Charlie Sykes: Hero Of This Destructive Election

The first time I was a guest on the O’Reilly Factor, a few aghast colleagues queried: “How could you do such a thing?” My response: if Mr. O’Reilly is looking for a credible Catholic voice, I am all in. (And let me say Mr. O’Reilly and his producers have always treated me with gracious professionalism.) I have been asked to talk about many things including what it is like to be a practicing Catholic in San Francisco as well as the relationship between evil and mental illness immediately after the Virginia Tech murders.

Even though I have occupied a teeny part of talk-TV and radio space, when invited, I participate because I see it as an important feature of my work as a trained theologian. So I was very gratified to read the compelling assessment by Milwaukee’s influential conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes on the ruined credibility in talk radio. He admitted the role of talk radio in the acceptance of Donald Trump’s worst policies and qualities.

Like Nixon going to China, such a voice from the right was necessary. It was also heroic to call-out how critical thinking has been fractured in so many sectors of this election, when careful discourse is assaulted daily. Like a good preacher, Mr. Sykes named the damage. We ignore righteous preachers at our peril. Many journalists and columnists are already pondering how conservatives who continue to stand by Mr. Trump will be evaluated after the election.

So here is a tip from the Catholic tradition: naming a sin is a necessary step towards healing it. If Mr. Sykes can continue to play the role of confessor, we just might be able to heal our crippled discourse.

Mr. Sykes is a preacher, a preacher of the American idea. A skilled preacher proclaims the religious story and then ponders it anew to teach and enrich religious practice. Mr. Sykes convenes the community to listen to our American story yet again and to make it come alive in our practical politics. Would that all talk-radio had that goal. Charlie Sykes heroically described the situation from his perch as one who seeks to serve our politics through community discourse.

Let the healing begin. I offer a balm: in his soul-searching for elevating conservative talk radio, invite credible scholars in their fields to the table. Too often we hear only from people with an agenda who are not actually critically trained.  

And because Christians compose so much of the conservative base, I suggest further that he consult seasoned theology professors, who have a rich base of experience in deftly managing audiences who are disenchanted with institutions. And since religion has been so ignorantly described for so long now, you will need coherent religious voices more than ever.

One of the best undergraduate teachers I know refers to students in our required theology classes as “conscripts.” He is nodding here to the recent Pew study that shows a growing trend away from “religious affiliation.” I find most of the analysis about this trend glib and condescending towards the very people it seeks to understand. During a time when the San Francisco Giants provide better liturgy than your average Catholic parish, is it any wonder that young people more readily identify with a sports team than with a religious institution? Mr. Sykes has diagnosed a similar malady with institutional politics: many citizens appear ignorant of the central features of our rich form of self-government. Instead of political conversation partners, we hear politicians described as idiots and criminals.  

We will need platforms like Mr. Sykes’ to regenerate the conversation.

Critical thinking about religion is facing similar challenges.

Public-atheist Richard Dawkins once called me a “fairy-ologist” in an exchange on the radio. I identified myself as a theologian; his response was that there actually is no such thing because there is no “Theos” to study. Religious belief of any kind is fantasy, so goes the thinking. While I can challenge his thinking here, a sharper more effective response to rigid ideology is engaged critical thinking with the wisdom of an enduring intellectual tradition.

But Dawkins is not alone. Religion has lost credibility even in the Catholic university classroom. We have to re-establish credibility at the beginning of every course. Unlike the Medieval University, where Christianity’s truth-claims about reality shaped the intellectual landscape, our conceptual landscape is shaped by modernity and all the new insights that came along with it. Happily I teach at Santa Clara University where the place of Theology is robustly defined: we require the study of religion because it is an essential feature of a modern education. Religion, as body of knowledge, is just as important for critical thinking as are the lab sciences, composition, rhetoric, and history.

But we college theology teachers have even more in common with Mr. Sykes. Religion is akin to love of country; it involves critical ideas as well as personal identity and commitments. My students do not question the latest development in cancer treatment the way they question the claims that great religions make. And no wonder.  Many institutional voices have been telling them that Jesus is more interested in their sex lives than in their service to others; that belief in God is for the un-intelligent, under-educated and anti-scientific; that care for the planet requires a romantic view of unspoiled nature where everyone is a vegan.

College teachers teach critical thinking; that work is an essential feature of our profession. College teachers know how to reanimate such landscapes. Invite us in; we will help you.

Good theology lifts the spirit. Poor theology shrinks it. Critical political discourse leads to patriotism; ignorant talking leads to a fractured and even nativist population.

Since Mr. Sykes self-identifies as a proud member of the “party of Lincoln” he will surely remember that one of the features of Lincoln’s great presidency was the creation of the land-grant universities. Mr. Sykes participates in that legacy in his prophetic diagnosis. We college teachers have been tending the same malady. We stand ready to help.

Sally Vance-Trembath, Ph. D. teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University.