Ross Douthat is wrong on the right issues

Brit Hume probably didn’t expect to start a small firestorm with his comments on Tiger Woods’s religion. In case you missed it, on Fox News last Sunday Hume had the audacity to suggest that Woods’s Buddhism was insufficient to address the severity of his personal situation: “I don’t think that faith offers the kind of redemption and forgiveness offered by the Christian faith. My message to Tiger is, ‘Tiger turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.'” Understandably, the immediate public reaction was to censure Hume for his perceived intolerance of another’s religion, though I’m quite sure he felt he was expressing cultural common sense and his own deep personal conviction.

Conservatives were quick to come to Hume’s defense – perhaps as unsurprising as the initial reaction against Hume. That initial reaction helped play into one of the right’s least respectable cultural memes and one of the touchstones of its populist victimology, the notion that Christianity is under assault from liberal secularism. It’s a ridiculous and ahistorical notion: after more than two centuries of liberal secularism, Christianity is actually more culturally robust in America than when the Bill of Rights was approved, and self-proclaimed and unabashed Christians control not only the three branches of government but pretty much the entire private sector as well. Sure, atheism is on the rise, but atheism isn’t secularism, and atheism, what seems to be the actual target of the Christianist rhetoric, has, in fact, very little cultural power.

The conservative movement is not exactly monolithic on this issue, of course, as libertarians – whose importance to contemporary conservatism seems to be increasing – trend atheistic, and what little remains of conservative intelligentsia has a strong neocon Jewish contingent. One wonders what that Jewish contingent in particular feels about the  mileage their fellow travelers get from rehearsing the myth of true-blue American Christianity as being the bedrock of conservative values. I suppose they remain silent out of respect for the meme’s strategic value, but it’s a dangerous game. One doesn’t have to scratch too deep into the ridiculous rhetoric of the “liberal war on Christmas” coming from Bill O’Reilly and his ilk to find the virulent antisemitism at its heart.

In any case, the conservative punditocracy is quick to bemoan Christian speech’s lack of presence in public discourse, from Jonah Goldberg’s truly dumb critique of Avatar to Ross Douthat’s interesting if wrong-headed defense of Hume. I think that position is worth a longer look. (I also think that the cultural criticisms of Avatar from all points of the political spectrum are a fascinating phenomenon that deserves a longer look, but that may be for someone else to take on.) I don’t want to defend Hume or his comments. I loathe the empty-suit-with-good-hair journalism of which  Hume has become the primary representative, and “bigoted” is the most charitable spin I can give his remarks on Woods’s religion: bigotry not born out of hatred and prejudice, perhaps, so much as ignorance, but the same ignorance that tolerance is meant to check and educate. But I do think there needs to be a stronger presence of religious speech in public discourse.

Douthat’s analysis of liberal secularism is quite astute: “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.” He regards the ensuing corollary, that one should not use the public sphere to promote or denigrate matters of private conscience, as being an illiberal corruption of the founding liberal contract, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Liberal secularism insists that the public sphere not be swayed by matters of conscience, as personal convictions born out of private matters cannot be regarded as universally binding and therefore make for poor guides for public positions, debate, and policy. At their best, in the view of this political tradition, they’re emotional stands that value gut sense over rationality, and at their worst they privilege the private affiliations and biases of one group over another. Advocacy for or against religion is indeed limited by our liberal traditions. As a matter of courtesy and respect, liberalism asks public actors (and journalistic speech is an action carried out in the public sphere) to perform as if they have divested themselves of certain singular private convictions such as religious belief before engaging in public conversation. To violate these terms offends public sensibilities and often results in the offender losing the perceived entitlement to engage in public debate.

The consequences of this stance, as has been frequently noted over the past half century, is the lack of an ability to discuss in debates of public consequence moral codes and their claim on us, and as well the ability to acknowledge that one’s decisions and actions spring from a moral orientation that is rarely abstract and universal and is more likely than not constituted by the contingency of one’s history and birth. I did not choose my Catholicism, nor did I choose my long and painful struggle against it. These are matters of private conviction, but I cannot choose to divest them from my contributions to the public sphere. Much of what I have to say is determined by these personal and private accidents of my history. And they are what constitute much of my outlook and modes of thinking. Here I and the faithful are much the same, as I believe are all the rest of us.

