By Jan Worth-Nelson
Since the night of March 6, when Denise Ghattas stood up in Whiting Auditorium at the CNN Democratic Debate and asked Bernie Sanders, “Do you believe that God is relevant?” she has been lambasted and mocked on Google, slandered on an extremist left-wing misogynist website, stalked by a Florida imposter, accused of being a Hillary Clinton “plant,” and had her identity stolen.
She’s not sure if that last misfortune was related to her appearance at the debate, but the alarming incident has added another layer of dis-ease, to say the least, following an event that she says even five months later is still painfully “fresh.”
And it all started not with her, but with an almost accidental encounter the Sunday before the debate between a CNN producer and a group of Orthodox priests having dinner at Redwood Lodge.
“Our priest [Father Joe Abud of St. George Orthodox] and our deacon [Michael Bassett] were there with our bishop, who happened to be in town,” Ghattas recounts. The producer saw the clerical collars, so she knew they were men of the cloth as she approached. She said CNN was looking for people to ask faith-based questions at the debate, and would they be willing?
“It seemed that they all had conflicts,” Ghattas says with a smile. But Deacon Bassett agreed to email people interested in politics the next day, and Ghattas was among them. After talking it over with her husband and a good friend, she called the producer, found out more about it, and on Wednesday submitted four questions.
What happened after that gave her a startling dose of the effects of media attention and, she says, a personal experience of online bullying. And it has prompted her toward serious reflection on what it means in the current political atmosphere to ask questions of personal relevance.
Ghattas, 61, is a retired teacher and education administrator who spent most of her childhood in Flint. She grew up in the Eastern Orthodox church: her father, the late Basil Karpelenia, was a priest at St. George, and the family spent several years at the rectory on McClellan Street. Both parents taught in the Flint public schools, and the family was involved in Flint social service issues. Father Karpelenia was a charter member of the Flint Human Rights Commission and briefly served on the Flint Board of Education. Eventually the family moved to Flint Township, and Ghattas graduated from Swartz Creek High School. Her mother, Loretta, is 85 and now lives in Florida.
After 35 years away in Texas and Nevada, Ghattas found her way back to Flint because of love: to marry local attorney Habeeb Ghattas, a lifelong family friend. After reconnecting at another friend’s Flint wedding, they launched a long-distance relationship, eventually marrying in Las Vegas. At first they commuted, but finally she took early retirement in 2008 from her position as district coordinator for English Language Arts for the Clark County School District in Las Vegas. She has been here ever since.
She was told that originally CNN wanted “undecided Democrats,” but when she made it clear that both she and her husband categorize themselves as independents, politically, and that she had been avidly following the debates and town halls of both parties, the producer said, “Oh yeah, that would be great — we just want to be sure you’re not somebody who’s going to come in and disrupt.” The producer said they wanted questions that would “get personal” and they chose faith-based queries as the way in.
In her submission, Ghattas wrote that she wished to ask “a few personal questions” of the candidates. “I became an educator, like many others, to make a difference in students’ lives, whether they were adolescents, teenagers, or adults. My passion for teaching and developing strong leaders and successful lifelong learners has not diminished,” she wrote.
She added, “My family guided me with their wisdom and inspired me through their faith in God, their commitment to serving others, and their passion for life. This has influenced every decision I have made both personally and professionally.” So, she said, she wanted to know what the candidates would have to say on that topic.
The first question she submitted had to do with character. In short, she said, “Character does matter. How will the two of you avoid resorting to hurtful, harsh and cruel character attacks during the rest of the campaign?”
The other three she initially suggested to be asked of Sanders alone:
- Do you believe that God is relevant? Why or why not?
- How has your faith, not your religion, influenced decisions you have made and will continue to make?
- During our church services, we pray and give thanks for the President of the United States, the Armed Forces, and all Civil Authorities. We pray for our loved ones: we pray for our enemies. To whom and for whom do you pray?
The Friday before the debate, at about 5 p.m, the producer, Danelle Garcia, called her: CNN had picked one of her questions.
It was the second on her list: “Do you believe God is relevant? Why or why not?” But instead of asking it only of Sanders, they wanted her to ask it of both the candidates. The producer and Ghattas met at Blackstone’s to go over details. She was told that she had been vetted by the Secret Service and had passed muster.
