More on Hume

After last week’s post on the flap surrounding Brit Hume’s suggestion that Tiger Woods embrace Christianity, I’ve run across two excellent columns dealing with the same subject. Since both Ross Douthat of the New York Times and Michael Gerson of the Washington Post are (a) prominent and accomplished opinion columnists, (b) better, more imaginative writers than I am, and (c) professing Christians, I thought I’d be worthwhile to interact with both pieces a bit this week. In doing so, I want to highlight a few points that time, space or a lack of insight precluded last week, as well as allow both writers to underscore previous observations.

I’ll include a few quotes followed by my own comments. We start with Douthat:

Liberal democracy offers religious believers a bargain. Accept, as a price of citizenship, that you may never impose your convictions on your neighbor, or use state power to compel belief. In return, you will be free to practice your own faith as you see fit — and free, as well, to compete with other believers (and nonbelievers) in the marketplace of ideas.

That’s the theory. In practice, the admirable principle that nobody should be persecuted for their beliefs often blurs into the more illiberal idea that nobody should ever publicly criticize another religion. Or champion one’s own faith as an alternative. Or say anything whatsoever about religion, outside the privacy of church, synagogue or home.

This gap between theory and practice is precisely the problem, playing itself out in a thousand conversations in the public square every day. And the idea that undergirds this kind of thinking—that a secularist approach to public conversation is ideologically neutral and therefore superior—is the myth that our society would do very well to move past.

Somewhat more plausibly, a few of Hume’s critics suggested that had he been a Buddhist commentator urging a Christian celebrity to convert — or more provocatively, a Muslim touting the advantages of Islam — Christians would be calling for his head.

I think this is a fair observation. While I still maintain that, if roles were reversed, Hume would not have received the same level or even type of criticism from media members that he did, I do think many Christians would’ve gotten upset. Douthat ably goes on to explain why that kind of reaction is problematic:

But these believers are colluding in their own marginalization. If you treat your faith like a hothouse flower, too vulnerable to survive in the crass world of public disputation, then you ensure that nobody will take it seriously. The idea that religion is too mysterious, too complicated or too personal to be debated on cable television just ensures that it never gets debated at all.


When liberal democracy was forged, in the wake of Western Europe’s religious wars, this sort of peaceful theological debate is exactly what it promised to deliver. And the differences between religions are worth debating. Theology has consequences: It shapes lives, families, nations, cultures, wars; it can change people, save them from themselves, and sometimes warp or even destroy them.

I couldn’t agree more with what Douthat’s saying here, but what I found to be even more encouraging was the fact that I could read this paragraph in one of our country’s most prominent news outlets. Here’s hoping that we see more and more people in such places acknowledging that such discussions should not be considered taboo, but rather vitally important. Theological beliefs, or the (supposed) lack thereof, do indeed have consequences.

Now we turn to Gerson, who (rightly) points out that Hume is incorrect in saying that he was not proselytizing. However, he’s quick to defend the validity and even vital necessity of Hume being able to engage in such activity:

The assumption of [criticisms leveled at Hume] is that proselytization is the antonym of tolerance. Asserting the superiority of one’s religious beliefs, in this view, is not merely bad manners; it involves a kind of divisive, offensive judgmentalism.

But the American idea of religious liberty does not forbid proselytization; it presupposes it. Free, autonomous individuals not only have the right to hold whatever beliefs they wish, they also have the right to change those beliefs and to persuade others to change as well. Just as there is no political liberty without the right to change one’s convictions and publicly argue for them, there is no religious liberty without the possibility of conversion and persuasion.

That such a fundamental principle of religious liberty is either so poorly understood or simply ignored is alarming.

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.

Amen all around. We very much need to respect those with whom we don’t see eye to eye (Christians are even commanded to love them!). But “tolerance” is not a synonym for “agreement and/or endorsement.” In fact, the exercise of tolerance presupposes disagreement. Perhaps the definition of the word and its proper practice would be another good subject for a Sunday morning opinion show.

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