On Friday night’s Real Life with Bill Maher on HBO, the host typically assaulted the Bible and the God of the Old Testament. He said of the Bible and the Koran "These are two books that are filled with hatred and wickedness and all kinds of immorality. I mean, I can’t think of a character who is less reliable as a role model than the God of the Old Testament." Newsweek editor Jon Meacham could only respond with pandering humor for liberals: "He’s kind of Cheneyesque actually – that runs through the God of Abraham...He didn’t shoot anybody. He smited them."
As Maher suggested he was too bright to believe in Jesus the "Jewish Zombie," Meacham also lauded how America has moved beyond a "public piety," as symbolized by Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. "It doesn’t feel to me that we’re in the same place in terms of public religiosity and public piety that we were when Mel Gibson released The Passion of The Christ five years ago, when basically, he made an anti-Semitic film, and the only thing you can say about it is it’s the best film ever made in Aramaic." Surprisingly, Maher said he liked the movie, and he didn’t find it anti-Semitic, but that "the priesthood" had Jesus killed because he threatened their power.
The exchange began when Maher incorrectly claimed that Obama’s speech at Notre Dame was somehow unique when he referenced people of faith, and no faith: "I had never hear a president utter those words. George Bush Senior said atheists shouldn’t be citizens." (In fact, President George W. Bush routinely referred to "people of no faith at all" in his pitches for his faith-based initiative.)
Maher said of Obama: "I don’t think he’s really religious. I think he said that to get eleected. When he talks about his mother he says ‘She was a secular humanist, and really so am I.’" (He was winking.) Meacham left that alone:
MEACHAM: I think his sense is that the American religious tradition includes religious freedom, and a key element of religious freedom is the ability to be unreligious, non-religious. He talks about this. He’s written about it. If you’re a person of faith, and I hesitate to say this, I am. Try to be kind.
MAHER: I’m always kind.
MEACHAM: The Golden Rule. Remember the Golden Rule.
MAHER: I’m just curious. Because you’re so bright. That’s always my question. How can someone who’s so bright believe in the Jewish Zombie? I don’t get it.
MEACHAM: (Laughs). That’s a good line. A religious view for the case to protect the right of people to be atheist or agnostic and live completely unmolested by people of faith is that if God himself did not coerce obedience, He gave you a free choice, then no man should try. And that’s a noble tradition throughout Western thought. And I think that’s part of what Obama does. When he says no faith, he’s making the case for religious liberty, and religious liberty has to be at the center of it, and that includes the right not to believe.
MAHER: But you had a Newsweek cover story recently and the headline was The End of Christian America.
MAHER: Where do you see that?
MEACHAM: Well, the numbers are going down.
MAHER, cheering: YEAH! Did I say that out loud? I apologize. But you know, only about 15 percent of the country are with me in the non-believer category.
MEACHAM: Right, right, and New England is becoming, in part with the gay marriage question, it’s becoming secular, and that worries the religious right enormously. The term that’s thrown around, we may be becoming a post-Christian nation, and that worries particularly evangelicals in a big way. But it just doesn’t feel – you study this stuff – it doesn’t feel to me that we’re in the same place in terms of public religiosity and public piety that we were when Mel Gibson released The Passion of The Christ five years ago, when basically, he made an anti-Semitic film, and the only thing you can say about it is it’s the best film ever made in Aramaic. (Laughter)
MAHER: I didn’t think it was anti-Semitic, and I actually like that movie. I do, as a movie. I thought it was an entertaining movie. I kew the ending, so, you know, I was somewhat compromised. But I didn’t see it as anti-Semitic. We’re talking about a priesthood that put Jesus to death. A priesthood – and priesthoods always protect their power. The fact that they have a power they have to protect, selling an invisible product. When somebody says ‘Hey, you can’t prove what you’re selling,' pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
MEACHAM: But Jesus was executed by the Roman Empire on political grounds. But that’s probably –
MAHER: With a little help from the priesthood.
MEACHAM: But not to the extent that it was depicted in the film, perpetuating the libel –
MAHER: We don’t know –
MEACHAM: – the libel of the blood guilt.
MAHER: We don’t know what happened back then. And this is always my question, I mean, religion – you’re either getting it from a god directly. I assume a god didn’t talk to you directly.
MEACHAM: Not since this afternoon. [When Obama called?]
MAHER: So if you’re not getting it from a god directly, then you’re getting it from one of the holy books. I assume, here in the West, it’s the Bible, maybe for you [Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed Yunus] it’s the Koran. These are two books that are filled with hatred and wickedness and all kinds of immorality. I mean, I can’t think of a character who is less reliable as a role model than the God of the Old Testament. Right?
MEACHAM, nodding: He’s –
MAHER: Then how can you take core beliefs out of that book?
MEACHAM, joking: He’s kind of Cheneyesque actually – that runs through the God of Abraham.
MAHER: There certainly is. Exactly.
MEACHAM: He didn’t shoot anybody. He smited them.
Is that the best Meacham can do for his own professed Christianity, mock his own God? At that point, economist Simon Johnson oozed that the great thing about Obama is he’s taken politicized religion out of public life, wrongly suggesting that religion in American public life is relatively new in our presidents. Meacham disagreed, but returned to his point against Mel Gibson: "I just think the reason for the Gibson thing, and you’re exactly right. Obama has in fact helped us move beyond a kind of public piety."
When Maher insisted that religion "justifies violence more than stops it," Meacham lamely contended that religion is fine if it’s carefully managed, as if it were like alcohol consumption:
MEACHAM: I just think it’s a fundamental part of the human condition. It has been from the beginning. Homes said all men need the gods. And I think the responsible, rational response to a religious impulse is to try and manage it, and marshal it, and try to keep it from having too great an influence on our public life.
MAHER: But maybe that was then and this is now. Maybe we’re changing. We’re still a young species. Homer lived in a time when they didn’t know what an atom was, or why women got pregnant, I think. So it’s understandable and forgiveable for them to have myths. Is it really forgiveable for us, in an age of science, to have myths?
MEACHAM: I think you have to respect people of honest conviction who believe certain things, and the key thing is – There was a Virginia Baptist preacher (you know Baptists were really big on religious freedom until they became the majority. Then they turned on it) said that it doesn’t matter to me whether my neighbor believes in one god, twenty gods, or no god, it neither breaks by leg nor picks by pocket. As long as that’s true, I think we’re in a good place.
Meacham really wasn't kidding when he said he "hesitated" to defend his faith in Christ. He couldn't offer any reason for his own belief, but merely professed a belief that you have to respect "people of honest conviction who believe certain things." This really made it sound like religious faith was a very distant thing to him.