That’s mighty Native American of you!

Apparently Archbishop Charles Chaput struck a nerve with Mark Silk, professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and the author of Spiritual Politics: Religion and America Since World War II and Unsecular Media: Making News of Religion in America.

We’ve discussed Chaput’s address to religion news writers a few times already. If you haven’t read it, we’ll give you a minute to do so now.

I thought that Chaput offered constructive criticism of the media and really elevated the discussion. Silk says it’s tired, old culture war silliness. He says the problem with the media isn’t that it’s composed of elites who make secularist assumptions that are out of touch with reality or that coverage of Christianity in particular is negative. He says the real problem is that “the media tend to view religion not through secularist glasses but in categories derived from Western religion.” Fine.

But check out this part of his criticism:

But be this as it may, what really caught my eye in Chaput’s address was this:

One of the worst habits many Catholics had at the start of the clergy sex abuse crisis, including many bishops, was to minimize a very grave problem. But news media show many of the same patterns of denial, vanity, obstinacy, and institutional defensiveness in dealing with criticism of their own failures.

Now, it’s pretty white of Chaput to include “many bishops” on his side of the comparison …

What? What was that last line? Now, on a good day, in an intimate setting, that type of line is risky. But yikes — what was Silk thinking? The usually sarcastic saying — an unsubtle reference to white people engaging in atrocities against or oppression of non-whites, while claiming to do so in their benefit — is a biting insult with the power to offend all races.

For what it’s worth, Chaput is a registered member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribe, very active in Native American affairs and the first Native American archbishop.

I can’t even imagine what the media response would be if Chaput made such a scathing remark with racial connotations. I assume that Silk, who received his Ph.D. from Harvard and has spent his life in journalism and the academy, either didn’t think about what he was saying or didn’t realize how the remark is taken by others. Maybe he thought Chaput’s family heritage is what makes the insult work. I don’t know. But it’s really an odd way to disagree with someone who’s calling for civility and decency in media coverage. And it probably couldn’t better prove Chaput’s point that the media has trouble with self-criticism and respect of others.

Here’s how Chaput’s address ended:

Religion journalism deals with the most fundamental things about human meaning, things intimate, defining, and sacred to many millions of people. So master and respect your material. Know yourself and your prejudices. Acknowledge mistakes, and don’t make them a habit. Be as honest with yourself as you want your sources to be. Understand believers and their institutions as they understand themselves. And if you do that — and do it with integrity, fairness, and humility — then you’ll have the gratitude of the people you cover, and you’ll embody the best ideals of your profession.

We can all disagree and fight things out, but it seems to me this is solid advice. We should check our prejudices and aim for integrity and fairness and humility.

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  • tmatt

    Come on people.

    Focus on journalism, not personal attacks on the archbishop.

  • Martha

    Or it could be a deliberate usage, to accuse the Archbishop of elitism, entitlement, and white privilege.

    These kinds of remarks are such a minefield it’s probably best to avoid them. In this case (a professor and all that) I can’t give him the benefit of the doubt; I don’t think this was just a usage that was common in his time and slipped past his radar but it was a deliberate choice of words.

  • Mollie


    Honestly, I think Silk was being sarcastic without thinking it through. He’s normally a very thoughtful writer on these issues.

  • Bill R.

    Silk added the following apology to his post:

    Apology: I’ve caught some criticism for characterizing Chaput as “mighty white” above. I confess that while I was aware that he is a Native American, I wasn’t thinking about that when I used the phrase–but rather was referring to the “whited sepulchre” quotation from Matthew. The idea was in fact to acknowledge with the off-color (as it were) reference–as I did directly by referring to other bishops–that Chaput had said something honorable: no mere whited sepulchre he. But I apologize for what clearly can be taken as a racist slur. Mea culpa.

    Seems Silk was trying to pay Chaput a (backhanded?) compliment, and it backfired…

  • Mollie

    Bill R.,

    Thanks for the update.

    But “whited sepulchre” is about as far as a compliment as you can get — in Biblical terms. It refers to someone who looks virtuous but is evil on the inside. So while he might be saying that Chaput SAID something virtuous — the subtext there is amazingly rough, too.

  • Dave

    It’s been decades since I’ve heard this particular slur, but it’s not that long since the last time I heard something equally untoward fall out of the mouth of a basically decent person who was as appalled at it as I was. Silk evidently stands among them.

