The honest intolerance of Brit Hume
In an op-ed column in today's Post, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson argues that it was not Brit Hume who was intolerant for advising Tiger Woods to abandon Buddhism and seek salvation in Christianity but Hume's critics for chastising him for doing so. Indeed, Gerson argues that Hume was merely asserting a religious freedom that lies at the core of American society:
The assumption of these criticisms 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.
But that's not the point. I don't deny this -- namely, the connection between religious liberty and proselytization -- and, I suspect, nor do Tom Shales, Andrew Sullivan, and Hume's other critics.
Proselytization is more common in some religions (like Christianity) than in others (like Judaism), but, more broadly, "claims about the nature of reality that conflict with the claims of other faiths" are common to all, or virtually all, religions. In a liberal democracy, though -- and this takes us back to Locke, perhaps the major philosophical influence on the American Founders -- religious practice, including the making of such claims, not to mention proselytization, is expected to be conducted in the private sphere. We expect a preacher at a Sunday-morning church service, for example, to make claims about his or her specific faith, claims that put that faith above other faiths and that essentially deny the validity of other faiths. What we do not expect is a similar outpouring of (self-)righteousness from a supposed newsman on a supposed news network.
This does not mean that there should be no expression of religious faith in public, or even on a news network like Fox. Larry King, for example, regularly has religious guests who promote their own faiths, some with the sort of arrogant zealotry that is all-too-common nowadays on the theocratic right. Again, the problem here is that Hume, to use Sullivan's words, brought "pure sectarianism" into what was a "secular discourse." And that crossed the line.
And yet Hume is a commentator now, not an anchor or reporter, which means his proselytizing wasn't nearly as bad as it would have been had it come from, say, Katie Couric. And so what he did was merely to expose his own religious prejudice, a prejudice, I suspect, shared by many (self-)righteous Christians who believe that the only way to salvation, and to happiness generally, is to embrace Jesus Christ. This is nonsense, I believe, but at least Hume was being honest.