE I AM THE MOST DETAIL-ORIENTED TRUSTWORTHY PERSON I KNOW."
But instead, I give a tight, "OK! Thanks anyway." ... and trundle off, radio paraphernalia dangling from my person.
I felt none of this anger around Christian, because his distrust came out not in a sneer but in a stream of "erm"s and thoughtful sighs. It was anxious interviewing anxious.
What I’m saying is I felt empathy for him.
Which brings me to the blog post, titled "In the Middle of the Night." Christian wrote it at 3:45 AM, apparently, unable to sleep because of anxiety about saying something wrong to a news reporter.
Like I said, empathy.
By all means, go read it. I, personally, might take a pass this once. I've read it a few times anyway, and can barely read the post without having to stop to take a breath, just at the palpable fear contained here.
We live in such a polarized and divided culture. It feels like I am constantly navigating a razor-thin line between saying the “right” things and not saying the “wrong” things and if I misstep on either side of that line people are hurt, angry, and might be leaving.
Which is to say, it reinforced to me that yes, I am the person with the power here. In interviews with non-public-figures...even if I wish interview subjects knew how much I (and my peers) CARE, DO YOU HEAR ME, I CARE -- in the end, I am the person with the microphone, with the however-many Twitter followers, with the ability to create a permanent URL enshrining their words on the internet in perpetuity.
This is not quite me telling myself, “well, tough, girly — this is the job.” It’s more that seeing someone else wrestling with the fear of screwing up — it made me soften, just a hair’s breadth, toward all the people who get angry when I march up and say “hello hi tell me your opinions.”
So, sure: tough, girly, that’s the job…but also, the job — and really, life — is easier when I can walk away from that annoyance.
High-minded reporters will tell you that [sniff] empathy is the most important reporting tool. And that may well be true. But I’m adding a selfish note here: empathy flat-out keeps you sane. Know where the sneering, difficult people are coming from, and you can walk away from their sneers more easily.
Lest you be annoyed at the warm and fuzzy feel that this newsletter has so far, there is a social science lesson here as well.
Christian's interview, and his blog post, stuck with me for another, much deeper reason: he was getting at, in his own way, one of the most profound and troubling phenomena at work in American politics today.
We, as a culture, have wandered so far into labeling our identity it has become toxic. We think we understand everything about a person just because of one “identifier” like republican or democrat. ...
Our real identity, what truly defines us, should be found in Jesus Christ, the One who made us. In that we must learn to be united surrendering all other “identifiers” to Him.
OK, look. You did not come to this newsletter for a dose of Bible. I know this. Please bear with me.
But in that last line, about "surrendering identifiers"...I heard echoes of an interview I had with the political scientist Lilliana Mason.
When I interviewed Mason for our Politics Podcast book club, she talked about the dangers of all of our other identities (white, conservative, evangelical, and rural, for example) lining up so neatly beneath a partisan identity (in this case, duh, Republican).
When our group is in competition for status with another group, we start paying attention and becoming more active. We become more emotionally responsive to winning and losing, and we become more biased against the other group. Now American partisan politics is arranged so that we have regular competitions for status. Those are elections, and they happen at least every two years. We often hear also legislation being framed as either a win or a loss for one of the two parties.
If our party was not connected to these other identities, and our party lost, we would feel sad. But we would still have the rest of all of these other identities keeping us feeling like we're still OK as individuals. But if all of these other really important identities are linked to the status of our party, then all of a sudden, when the party loses, it feels like all of those other groups also lose. And that is a devastating psychological feeling.
Mason isn't advocating surrendering your identities to Jesus (and, to be clear, neither am I), but she is saying that there's danger in surrendering one's identities to partisanship, which many Americans clearly have.
I want to be clear on two things here: the first is that I don't mean to lionize Christian here...nor anyone I interview. There's stuff he believes that many, many people might not only disagree with, but be downright hurt or offended or threatened by.
But he is an example of something that is apparently a dying trend in American politics: he had oriented himself around an identity anchored at least someone outside of politics (you can argue about the degree to which American partisan politics has itself shaped American Christianity, but my point still stands...because...). As a result, he could conceptualize how liberal politics might also inform someone's Christianity.
That a person can be a Good Person and a Christian and a leftie.
That might seem like such a low bar. But it's a low bar that a lot of Americans can’t clear.
The second important point is that this is not me sermonizing about how we all just need to understand each other and talk more and the world would be a better place and that both sides are equally guilty so let's all hold hands shall we?
Sure, that is a lovely thing to try to do, but I am struck (writing this particular paragraph on the week of January 6) that it's maybe not the most fruitful tack to take with authoritarians and insurrectionists. And moreover, there's only so far that a conversation can go with a person who simply won't believe facts, as a large swath of the public clearly does not.
As my colleague Mara Liasson put it on a recent NPR Politics podcast episode, it has gone beyond being an ideological partisan divide and has become an epistemological one.
When your identity is so tied up in your party that you somehow get convinced that your party can't lose -- that you decide you will attack a government building rather than accept and process that loss -- that is a powerful, twisted new game of identity politics.
Actually, it goes beyond identity politics -- it's just flat-out reality politics, or perhaps surreality politics. When surrendering your identities to a party means that facts aren't facts, that an election winner isn't an election winner, that virtually nonexistent fraud is rampant fraud...
It makes me want to quit and walk out of DC and into the forest and build a hut out of spittle and dirt and quietly meditate for a few presidential administrations and-
The hell of it is, it’s not totally clear how we get out of this period of American history, except for going through it. Here’s what Mason told me on that front:
There's no way to drive a smooth path from here to a fully representative, multiracial democracy. It's just not going to be smooth. So the best-case scenario is that we're in that rough part of the road right now. And the question is, you know, are the wheels going to stay on the car to get us to the smooth part later.
There's no great place to land this newsletter entry at this point. The world is a terrifying, destabilized place. Perhaps the best I can do is to tell you to read Mason's book, strap the hell in as we go over the rough part of the road, and find someone deserving and extend them some grace.
HERE. HAVE SOME LINKS:
My latest radio piece, on Dem anxiety over Latino voters, for which I traveled to a brand-spanking-new congressional district, in Colorado. (Much more fulsome web version coming soon.)
I don’t have a LOT of NPR stuff up these days (because, traveling to Colorado ^^^ and being on the ground for the first time in a while), but you should definitely read my reporting with Deepa Shivaram about the March for Life in DC last week.
I have long been convinced that Bridget Everett is the celeb I would get along best with if I met her in real life, and this New Yorker profile just cemented that for me. (Bridget if you ever read this hello I LOVE YOU SO MUCH.) And if you are here for some NSFW singing, oh my God listen to her joyful, joyful song about boobs. (Do I find myself singing “and then we BOUNCE BOUNCE BOUNCE” to myself most days? Yes.)
A coworker tweeted about the blog McMansion Hell recently, and it is a delightful documenting of whatever stage of capitalism we are in right now.
Am I a parody of myself if I include two New Yorker pieces here? Whatever. This piece on writing without distractions absorbed me…and inspired me to purchase iA Writer. In fact, this and the Seinfeld newsletter issue are the first two I’ve written using the program! It works well! A+ all around!