Comedians know the meaning of the phrase "tough room."
Professional speakers of all kinds try to steer clear of openly hostile audiences. Naturally, clergy avoid them as well.
But Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput recently accepted a luncheon gig in what he had to know would be a "tough room." Sure enough, his speech in the open City Club forum produced what veteran Rocky Mountain News religion writer Jean Torkelson called "verbal fisticuffs" when Chaput fielded questions on sex, celibacy, contraception, taxes and the state of Sen. John Kerry's soul.
The archbishop came out swinging in the first lines of his address, creating an interesting case study in how the World Wide Web can change the shape of ecclesiastical press relations.
"Some of you may remember that a year ago I was part of a rally on the Capitol steps to protect state funding for the poor and homeless. But you didn't read about it in the 'Rocky' or the Denver Post, because they didn't cover it," he said.
"Last September, just a few weeks before the election, I preached a homily to 5,000 people at Red Rocks, and I had them repeat out loud three times that if we forget the poor, we'll go to hell. That's one of the principles of Catholic social teaching. If we forget the poor, God will forget us. By our indifference, we will damn ourselves. But you didn't read about that in the press either, because -- again -- nobody covered it."
The archbishop was probably not surprised that this part of his speech didn't get covered, either. It's a Catch-22.
In the pre-digital days that would have been the end of that, other than a Catholic newspaper report for the faithful. But Chaput took a simple step that, in the age of email lists and "weblogs," offered his critique to a small, but strategic, national audience. He posted the City Club text on his own Web site and this link spread via a sympathetic network of traditional Catholics.
The reviews were good in many cyber-rooms.
Chiming in at the No Left Turns "blog," political scientist Joseph Knippenberg of Atlanta's Oglethorpe University in Atlanta wrote: "We need more religious leaders like Archbishop Chaput who will challenge the simple-minded separationism that clearly informs the opinions of a significant portion of elite audiences like this one. And we need reporters who will cover these speeches fairly and honestly."
This makes it safer to play "tough rooms." In addition to posting speeches, I think religious leaders -- left and right -- should take advantage of other digital options.
* Why stick to a prepared speech text? Web-savvy leaders can claim the right to digitally record their public appearances and then post online the audio and video files. Was the crowd hostile? Were there hecklers? Supporters and critics can watch for themselves.
* Worried about a hostile media interview? In addition to urging reporters to use recorders, cautious religious leaders can record the interviews for themselves and then transcribe and post the results. This allows the interviewer and the interviewee to know what was said. If readers want to compare press coverage to the verbatim transcript, then so be it. Chaput used this tactic with the New York Times before the 2004 election.
* Tired of stereotypes? It's easier for people of faith to tackle complicated topics when they know they can use digital networks to circulate precise statements of what they believe. They can also post commentaries to help outsiders -- reporters, even -- understand the nuances. Recent National Association of Evangelicals statements on issues such as religious liberty, peace, poverty and the environment have filtered into elite news media, settings in which the term "evangelical" is often a slur.
* Using "blogs" and other digital forums, the faithful can post links to news media reports and then attach jeers and cheers. In an age of declining audiences for mainstream media products, wise newsroom executives might want to pay attention to these forums. What would happen if major religious groups -- such as the Southern Baptist Convention -- opened digital dialogues with media professionals?
It could happen. It would be good if it did happen. It's hard for dedicated, concerned readers to have too much information.