E. Gordon Gee, the president of Ohio State University, has resigned in the fallout from comments he made about Notre Dame and Catholic priests.
In the controversial remarks, Gee talked about battles his university has over athletics with other institutions, and referred to the University of Notre Dame’s “holy” fathers as “holy hell” and said that “you just can’t trust those damn Catholics.” He has insisted since his December comments were made public that he was just joking, saying that his words were “a poor attempt at humor.”
Since he has now decided that he can not continue to lead the 63,000-student strong university, it’s time to ask:
Is it no longer kosher to be funny about faith?
It’s easy to forget that not too long ago Catholics were viewed as a minority group in America, approached with skepticism by the Protestant majority. John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech to Christian ministers in Houston was deemed as necessary to quell fears of a president bowing to foreign religious pressure. But in an era of Catholic ascendance — Catholics are represented in the White House via VP Biden, dominate the Supreme Court and make up the single largest religious group in Congress — it’s hard to argue that the faith group struggles to assimilate into the American fabric and demands special deference.
Gee’s comments were met with laughter by his December audience and, in truth, were relatively tame, especially compared to other public comments about Catholicism after the sexual abuse scandal and debate over contraception coverage.
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest who wrote the book (literally) on faith and humor said this about Gee’s Catholic comments, “From the context it’s hard to tell if he was being playful, sarcastic, mean-spirited or just plain stupid. But Christians are called to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, so I’ll pick playful.”
Still — could Gee get away with making the same comments about other religious groups — say Jews, Muslims or even Mormons?
It’s worth asking because Gee himself is Mormon.
And few religious groups have taken it more on the chin more in recent years than Mormonism. Presidential politics aside, one of the key questions of the so-called “Mormon moment” was how the “The Book of Mormon” musical handled matters of faith. The musical, titled after the holy book of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, opened in 2011 and went on to huge critical and popular acclaim, winning Tony Awards and selling out around the world, despite its crassness and mockery of Mormon sacred teaching.
Writing for On Faith, LDS leader Michael Otterson insisted he would not watch the musical, recalling the words of a Jewish writer who saw the musical as bigoted and making a mockery of faith. Some Christians agreed that the musical crossed the line, while others saw it as positive proof that Mormons had entered the mainstream.
As always, it’s true that one man’s joke is another man’s offense.
Bottom line: If you are a public official and you think about saying “you just can’t trust those damn [insert religious group here],” you probably shouldn’t finish that thought.
Wouldn’t be prudent.
Image courtesy of Broadway Tour.