It’s not very common for one Washington Post columnist to really slam another Post columnist. But former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson certainly brought the pain Friday to TV writer Tom Shales for his "spittle-flinging rage" of "secular fundamentalism" in Tuesday's paper against Brit Hume’s urging Tiger Woods to try Christianity. Gerson concluded:
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?
Gerson’s column really summarized what is ignorant about religion and pluralism in the advocacy of people like Shales, and how they seek to intimidate all religious discussion out of the mass media. They wag their fingers and urge that all you lame-brained people take your God talk to your churches with the steeples:
The root of the anger against Hume is his religious exclusivity -- the belief, in Shuster's words, that "my faith is the right one." For this reason, according to Shales, Hume has "dissed about half a billion Buddhists on the planet."
But this supposed defense of other religious traditions betrays an unfamiliarity with religion itself. Religious faiths -- Christian, Buddhist, Zoroastrian -- generally make claims about the nature of reality that conflict with the claims of other faiths. Attacking Christian religious exclusivity is to attack nearly every vital religious tradition. It is not a scandal to believers that others hold differing beliefs. It is only a scandal to those offended by all belief. Though I am not a Buddhist or a Muslim, I am not "dissed" when a Muslim or a Buddhist advocates his views in public.
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.
I hope Tom Shales learned something by reading this – if he was willing to consider reading it.