“Here’s how it’s going to go,” the producer said. “First, you’re going to ask the question to Bernie, and then Anderson Cooper will say, ‘are you satisfied with that answer?’ and you would have a chance to say yes or no and follow up. Then you’ll ask the question of Hillary.”
Ghattas agreed: she says she thought it was fair to ask the same question of each candidate, especially with the provision for follow up.
On Sunday, she reported to her seat with her husband, nervous and mostly worried, she says, that she would stumble on her words.
But then things got complicated.
Twenty minutes before the debate started, a producer tapped her on the shoulder and said, “There’s going to be a change. We want you to ask the first question of Bernie, and then we want you to ask your fourth question, “To whom and for whom do you pray?” of Hillary.
Ghattas says she was startled and flustered but agreed. When she got to the mic, the last of eight local questioners, she says as she faced Sanders the sound of her own voice was loud and echoed disorientingly. But she proceeded, and when she asked her question, she says, “Oh my god, you could just feel the hush of the audience.”
East Village Magazine‘s Teddy Robertson, sitting in a balcony, reported in her March 16 commentary that the question produced groans. (See full text of Robertson’s March 16 commentary here). But Ghattas didn’t hear that.
“What I heard was silence,” she said. “I thought, oh, somebody’s going to throw something at me. But I figured, well, I guess they’re going to listen.”
Sanders replied “…the answer is yes, and I think when we talk about God whether it is Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or Buddhism, what we are talking about is what all religions hold dear. And, that is to do unto others as you would like them to do to you.” The audience applauded.
He continued, “…I believe morally and ethically we do not have a right to turn our backs on children in Flint, Michigan who are being poisoned, or veterans who are sleeping out on the street.” And he concluded, “I promise you I will worry about your family. We are in this together.”
Ghattas knew that Sanders is a “secular Jew,” she says. That doesn’t matter to her, she says, but what she hoped for was a statement that clarified that if elected Sanders would not interfere with the religion of others. She imagined a statement something like, “Personally, I don’t believe God is relevant, but I’m not going to take away your right to believe or pray.” She said Sanders’ response was “political, not personal” as she had hoped.
“I truly believe we need to keep God in the Pledge of Allegiance,” Ghattas says, “no matter what you believe. I’m not a holy roller, but I want to hear the president of the United States say, God bless America.”
She was preparing to follow up, when Anderson Cooper unexpectedly cut in. He asked a followup question suggesting that Sanders was keeping his Judaism “in the background.” Sanders responded that he was proud to be Jewish and “being Jewish is an essential part of who I am as a human being.” Again, the audience applauded.
But Ghattas felt that she had lost control of her question, her moment.
“I was reeling inside while I was standing there unable to respond to Bernie and having to stand there while he responded to Anderson’s question and Bernie’s response to that one,” she says. “In hindsight, I would have given my own back story and would have added my own closing comments to Bernie before asking Hillary the next question. That is what those who know me would have expected.” But before she had a chance to offer her own follow up, which she says she had been promised, Cooper moved her to the question for Clinton. In essence, it was “To whom and for whom do you pray?”
That question also proved controversial. Clinton apparently had been briefed that Ghattas was Eastern Orthodox, and said “I have been several times in your services and have joined in those prayers.” While she has read the transcript of the rest of Clinton’s answer, at that moment she didn’t hear much of it because she was sent back to her seat before the answer ended. She says now she is more satisfied with Clinton’s answer than with Sanders’.” But there was no opportunity to follow up to Clinton’s answer either. [Full transcript of the Flint debate can be found here.]
When she sat down, someone behind her said, “Thank you for asking a question so many people were afraid to ask.”
“I thought, really, why should people be afraid to ask anything?” As the event ended and people were filing out, CNN debate co-anchor Don Lemon yelled at her from the stage, “Hey Denise, great questions.” She was briefly interviewed by CNN producer Victor Blackwell, who asked “what motivated you to ask these questions?” to which she replied, “Because CNN asked for it,” and complained that Cooper had cut her off and she didn’t get a chance to do her follow up. As far as she knows, that segment never aired.
As she and her husband departed for Cork, where she hoped to get some food and a pomegranate martini, she says “at that point I was in Lala Land thinking everybody has the right to ask a question, no matter what it is.”
