Brit Hume and Tiger Woods: A Few Final Words

I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but I think cooler heads (on both sides of the debate) may be starting to prevail on this Brit Hume-Tiger Woods “convert to Christianity-Buddhism is bad” controversy. The commentary I have been reading recently is much more civil than what I heard from the television talking heads on the day the story broke.

In all of the hullabaloo over whether or not Hume was proselytizing or degrading the Buddhist religion, I think most pundits failed to reflect deeply on whether or not Hume was correct when he said that the Christian faith offers redemption and forgiveness in a way that Buddhism does not. Now granted, a Sunday morning talk show is not the place to debate this and Hume is certainly not the person to participate in such a debate, but the theological differences between Christianity and Buddhism are certainly raised regularly in Introduction to World Religions courses at most colleges and universities around the country. While Tiger Woods should be kept out of it, this whole event creates a wonderful opportunity to learn something about Buddhism and maybe even an opportunity for some reasoned theological debate.

In yesterday’s USA Today, Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University, writes:

Buddhism and Christianity are doubtless very different religions. Buddhists seek to overcome suffering, while Christians seek to overcome sin. Forgiveness of sin is more of a Christian emphasis than a Buddhist one. Still, which of these two traditions offers more resources for adulterers on the mend is to me an open question. So is the question of which is better at keeping spouses on the straight and narrow.

Prothero points out that Buddhism prohibits adultery and sexual misconduct and teaches that all who engage in such “evil actions” must be punished. No forgiveness, no redemption. But, as Prothero adds, “many Buddhists take solace in what they call transfer of merit, which means that there are god-like beings who, if we turn to them in devotion, will use their vast storehouses of good karma to wipe our slates clean.”

But Prothero believes that what might really help Tiger is the story of Buddha himself–a rich and powerful young man who realized that true happiness could not be found in material things. He thus set out to find a way to alleviate suffering in the world, which he did through the power of meditation.

Meanwhile, over at the New York Times, Ross Douthat does not believe that Hume’s remarks were offensive and laments the fact that liberal democracy has come to a point where “peaceful theological debate” is impossible.

I tend to agree with Douthat here. Why are we so afraid of people bringing their faith to bear on conversation in the public square?–And I am talking here about Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and everyone else. I think I might be able to answer this question. Part of the reason that this is not happening is because religion–the name we often give to the truths in which we live by–has not done very well in a public square defined by sound bites and ideological warfare. Part of the blame, if not most of the blame, belongs to those Christians who in recent years have used the public square as their own bully pulpit to promote this or that agenda.

But people do speak out of their religious convictions and such convictions should, when debated civilly, become part of our public discourse. I am going to sound like a member of the Christian Right here, but there is nothing in the Constitution that says public debate and argument cannot be informed by religious beliefs. The separation of church and state does not mean that religion must be kept private.

I agree with Barack Obama here:

secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity.

But was a Sunday morning talk show the place to bring one’s religious convictions into the public sphere? Was what Hume did a responsible religious use of the public square? Probably not. As a Christian I would be lying if I said that I do not believe that Christianity could provide a means of redemption for Tiger Woods. In this sense, I think Hume is right. If I did not think he was right I would become a Buddhist or something else or give up religion altogether, if that is possible. A religious public sphere is useless unless people enter into it with deeply held convictions about the meaning of life.

But I am not convinced that dropping a bomb like this on a political talk show is the best way of bringing religion into the public sphere. The religious public square is best cultivated by religious dialogue and persuasion, not these kinds of sound bites. Sometimes I learn these lessons the hard way.

I think it would be very interesting if Fox or another cable network would sponsor a one or two hour program where Christian and Buddhist intellectuals or theologians come together and debate their beliefs, keeping Tiger Woods out of it. What the heck, they might even try to persuade one another respectfully that their view is correct and should thus be embraced by the other participants in the conversation. This is democratic religious pluralism, but I am guessing the ratings for such a show would be pretty low.

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