If the general rule in polite company is always to refrain from discussing politics and religion, Chicago Sun Times writer Cathleen Falsani has spent a good deal of her career blatantly violating at least half of that maxim. The company she keeps doesn’t seem to mind though. The 35-year-old has interviewed dozens of celebrities—from rock stars and authors to athletes and politicians—about their spiritual beliefs and come away with some very surprising answers.
“Inside the spiritual lives of public people” trumpets the subheading to her book The God Factor. Indeed the “God Girl,” as she’s been dubbed, convinced an eclectic group of public figures to sit down individually and talk with her about the most personal of subjects: their faith (or lack thereof). Tales of Hugh Hefner’s puritan-like upbringing mix with Elie Wiesel’s recollections of the Holocaust and the 9/11 tragedy. Stories of Bono’s childhood in Ireland with a Protestant mother and Catholic father bump up against Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson’s “mere Christianity.” The overwhelming sense one is left with is that the role the “God Factor” plays in each of her subject’s lives is as different as the people themselves.
BustedHalo: Tell me how this project came about? Was it an outgrowth of your column from the Chicago Sun Times?
Cathleen Falsani: It wasn’t actually even a column. I wear two hats at the Sun Times. I work four days a week as a reporter and one as a columnist. This is an outgrowth of a series of profiles we did, which were not editorial. They were featurey but not in my own voice. That started two years ago. We did about three around April of 2004 and the first that ran was Barack Obama. My editors said, “We need a three day series from you.” And was like, “Okay what on?” And they said, “Religion.” Yeah. That‘s all I’ve ever done pretty much. And I asked them if they could narrow it down and they said, “No. No.” And so it was like, “Okay a three day series on religion.” So I started to think about some of the things I’ve done at the Sun Times where I’ve been able to do the religion beat in a really interesting way and pissing a lot of people off. And there were a couple of things that readers were really passionate about responding to. And they were all with well-known personalities who you wouldn’t expect to be talking about faith.
BH: You’re talking about religion and faith. How does that anger people?
CF: Oh my gosh. Anytime you talk about religion you make somebody angry. If somebody says they’re a Muslim but they go on to tell you that they may occasionally eat pork and they feel conflicted about it or they might not. Or that they feel like there is some merit to the teachings of the Buddha. Or that they like the occasional cold frosty beer on a 93-degree day. That’s going to annoy some other Muslims who say you can’t do that. So whenever you personalize your faith and really get honest about what it means for you, if you have a label attached to it, and somebody else uses the label and doesn’t agree with what you say, it tends to get their undies in a twist.
BH: You have some interesting choices. You’ve got Bono who has been associated with faith issues for a long time. Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins who’s not necessarily the first person you think of when you think of religion. Hugh Heffner is one I’m sure that jumps out at a lot of people. How does someone like Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy, end up in your book?
CF: Well, with Hef, specifically, we have a mutual friend. A writer named Bill Zaney–who was actually the one who started calling me God Girl–was telling me at a dinner party that Hef thinks God lives in his backyard, something to that effect, which I knew was probably not quite accurate. But I knew that had to be something to that.
BH: At the Playboy mansion?
CF: Yeah. He said yes right away and I didn’t know what I was going to find. I tried not to figure out what I was going to find before I talked to people, and I would say 90 percent of the book, I had no idea what I was going to find when I went to talk to these people. I didn’t know what their spiritual predilections might be, I just thought they were interesting people. So, most of these were just a fishing expedition and I was lucky that I caught a lot of good fish. Heff was nothing that by any stretch of the imagination would approach orthodox religion. He is, however, a spiritual person and has given a lot of thought to the role of religion in his own life and in society and what it means to be moral. What ethical living is. And while you may disagree with him, the conclusions that he’s reached, that carefully constructed moral universe, he really does believe he’s living a moral life.
BH: How did the Bono interview come about?
CF: Well, the short version is that my husband and I had met Paul McGuiness, U2’s manager at a completely unrelated social setting. And I heard about Bono heading to Nebraska and I was like, “Why is he going to Nebraska?” And that he was traveling across the Midwest on a bus. And I thought, This is not true. They’re making this up. And I was driving home from the city with my husband one day after work and he was like, “You know, you should call Paul and see if you can get on the bus.” And I just about drove off the road laughing. And was like, “Yeah, I’ll get right on that.” I’ll call Paul McGuiness up and see if I can get on some bus in Nebraska. But he said, “You know., it may seem ridiculous, but you’ll never know if you don’t ask.” So the next day I got on the phone and 75 phone calls later, I managed to talk my way onto the bus. Two days later, I flew to Nebraska and spent what was supposed to be three days and turned into ten on the bus across the Midwest. And we had many interesting conversations about faith and the gospel and the world and music and love and families and sex and politics…all kinds of stuff. I was filing daily stories for the Sun Times out of that and then wrote a big profile of him that ran on Christmas day and wrote a big cover story for Christianity Today about him.
BH: What’s your background?