At Cork they had had a “debate watch” and many people recognized her. The waiter called her “a star.” But one person said “My mother’s mad at you — she’s an atheist.” By the time Ghattas got her martini, however, the woman seemed friendly and waved at her from across the room.
In the morning, everything changed. MLive’s Robert Acosta had quickly interviewed her after the debate and she thought she heard him say it was just for notes and it would not be broadcast. In the morning, however, she saw that the video had in fact been posted online, and was followed by a raft of comments. Some supported her, but some carried insults.
One of the worst, for Ghattas, was from “Michigan Sue”: “Sorry, but Denise Ghattas’ religion question was rude, arrogant and presumptive. And totally revelant. If it’s good for her, fine and dandy. But to force it on candidates and viewers didn’t play well.” She says she thinks the person must have meant “presumptuous” and “irrelevant,” but the comment still stung.
And then comments started showing up on national websites. Some sites suggested she might be anti-Semitic: “Ghattas’ expression as she listened to Sanders’ response — a mix of suppressed discomfort, fear, and politeness, followed up with a swift mention of her church and a gradually relaxed expression as Clinton began to speak about attending it — confirmed my fears,” Rachel Krantz wrote on Bustle.com. Some said she was channeling Dana Carvey’s “church lady.” One suggested that she was a Hillary plant, based on an unfounded connection with somebody else named Ghattas. In a post on “The Morning Heresy,” Ghattas was labeled “the God lady” and accused of throwing Clinton a softball.
A few days later, a man on Facebook sent her what seemed to be a complimentary private message, but it soon turned into unwelcome stalking with a sexual component, and after many stern responses and finally ignoring him, she discovered his profile was faked and eventually his photo, which she thinks was not actually him, disappeared.
After several weeks, Ghattas’s husband suggested she needed to stop following her footprints online. They took a trip and she gradually started to relax. But that apparently was when her identity got stolen, leading to another stressful sequence of challenges.
She remains stung by the responses and many aspects of whole experience. She says she was fed up with what she called the trash talking at the GOP primary debates and could never vote for someone like Trump who bullies others, on air or otherwise. She also was upset by what she characterized as similar trash talking of Bernie Sanders supporters late in the primary campaign — so much so that she considered stopping by the local Sanders outpost to complain. She says she listens more closely now to what she hears, and regrets that often not enough background is provided, as she believes was true in her case.
“Of course I know about the separation of church and state,” she says. “Of course I know that Jews pray — I’m an educated woman.”
But she stands strongly for her right to question the country’s leaders — about religion or otherwise.
“I don’t care what religion they’re in,” she says. “We will never know what somebody truly believes — but it’s how you make decisions based on those beliefs. I don’t want you to tell me I cannot practice my faith or believe in my god, just as I won’t tell you not to believe in yours. I want to be able to say I believe in God, I’m a Christian. I’m not going to push my religion on you, but don’t tell me I can’t have it.”
“There was a time when asking questions was taken as a challenge, a sign of disrespect,” she says. “But that was never true for me. In all my 35 years as an educator I’ve tried to help students and teachers understand that the more questions you ask, the more you’re going to find out about yourself.
“We tell kids to develop their critical thinking skills, and then sometimes when they ask those questions, we cut them off. What happened to ‘stand up for what you believe in?’ If you believe in God, if you don’t believe in God, fine. You have that right.”
“I don’t expect everyone to agree with me,” she says. “I wasn’t looking for praise or recognition. I wasn’t trying to persuade anyone to believe one thing or another. I was asked to submit personal, faith-based questions. Those who know me, know that I didn’t have some hidden agenda. This was NOT a ‘religious test.’ I know the Constitution. I didn’t do this for publicity. These are the questions I would ask anyone…would love to ask Trump…or anyone for that matter.
“What continues to concern me,” Ghattas says, following up in the middle of the Republican convention, “is the extreme level of hatred among those who are voting for the President of the United States,” She added she is also worried about “the extreme fear that men and women have because they can’t ask questions, the fear of abuse…Something is very wrong here.
“We have a lot of work to do,” she concluded. “There’s still so much hate out there — and a lot of it is anonymous hate. It still bugs me, what anonymous people said about me, and they don’t even know who I am.”
EVM editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.