The sacrament of the sneer

Elvis Impersonator Sneering at Camera

When the firestorm erupted over Brit Hume's suggested that Tiger Woods receive the forgiveness and redemption offered by the Christian faith, I hoped we'd see some more substantive coverage rather than just the religiously sub-literate offerings of the histrionic. We've seen a few good stories about Buddhist beliefs and I was also appreciative of Lisa Miller's post explaining evangelical Christianity to her Newsweek audience:

I'm not at all sure why the liberal left is always so shocked that evangelical Christians want other people to become Christians. The outrage that followed Fox News anchor Brit Hume's plea to Tiger Woods to find Jesus has been totally disproportionate to the statement itself. The usual suspects -- MSNBC and The Huffington Post -- and indeed the whole liberal left blogosphere leapt all over Hume for his arrogance and conservatism. ...

The word "evangelical" comes from the Greek word for gospel, or "good news." Evangelical Christians are those who want to spread the good news. They aren't pretending to believe in salvation through Jesus Christ. They actually do believe that it -- and yours, and mine -- comes through him.

This is why atheist Penn Jillette says it doesn't bother him when people try to convert him. He says it shows that they don't hate him. Anyway, if you don't mind Miller criticizing Hume on aesthetic grounds or saying stuff about Buddhism that is highly debatable, you might enjoy the rest of her essay.

There were a few other noteworthy items on the Hume crisis. I am not what one might call a Michael Gerson fan, but he had a fantastic piece responding to the Washington Post's Tom Shales, who wrote that Hume had to apologize for caring about Tiger's soul to the extent that he might talk about it. Or something. Shales' piece was a bit histrionic and muddled.

Gerson offers a defense of "proselytization" and criticizes those who think that asserting the superiority of one's beliefs is divisive, offensive judgmentalism. The American idea of religious liberty presupposes evangelism, he says, because the freedom to hold whatever beliefs one wishes means people have the right to change those beliefs and persuade others to change as well. He looks at all the danger points of proselytizing before quoting someone who I wish reporters would call on more frequently for a fresh perspective on religion in the public square:

"Persuasion, by contrast," argues political and social ethics professor Jean Bethke Elshtain, "begins with the presupposition that you are a moral agent, a being whose dignity no one is permitted to deny or to strip from you, and, from that stance of mutual respect, one offers arguments, or invites your participation, your sharing, in a community."

Gerson talks about the root of the anger against Hume -- his religious exclusivity. But, Gerson notes, religious faiths generally make competing claims and it is not a scandal to believers. Obviously readers of this blog are the type of people who understand that not all religions are the same and that adults can and should discuss those differences in a civil manner. But don't you get the feeling that half of the stories about religion are designed to understate differences in belief? How often do we see those stories that list -- in 50 words or fewer -- what each major religion believes about, say, eternal life? Are stories about religious adherents who believe in exclusive truth ever puffy. Compare that with stories about religious adherents who practice interfaith worship.

When news broke that my church body didn't participate in those patriotic interfaith worship services in the aftermath of 9/11, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly said we weren't fit to be called Christian. Many mainstream reporters seemed to follow his lead when reporting on us. It still stings a bit.

So while Gerson's piece is an opinion column, it seems a worthwhile read for those reporters covering a vibrant public square:

Hume's critics hold a strange view of pluralism. For religion to be tolerated, it must be privatized -- not, apparently, just in governmental settings but also on television networks. We must have not only a secular state but also a secular public discourse. And so tolerance, conveniently, is defined as shutting up people with whom secularists disagree. Many commentators have been offering Woods advice in his travails. But religious advice, apparently and uniquely, should be forbidden. In a discussion of sex, morality and betrayed vows, wouldn't religious issues naturally arise? How is our public discourse improved by narrowing it -- removing references to the most essential element in countless lives?

True tolerance consists in engaging deep disagreements respectfully -- through persuasion -- not in banning certain categories of argument and belief from public debate.

In this controversy, we are presented with two models of discourse. Hume, in an angry sea of loss and tragedy -- his son's death in 1998 -- found a life preserver in faith. He offered that life preserver to another drowning man. Whatever your view of Hume's beliefs, he could have no motive other than concern for Woods himself.

The other model has come from critics such as Shales, in a spittle-flinging rage at the mention of religion in public, comparing Hume to "Mary Poppins on the joys of a tidy room, or Ron Popeil on the glories of some amazing potato peeler." Shales, of course, is engaged in proselytism of his own -- for a secular fundamentalism that trivializes and banishes all other faiths. He distributes the sacrament of the sneer.

Who in this picture is more intolerant?

Another excellent column comes from Politics Daily's Carl Cannon. It's super long and conversational -- it begins with Mother Theresa and ends with the Book of Acts. But I enjoyed it for its frank discussion of the current media climate, the hyperbolic response of the media (including mainstream reporters) to Hume's comments and in-depth discussion of Hume's career and religious views. I can't really excerpt anything that will show this, but the take-away of the piece is: Here's a guy who has spent his entire career building up journalistic credibility and treating people fairly; he's been straightforward about the importance of Christianity in his life and he deserves the benefit of the doubt about what he was attempting to accomplish with his statements on Tiger Woods. Finally, those interested in Hume's own feelings about the firestorm should read Sarah Pulliam Bailey's interview with him over at Christianity Today:

How would you respond to people to people who are criticizing you?

I certainly expected this. I'm nowhere near the first Christian to be mocked for his faith. It is simply a fact of life that the two most explosive words in the English language appear to be Jesus Christ. You don't even need to say them if you speak openly of Christianity. Faith engenders a tremendous reaction, a lot of it positive and a lot of it negative.

He later says he was surprised by the extent of the reaction, but not by the tone. (NB: Did anyone catch Jon Stewart brutally mocking Hume for, well, talking about getting mocked for his comments?) They talk about his move from straight news to analysis and they speak for some time about his faith. When his son killed himself, he said he saw the face of God in the sympathy that people offered to him and it changed his approach to faith.

Pulliam Bailey also brings up some of the criticisms that have been bandied about:

Some have questioned whether Christianity can help you be more faithful to your spouse.

I don't think you draw a straight line that way. My sense is that if you turn to Christ and seek his forgiveness and mean it, you'll get it. You will be impelled and inspired to live the Christian life. Christianity is a religion for sinners. It doesn't encourage you to sin, it encourages you not to, but it provides a way of forgiveness and redemption. That's what Tiger Woods, like many sinners, needs. That's something we all need. He, in his particularly desperate moment here where he appears to be losing his family, is in special need of it. And I hope he finds it.

I'm sure that this week's news cycle will find some fresh hell to overanalyze. But if you see any good stories on L'affaire Hume, be sure to let us know.

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