I'm sure most of you have already seen the above video of CNN's Wolf Blitzer baiting a survivor of the Moore, OK, tornado into thanking The Lord for her and her child's safety during the event. Turns out Rebecca Vitsmun is an atheist. To the young mother's credit, she was polite and handled the awkwardness of the moment very well.
This interview raises many issues for me. Let's start with the sin Wolf Blitzer committed against the profession of journalism. When you are interviewing someone, particularly somebody who has been through a major traumatic event such as a tornado, you don't bait them into giving the answer YOU want to hear. You ask them to tell you what they know, what they experienced, what emotions were running through their mind. You listen. You respond to what they say. This is their narrative; not yours. And if they want to thank The Lord, you give them that room to do so because that's what is in their heart. If there is ever a time where a journalist needs to be aware that, "It ain't about you, kid!," times of tragedy and reflection on those events is definitely it. The journalist is the outsider... unless they were huddled in a storm shelter themselves.
Then there is the sin of making assumptions about a particular group of people. And this is increasingly becoming an issue, I think, in a country where we've had this seething, boiling pot of Tea Party fervor that seems to lash out at anything and everything that's perceived as "different." Wolf Blitzer's statement, posed as a question, makes the assumption that because this is a young mother in the middle of Oklahoma, she mustbe a Christian. Even as a student attending the University of Missouri-Columbia, and majoring in broadcast journalism, and being exposed to a city that had plenty of Assemblies of God to go with the numerous Baptist churches, I knew that religion was a big deal for many people in the greater Boone County area. Still, unless the person had a religious symbol of some kind on their person, I knew to stay away from asking them about matters of faith. The only time that would enter the discussion was if (a) the story was about faith or religion or (b) they brought it up. I never based my questions on my assumption that this person is from mid-Missouri; therefore they must be an evangelical Christian. Many probably were, and so what?
Which gets to the matter of Ms. Vitsmun's atheism. Some of the right-wing commentators in this country have sneered that Blitzer found the only atheist in Moore, Oklahoma. Glenn Beck believes the interview was a set-up to advance the idea that atheists exist, even in middle America. I don't believe that. I don't believe a journalist like Blitzer would want to come off looking as foolish as he did, on purpose, on a nationally televised interview. I think what Rebecca Vitsmun reflects is a truism about midwesterners: they are the ultimate "What You See Is What You Get" kind of people. She doesn't believe in God. And so what?
Atheism has been on the rise, or more specifically, lack of interest in religion has been steadily growing over the years. There have been Gallup polls and other surveys that show that the younger generations are becoming less and less interested in going to church. This causes those within the religious institutions no end of fits and panic attacks about how to get people to come to church. I don't think the focus should be on getting people to "come to church." It should be how do we remove the impediments for people seeing God. A lot of that comes down to us, individually, who are believers, being more transparent vessels of God's love, and presenting a more complete picture of God. Many of my atheist friends scoff at God as an imaginary "sky wizard" or "old man in the sky." I can only imagine that they've come to this conclusion because this is the Sunday School image brought to them by whatever was their local church or synagogue. I don't buy into that image of God. I don't buy into the image of God having a male gender when I think that God is the perfect feminine and the perfect masculine all at once. In other words, I don't believe in the binary understanding of gender, especially as applied to a being so far beyond our human understanding as God. While I don't believe in pressing an atheist into believing if they do not, I also am not willing to let them define what God is or is not any more than I am willing to let the fundamentalist Christians define God and Christ for the masses.
Pope Francis I made waves this week when he indicated that all people who do good are doing the work of Christ and God... even atheists. This is one of the other areas where many of my atheist friends get prickly, and so I am very happy the Pope said what he did. Of course, atheists and believers are all made in the image of God, are all created with the potential to do good or evil, to choose life or death. I've always said that God believes in the atheist even if the atheist doesn't believe in God. This is why Rebecca Vitsmun knew to flee her home with her baby in enough time before the tornado turned it into a pile of pick-up sticks. Ms. Vitsmun loves her child as a mother, so, of course, she had the instinct to protect her child and got them both to safety. She may even pitch in to help her believer neighbors gather up their lives as the community works toward recovery. Does she need God to tell her to do that? No. Is what she did and, may do into the future, pleasing in God's sight? Yes.
In many ways, I wish we would all chill out about belief vs. non-belief. Those of us who do believe know that our faith buoys us up during difficult times, and adds to the sweetness of those moments that are joyous. And that's the fuel that keeps us going. Others run on different grades of fuel. It's all good, especially if we keep moving in the direction of doing good.