  • Julia

    Exactly – he wasn’t saying that Chaput wasn’t a “white sepulchre”; Silk said he was “pretty white” – that’s not a negative modifier.

  • Peggy

    I really don’t know: Who is to be offended by “mighty white of you” statements? Whites or nonwhites? I never knew precisely what it meant, but I knew it was a slam on a person thinking he’s being really gracious when of course the person should do the thing. It’s rude sarcasm, whether racial or not. In any case, sarcasm in journalism and the use of such slang seems a problematic practice in general.

    Also, it sounds like the apology steps in it deeper with the “whited sepulchre” claim. That doesn’t make sense. He must have been searching through an electronic bible to find “white.” I don’t get the jump from that biblical reference to “mighty white…”

    Then, he couldn’t resist the “off-color” expression. Something subliminal seems to be going on with this guy.

  • Michael D.

    Silk slipped up and used an unthinking, dumb choice of words. Anybody can do that. But his apology is about as tortured and implausible-sounding as you can get. The heart of the matter in Silk’s strange Beliefnet column is the undercurrent of contempt toward Chaput and the content of the archbishop’s RNA talk. For someone of Silk’s experience and standing, that’s the really offensive thing about his column.

  • joye

    That apology makes no sense. How in the world could you possibly twist “it IS pretty white of Chaput” into “Chaput IS NOT a whited sepulcher”? The original says “IS”. Now Silk is claiming he meant “IS NOT”?

    If he had said “Sorry, that was stupid of me, I don’t even know what I meant there, but I definitely wasn’t trying to imply that Chaput was a race traitor, since I don’t believe that,” I would have 100% accepted it. I would have been willing to give Silk the benefit of the doubt, but this explanation stinks like someone trying to hide a rotten fish in a cardboard box with “DEFINITELY NOT A FISH” written on it.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    A lot of excuse making for Silk in some of the comments. But what would the media–and Silk–have done to any candidate, politician, religious leader, or, pundit–especially a Republican–most especially a conservative who similarly slipped up??? An instant headline execution most likely.
    And I just saw that the media has now set a record in the Gallup Poll for being distrusted by the American public. Last poll: 56% of the American people distrusted the media; latest poll: 57%.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I just went to Professor Silk’s site. What a snarky nasty posting there. And the apology he gave to Archbishop Chaput was a neon sign of the type phony apology so often given in the mass media when they are caught in a factual error, lie, or smear.

    Nothing shouts insincerity more than the phrase “what can be clearly taken as….” or its ilk saying — as Silk did by using such words — “Hey! the problem’s with you, Not me!”

  • Bill in Ottawa

    It’s still a phrase in occasional use in my home province of Newfoundland among older people.

    One online dictionary has it as:

    b : of, relating to, characteristic of, or consisting of white people or their culture c [from the former stereotypical association of good character with northern European descent] : marked by upright fairness

    The older folk who still use it say it either sincerely, to indicate approval of the subject’s fair play, or sarcastically, to indicate the opposite. It’s fallen out of currency with those 55 and under, but most of us recognize it as a holdover from the days when white European culture was to be praised and emulated. That ship, however, has emphatically sailed.

  • Carl Vehse

    The meaning (though not the origin) of the expression, “mighty white of you,” can be seen in the 1976 ‘Dirty Harry’ movie, “The Enforcer,” where Police Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) is invited to meet in a back room with the leader of a black militant group, but Callahan’s female police partner (Tyne Daly) is told to remain behind, surrounded by the rest of the group members, one of whom quips, “Don’t worry, pig; we’ll see she don’t get lonesome.” Callahan responds, “Well, that’s mighty white of you.”

    This use of the expression agrees with the Merriam-Webster (delicate) definition, “from the former stereotypical association of good character with northern European descent: marked by upright fairness [that's mighty white of you].”

    In Silk’s case, the expression “it’s pretty white of Chaput” (for including “many bishops” with the habit of minimizing the sex abuse crisis) clearly implies having the good character and upright fairness of a northern European to admit there were faults among his fellow bishops. Silk confirms he regarded the native American archbishop’s admission was upright and fair when he states, “…would that other members of the hierarchy did the same.” Subsequently Silk castigates Chaput for implying that RC laity also minimized the problem.

  • Martha

    Mollie, I’d love to think it was just an outmoded reference slipping through but come on – anyone remember the tv series “Fame” back in the 80s and the dance teacher pointing out to the English teacher (I think) the problematic nature of the phrase “free, white and twentyone”? So in academia, where this kind of language is parsed to a fare-thee-well, I can’t see that kind of casual usage just happening.

