I’m a not-particularly-religious Jew living in Boulder, Colorado – a town with America’s only accredited Buddhist university. How am I supposed to convince my politically moderate non-evangelical friends and neighbors that they can feel comfortable supporting conservatives and Republicans when there are high profile conservatives like Brit Hume destroying in 30 seconds the brittle goodwill that I and others have spent days, weeks, or months trying to build?
Speaking on Fox News Sunday on January 3, 2010, Hume decided to put in his two cents about Tiger Woods’ travails. He probably wishes he could take a mulligan; I certainly wish he could.
Talking about how Woods might rebound from his self-inflicted chaos, Hume offered a few “thoughts”, each more repellently uninformed and condescending than the last:
“The extent to which he can recover, it seems to me, depends upon 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.’”
It’s just lucky for Hume that Buddhists are the least likely of the practitioners of any of the world’s largest religions to have angry street demonstrations in response to such ignorance and insult. I do not practice Buddhism, but my travels to places like Thailand, Bhutan, and Tibet have given me a better understanding of it than the average American might have. When I heard Hume’s words regarding the inability to find a new beginning within the practice of Buddhism, I knew instantly that they were false. More than that, I knew they would seem false to everyone else. Even the most evangelical of Christians are not prone to verbally assaulting other religions as a tactic to get someone to embrace theirs.
This is not the place for a dissertation on Buddhism, nor would I be the person to give one. However, I would note that Buddhism, unlike Christianity, does not have a moral code revolving around the concept of “sin” nor of forgiveness by a divine being nor of heavenly redemption. What it shares with Christianity, and with every other major religion, is the concept that actions have consequences and that people must deal with the consequences of their actions.
But when it comes to the political impact of Hume’s statement and secondarily the potential negative impact on Fox News, the details of Buddhist doctrine are irrelevant. What is relevant is the holier-than-thou pronouncements of a newscaster for whom I previously had great respect – and I’m certainly not alone in that use of the word “previously.”
Fox News is seen, rightly or wrongly, as closely affiliated with conservatives and Republicans. While I consider myself more libertarian than conservative, I am a registered Republican (not something I say with great pride in recent years.) But Fox News’ viewership is far more balanced than the liberal media would like us to believe: a 2008 Pew Survey said that 39% of Fox’s viewers were Republicans as compared to 33% who were Democrats. A 2009 Survey by another organization reported that 46% of people who watch Fox News “just about every day” are Democrats or Independents; the number goes up to 50% for those who watch “several times each week” or more.
In other words, Fox is not just preaching to the conservative choir. So when someone so closely tied to Fox’s brand image and reputation as Brit Hume is comes out with such mind-numbingly ignorant and divisive statements, it does great harm to the ability of evangelizers of liberty and free markets – values closely tied to conservatives, if not closely enough to Republicans – to find a willing audience.
Hume’s statements aren’t just off-putting to Buddhists, but to Jews, atheists, and even many or most Christians. The idea that a newsman, even if he is more of an opinion-giver these days, feels it appropriate to tell millions of Americans that his way is the only way simply reinforces all the worst stereotypes of conservatives as people who claim they believe in freedom but really want to micromanage your personal life (as distinct from liberals who want you to be free in your personal life but want total control of your economic life.) Whether Americans think about it or not, whether they understand the term or not, the American experiment and the American people are in large part libertarian – and please don’t confuse the term with libertine. We want government to leave us alone, something far different from living without morality or rational self-restraint .
Conservatives are tired of Democrats acting like they’re our mothers, wanting to tuck us in bed at night and make us oh-so-comfortable. But they do themselves great harm when the only alternative they offer is a worldview in which government or self-anointed thought leaders instead act like our fathers, telling us right from wrong – and scolding us when we don’t meet their (often hypocritical) standards. Brit Hume, and by extension, much of the so-called “conservative” movement – as very distinct from the Tea Party movement – need to recognize that they’re speaking to adults who do not need governmental parenting.
I can just imagine over coming months, and maybe years, when I speak with some wavering Obama supporter, encouraging him or her to watch something other than MSNBC and to consider voting for someone other than a Democrat, hearing the retort “But why would I want to support people who think like Brit Hume?”
Sadly, my most honest response might be “I can’t blame you for feeling that way.”
Addendum/Personal Note: Despite my rather critical tone here, I feel I should make a couple of things clear: Although I am not a religious Christian, I have nothing bad to say about Mr. Hume’s choice of faith. Any such criticism by me would be as inappropriate as Hume’s criticism of Buddhism. More importantly, Brit Hume’s son Sandy, also a journalist, committed suicide in 1998 and, particularly given Hume’s specific mention of Tiger Woods’ possibly losing his relationship with his children, it would not surprise me if Mr. Hume receives some much-needed comfort in his faith as he so deeply feels the absence of his son. I hope he does find such comfort. And to the extent that he does, his wanting to share "what works for him" is understandable, even if a long-time professional journalist should be expected to choose his words more carefully.
As regular readers of my blog know, my brother died in a hiking accident several years ago, so in my relationship with my parents, especially my mother, I know how hard it can be for a parent to lose a child. Indeed, there have been days when I wished my mother could find something, anything, in which to take comfort, even if it had been a faith in the divine which I do not share. (Strangely, those events had the exact opposite effect on her and she is less religious now than ever.)
Unlike many well-known aggressive atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, I do not disdain the religious (though I have little tolerance for evangelization and missionaries.) Indeed, I frequently support “Christian conservative” political candidates for the primary reason that I know they believe in something, a fact which is often absent from an objective analysis of often-secular liberal politicians.
So, unlike those who are criticizing Brit Hume for his positive view of his own faith, to me that was not the main point. Although I did not think it appropriate for him to lecture viewers on converting to Christianity, the real error in his words was his unnecessary assault on Buddhism and the way such words reflected badly on Christians, conservatives, and his employer.
At the end of the day, I think Brit Hume did some real harm with his words, but between his remarkable career, his usually being a voice of reason, and particularly the personal pain he must live with on a daily basis, I am inclined to give him the aforementioned mulligan, at least if he asks for it.
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