And here I’ll agree with Douthat: liberalism actually works in these cases against a diverse and tolerant society, since the response to Hume was more of a trained reflex to hush a perceived violation of liberal public space incurred by speaking openly of religious conviction. Douthat writes, “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.” We cannot ask people not to dredge their religion into public discussion – it’s actually already there, even if we generally choose to ignore it or talk around it. Rather than hush Hume for his breach of decorum, we need to acknowledge his contribution to the discussion on religious faith, and that by implication there may be a Christian viewpoint with some bearing on the issue, and then school him and the public on why that viewpoint is erroneous.

Because here is where Douthat gets it wrong – he’s unwilling to think through his own position, perhaps because he’s constrained by the political position that occasions his commentary, and call Hume a bigot. He claims that Hume was correct to say that Buddhism is insufficient to respond to massive personal failings, even though he goes on to demonstrate not only Hume’s ignorance but also Hume’s unwillingness to grant Buddhists a role in the discussion. I think Douthat is picking up not only Hume’s thinking about Buddhism but many people’s when he writes, “For many people — Woods perhaps included — the fact that Buddhism promotes an ethical life without recourse to Christian concepts like the Fall of Man, divine judgment and damnation is precisely what makes it so appealing.” That is, from a Christian perspective, Buddhism is a non-religion: it is a rejection of key Christian, and therefore religious, convictions. It is therefore in this view a crypto-secular and attenuated spirituality that appeals to people unwilling to take religious conviction seriously. I don’t see, though, that Woods is some kind of New Age syncretist. Buddhism is likely part of the cultural legacy of the accident of his birth, not a flight from a more proper Christianity – but I can’t grant that objection much weight, as it shouldn’t really matter when in one’s life one responds to the calls of conscience.

If there is any truth to this view of Buddhism Douthat imputes, and Hume seems to share, it may be in part due to the liberal secular prohibition on religious public speech that allows Buddhism to appear in public only in a deracinated form as a marketable spirituality without consequence (like the marketing of the “angel” spirituality of a decade or so back): Zen as a decorating scheme rather than a punishing and rigorous mental and physical discipline. A more robust public discussion on religion would involve criticisms of both these weak-hearted syncretisms and the shallow thinking that associates them with Buddhist belief and practice, as Douthat does go on to acknowledge. I think that it’s true that if Hume were a less superficial or more intelligent person, he would have or should have realized that Buddhism is indeed a profound and rich faith that offers its believers a forgiving if strenuous assistance in matters of personal failing and crisis, even it doesn’t reflect his own convictions. But I think it’s even more true that hushing Hume for a breach of decorum rather than responding to the content of his critique ensures that others continue to wallow in the same level of ignorance, therefore promoting intolerance against their own conviction as well as that against Buddhism.

So while I’ll agree with Douthat that a weak toleration may actually be conducive to religious intolerance, I’ll have to insist that a robust debate on religious conviction still entails a respect for the sovereignty of another’s conscience – what we should mean by toleration. And that I can call Hume a bigot for not acknowledging that sovereignty. It may be a mild and commonplace bigotry, but that’s certainly no reason to applaud it. Furthermore, and here I suspect that Douthat and most conservative pundits would not be willing to follow me, the advocacy for a stronger voice of religious conviction and belief in public debate and discussion also entails a more robust presence in that debate of atheism and its convictions and positions. Because, as I said above, atheism and secularism are not the same. My atheism is not a refusal of personal conviction – it is the consequence of it. And I have no more choice in it than a Christian or a Buddhist does in their faith. It is not a religion, of course, but it is a profound and passionate conviction with its own moral orientations and has just as much place in the public sphere as faith might. So, yes, Christians, you may and should seek to increase your presence in the public sphere, but recognize that any greater presence on your part will require a similar growth in the presence in that debate of those like me without religion.

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