Tiger Woods, Brit Hume and Religious Discourse

Brit Hume made headlines and ignited a firestorm on the blogosphere when he urged Tiger Woods to embrace the Christian faith. About a week ago, at a panel on the Fox network, Hume was asked what advice he’d give the scandal-struck golfer. He responded:

“Tiger Woods will recover as a golfer. Whether he can recover as a person, I think, is a very open question. And it’s a tragic situation. . . . But the Tiger Woods that emerges once the news value dies out of this scandal, the extent to which he can recover, seems to me to depend on his faith.

“He’s said to be a Buddhist. I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So my message to Tiger would be, ‘Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.’ “

Outrage quickly followed. Many declared Hume’s remarks to be intolerant, arrogant and worse. At the Huffington Post, Eve Tahmincioglu in her column, “Beware the Brit Humes in Your Office,” wrote:

“The fact that a journalist — and I use that term loosely as it pertains to Hume — would go on a national news show and put down another high-profile individual’s faith should tell all of us that religious bigotry, and bigotry as a whole, is a growing problem in this country.”

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, suggesting that Hume had attempted to “threaten Tiger Woods into becoming a Christian”, also said:

“This crosses that principle [of keeping] religious advocacy out of public life, since, you know, the worst examples of that are jihadists, not to mention, you know, guys who don’t know their own religions or somebody else’s religion, like Brit Hume.”

The anger over Hume’s comments says a lot about religious discourse, pluralism, and the new tolerance. Ross Douthat, writing for the New York Times, has written a good op-ed piece about why it is important that we’re able to talk about religion:

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.

Douthat is right: “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.” He continues:

This doesn’t mean that we need to welcome real bigotry into our public discourse. But what Hume said wasn’t bigoted: Indeed, his claim about the difference between Buddhism and Christianity was perfectly defensible. Christians believe in a personal God who forgives sins. Buddhists, as a rule, do not. And it’s at least plausible that Tiger Woods might welcome the possibility that there’s Someone out there capable of forgiving him, even if Elin Nordegren and his corporate sponsors never do.

In fact, Hume’s comments about Buddhism are well supported. Boston University professor on Buddhism, Stephen Prothero, told Tamara Lush of the Associated Press: “You have the law of karma, so no matter what Woods says or does, he is going to have to pay for whatever wrongs he’s done. There’s no accountant in the sky wiping sins off your balance sheet, like there is in Christianity.” Professor of Buddhist studies at Cal Polytechnic State University, James William Coleman,  also agreed. “If you do what [Tiger Woods] has done, it comes back and hurts you.”

Of course, the problem is proselytization and how this offends the new tolerance.  Michael Gerson, writing for the Washington Post, rightly puts his finger on the root of this anger over proselytization: Brit Hume’s belief in religious exclusivity. But Gerson, responding to Tom Shales‘ call for Hume to apologize, argues that the idea of religious liberty does not forbid proselytization; but 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.”

The new referrees of discourse no longer see tolerance as exhibited by the person who argues that position A is correct and position B is incorrect, but who still defends anyone’s right to defend position B. Instead, advocates now think that tolerance is only exhibited by those who say that there is no one right position (except for the position of new tolerance). Gerson’s comments hit the mark:

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?