    His apology just makes things worse. “I was trying to say he wasn’t a whited sepulchre, that’s why I said it was ‘mighty white’ of him” – yeeeeah. Bit like telling me “I’m sorry you’re so thin-skinned and over-sensitive that you were offended by my perfectly reasonable comments, fatty.”

  • Alia D.

    When media bias is suggested people tend to assume that what is being suggested is a grand conspiracy or a deliberate twisting of converge, or at lest the deliberate neglect of journalistic objectivity. But I think even deliberate neglect of objectivity is rare in the MSM and focusing on the possibility of it has caused a lack of discussion of a more likely and more insidious source of bias.

    Totally objective news would consist of randomly selected and randomly ordered fact done in monotone. And nobody would be at all interested in that. What we ask for in new is the important facts with the relevant detail with appropriate context. But important, relevant and appropriate are all matter of subjective judgment. So, since having no perspective is undesirable, journalists try to use a mainstream, average perspective. However, as can be seen is the pollsters craft, finding out what the average position is can be a difficult, expensive and time consuming task. It would obviously be impossible to conduct research on each of the myriad of judgment calls required daily in the news business so the reporters and editor must inevitably rely on their gut instinct to tell them the perspective of most people and what are the interests of their average reader. And while gut instinct is a good synthesizer and analyzer of peoples’ opinions, it can only work with the data it has, the opinions of the people the journalist actually knows. This sample is bound to consist mainly of the journalist’s friends, family and colleges. Now if journalists were selected at random then the various samples would tend to balance out and provide a fairly average view taken as a whole. But therein lies the problem, journalizes as not selected at random but are a self selected group of those who have invested in the time, effort and dedication it takes to develop journalistic skills. And most journalists didn’t go into the field just for the money. They chose the field because they saw it as a noble calling. They saw value to society in criticism, in doubt, in questioning authority and in shaking up the status quo. They often had heroes like Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, or Edward R. Murrow. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t many people in journalism from all different backgrounds and ideological perspectives. But I do think it produces a sample that differs significantly from a random sample. Without realizing it newsrooms are using the syntheses of a biased sample when they think about an average person to use as the standard for a neutral opinion.

    Though journalists may be innocent of deliberate bias they need to think about the possibility that sample bias is creeping in to undermine their best efforts at objectivity. This type of problem can really hurt journalism despite the fact that most journalists are trying to be neutral. I think contributes to distrust of the media and leaves people whose view are being under represented vulnerable to openly partisan pundits like Rush Limbaugh because they feel such pundits are just balancing the scales.

  • Chris

    I think it is more forgivable to use such a phrase in speech than in a blog post. Presumably, an author/academic should re-read his the text before hitting “post”. (I believe that’s called editing….)

  • tioedong

    What he’s doing is using “white” to denigrate Chaput, implying he is a fake Indian.

    One can’t imagine he is ignorant of Chaput’s ethnicity. after all, Chaput was active with the Catholic “Kateri Circle” groups long before he went to Denver.

    True, the Wikipedia page notes he never “lived on a reservation”, but then, most tribes in the Oklahoma/Kansas areas don’t live on reservations or have “open” (mixed) reservations. (this is a legal thing in most areas. For example, if you murder an Osage in Osage county, they call the FBI; murder a Cherokee in Bartlesville, it’s local jurisdiction).

    How does one know if a person is a true “Native American”? Check their CDIB card.

    No card, you could be full blooded Chibcha, like my sons, but you aren’t an “American Indian”.

  • Passing By

    Racial slur aside (and it was a racial slur), Silk admirably demonstrates and validates Archbishop Chaput’s points about an elitist, out-of-touch “knowledge profession”. Instead of engaging the arguments, he demeans the man.

    All the archbishop really did was ask journalists to the same things journalists demand of others: integrity, honesty, humility, and an ability to see alternate viewpoints. Silk doesn’t like this at all, which says a good bit about him.

  • Joe

    “Mighty white” is a Jon Stewart-style mocking. A harvard columnist knows exactly what he is doing, and the sepulchre retreat… you have got to be kidding me. Shows again how much civility many are really willing to extend.

    too bad.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Under 20% of Native Americans in the United States live on reservation, so Chaput is like the vast majority of Native Americans in not living on Reservation. Never having lived on reservation is harder to calibrate, but it is by no means rare.