CF: I went to Garrett Evangelical Seminary, which is a Methodist seminary, although I am not Methodist and never have been, on the campus of Northwestern because I wanted to pursue a degree in theology or comparative religions but I also wanted to get a masters in journalism because I wanted to write and specifically wanted to write about religion for a secular newspaper. Right about the time I was deciding to go to grad school, I found out that they were just starting a program that was two masters’ degrees. One in journalism and one in religion. I have an MTS, a master in theological studies, which was the academic track. Most people I was in seminary with who were doing that who weren’t MDiv students who were preparing to be ministers or priests were going to be professors except for four of us who wanted to be journalists.
BH: With your theological background, did you ever find yourself taking exception with some of these things and challenging them?
CF: In my head I took exception with a lot things I heard. But very consciously and very intentionally, this project was designed not to be dialogical. And for me to not be confronting people I just wanted to give them a chance they never get, at least publicly: a safe place to talk about this without somebody judging them or confronting them or flipping it around. I was basically an interpreter, which is a lot of what we do as journalists. I’m a person who speaks the language of faith, whether it’s my own or somebody else’s and I could help guide them through a conversation. Many of them have never had conversations like this before. To try to communicate what it is they believe and how that shapes the way they live their life. Now there were plenty of disconnects as there are with anybody, but it wasn’t my job to say, “Well I know you say that but…”
And, in fact, I know if I had done that, they wouldn’t have been as open and vulnerable as they had been.
BH: Whether a person is an atheist, agnostic, or part of a more conventional religious tradition almost everybody has a God story, even if it’s a rejecting God story. That’s a very sacred and vulnerable place for a person.
CF: And they were very sacred experiences. I don’t mean this in a flip way. They really were. There’s this book I read when I was a freshman at Wheaton College, where I went to school out in Illinois, called The Go Between God. And I can’t remember who wrote it or much of what it said. But I do remember that it said that God is the thing that happens between people when we get out of our own way. The thing that connects us to each other. Really authentic connections. And that’s always been my prayer. In fact before I came in here to talk to you.
BH: You said a prayer?
CF: Right. That I can get out of my own way and you can get out of yours and we can connect between God. Make the connects that we wouldn’t make otherwise.
BH: What was the most unexpected revelation you found in the course of your research?
CF: You know I get that question a lot.
BH: Okay…now, get out of my way, I’m trying to let God in.
CF: (laughs) No, it’s a good question. How I answer that is how I’m feeling in the moment and what’s going on with me because everybody surprised me in one way or another. The ideal thing for a journalist is that you would go and be looking for one thing and find something different and entirely better. For instance, Anne Rice. She’s groovy. Well, Anne is nothing like I expected in any way, shape or form. She doesn’t look like what you think she’d look like, doesn’t dress how you think she’d dress, doesn’t sound like what you think she’d sound like. Her demeanor isn’t what you think it’d be. And certainly, what she was saying was nothing that you would expect. The way she described her faith was really, profoundly beautiful, I thought. And really touching.
But then there are also more subtle things. The answer I’m going to give today, which means I’m probably in a better place than usual, is John Mahoney who played the dad from “Frasier.” He’s been in a ton of movies. He was the dad in Say Anything. He’s won a Tony award and was one of the original members of Steppenwolf. A fabulous guy and a neighbor of mine in Oak Park, which is a little town outside of Chicago. I knew he was a fan of what I wrote about in the Sun Times so I was telling him some of the people I was interviewing for the book and he said, “Do you want to interview me?” So a couple of months later we sit down to have lunch and I figure I knew the story. A man of a certain age, Irish Catholic, probably fallen away a little bit. He’s been in Hollywood a long time. And I wasn’t wrong. But I wasn’t right. When John sat down and started telling me his spiritual history, he expressed his faith in such a remarkable way. The depth of his faith and how consuming it was and how conscious of it he was and how deliberately he lives his life according to what he thinks is one of the highest commands, which is to be charitable, to be kind. That kindness that he is so well known for is a direct result of his faith.
BH: He seems to be a very devout guy in his own way.
CF: He is. And it’s a beautiful thing. And that’s probably one of the things I think about the most. Is it kind? Kind of What Would John Mahoney do?
BH: Right. You can start a movement with a wristband: WWJMD? You really are treading on some of the most delicate territory there is. In the public sphere, the minute you say something about religion you can immediately alienate people you want to like you.
CF: Which is why so many people said no.
BH: Did they?
CF: I think that more than a hundred actors said no. And there were a lot of people I thought were intriguing. There was a day when I pitched Lindsay Lohan, Orin Hatch, and somebody else.
BH: Orin Hatch doesn’t want to talk about God?
CF: No. If I told you some of the politicians who wouldn’t talk about it…
BH: You can’t talk about that?
CF: What Would John Mahoney Do?
BH: Yeah, but John Mahoney’s not here.
CF: But isn’t he always with us? Where two or more are gathered. Yeah, there were people who are “known” for their religiosity and wouldn’t come near me for this project. I don’t want to be cynical, but I don’t know why.