Brit Hume, a former anchor and host and still part-time commentator on Fox News, suggested over the weekend that Tiger Woods should become a Christian. He [Hume] is under criticism for saying he does not think that Buddhism offers the same sort of redeption and forgiveness as Christianity. Some have called it already one of the most dumb things said in 2010, while social conservatives are quick to hold up this incident as an example of the liberal media mocking faithful Christians.
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: While I think Hume's comment was not particularly helpful and moderately ignorant, it was also mostly harmless and well-intentioned, so it's silly to criticize Hume. The real issues confronting Tiger Woods are ones which confront everyone going through a tough time like a divorce. Woods has to work these issues out for himself and for the benefit of his children and there is no one-size-fits-all resolution to them. While some churches offer positive and beneficial resources to their members, others sometimes do more harm than good. So the best environment in which Tiger Woods (or any divorcing parent) can deal with the issues he inevitably must confront is one in which he gets help from appropriate professionals and is free from potentially-harmful religious teachings.
Full essay below the jump.
First, let's dispense with Brit Hume because this the tempest-in-a-teapot about his throwaway remark is really a sideshow. Take his statement for what it's worth and take it in context. Hume made his remark on an opinion show, in which he was asked to be an opinion commentator. Hume is personally a Christian, always but one who came to his faith in a deep way after a tragic personal experience in 1998. He has not, so far as I can tell, ever been a Buddhist or looked deeply into Buddhism and its teachings. And why should he? Buddhism is not his faith and it's not his job to compress a nuanced comparative study of various religions into a three-second sentence.
So, the Hume-bashers say, this demonstrates that even if Hume isn't a bigot, his remark was still ignorant. But so what? A few of us have complete enough information about a few isolated subjects to be considered authorities or experts within those disciplines, but none of us know everything about everything and yet we are all expected and required to make decisions -- decisions which are inevitably based on some degree of ignorance. That isn't intended to forgive all ignorant remarks, but this one appears to be based on quantitatively low degree of ignorance such that people ought to look past it.
Why do I say that? Well, Hume has had a good and emotionally satisfying experience with his faith and why shouldn't he reference that? He thinks that his own experience might be of value to the trouble Mr. Woods during the collapse of his marriage. That seems understandable and it's based on personal experience. What's more, while Hume may not be a scholar of Buddhism, he's more or less right that most strains of Buddhism do not have a process for the expiation of the weight of sins in a way similar to that of the Abrahamic religions. Yes, to the Buddhist, moral misdeeds weigh down one's karma, and those sects that believe in reincarnation see an inescapable individual consequence for a bad act. But the emphasis is on practical reparations to those harmed by one's misdeeds and then making better decisions in the future, so Hume isn't entirely off base to suggest that Buddhism does not offer "forgiveness," at least not in the way that Christianity does.
So while Hume does not demonstrate a deep understanding of the nuances of Buddhism, that ought not to preclude him from saying something to the effect of "Well, here's something that worked well for me when I was going through a bad time." And here's some more nuance for you -- Hume does not have a long track record of using his place in the public eye to proselytize. Maybe he wasn't the most unbiased of reporters when he was a regular anchor on Fox News, but as I've written elsewhere, I don't want or expect people who report on the news to check their opinions at the door. Right-wing, Christian guys get to say their piece on the issues of the day, the same as the rest of us.
So much for Brit Hume. The public spectacle is really about a mega-celebrity getting what looks like it will be a very messy and very public divorce. Fact is, Tiger Woods needs to make up his own mind about how he's going to live his life from here on out. While well-meaning, advice like Hume's is gneerally not all that helpful to people going through tough personal times and generally unsolicited advice like that is unwelcome. Religious advice tends to come well-dressed and accompanied by a sincere desire to be helpful, so it is usually received politely if noncomittally -- but it is not really what someone needs to hear in a tough time.
I've never been divorced so I don't write from personal experience. But it seems to me that what someone going through a divorce needs to hear is practical advice about how to get through the legal proceedings -- advice which ought to come from a lawyer -- how to protect one's children from the emotional effects of the divorce while arming them with the tools to build a new life, how to avoid depression and addictive behavior, and to the extent that the divorcing spouse has done things that precipitated the divorce, ways to make better decisions in the future -- advice which ought to come from a counselor or a psychologist.
A church or other religious institution potentially can be of help in making those resources available to its parishioners; a cleric may very well possess the sort of skills, training, and education to provide those services. Many churches and clergy do exactly those sorts of things, do them well, and deserve praise for it. Hopefully, I don't need to tell any of my non-believing Readers that there are indeed many churches that fall into this praiseworthy category.
But I don't think I need to tell anyone, particularly Christian Readers, that there are also some not-so-good churches and clerics out there, or that having an educational background in theology (or worse yet, just "reading the Bible a lot") does not make a preacher qualified to work as a counselor, social worker, or a psychologist. It's possible for a church to do great harm to someone going through a tough personal time like a divorce. For instance, a church might morally condemn the divorce as inherently sinful and contrary to God's will. This is not constructive, so far as I can tell, because the divorce is going to happen whether the church wants it to or not, and the result will be a moral condemnation when a personal affirmation is what is needed.
Also, I would think that causing the divorcing spouse to focus on his past personal misdeeds and shortcomings as a personal inadequacy that he is powerless to remedy (something along the lines of "Tiger, you are an ADULTERER! You are a SINNER! You must get down on your knees and beg God for forgiveness!") would also be much more harmful than beneficial. You can't change the past, you can only try to do better in the future.
This sort of rigid moralism is not going to be helpful to someone going through personal trauma like this. Even trauma of his own making, even trauma induced by his own moral failures, even trauma that seems to you or me or Brit Hume to have an obvious solution. Everyone is different, everyone is in their own situations, and everyone needs to figure out what the right thing for them to do in a particular fact pattern might be. In Woods' case, unlike a lot of divorces, there is the powerful force of publicity skewing the scales. Publicity is what generates the fantastic wealth at issue in the divorce, publicity is what has caused the rest of us to know and care about what would otherwise be a simple story of a guy cheating on his wife and the wife splitting as a result. Going to the little church down the street and getting an earful of the Old Testament is probably not going to be the ideal resolution to this particular situation. And I rather doubt that going to a megachurch with a celebrity pastor will be, either, although it would be a huge windfall for the pastor.
Certain sub-species of religionists take advantage of people when they are emotionally down, when they are vulnerable and really do need help, as exactly the time when they can proselytize and gain a convert. People who are desparate and lack hope will grab on to the first lifeline that is offered to them, and not care about the validity, helpfulness, or truth of whatever they are being told that pleases them in some way. Indeed, some of them might find the abusive message of their own lack of self-worth and need for a sternly judgmental and all-powerful father figure as a source of forgiveness to be pleasing, albeit on a subconscious level.
Let me point out that Brit Hume's track record tends to acquit him of this sort of motive. But it's out there. He's probably guilty of assuming that a personal conversion to Christianity will be accompanied by joining a Christian church and that this church will be one of the good ones that can either directly provide or help Tiger locate the kinds of resources he needs to put his personal life back together in a constructive way -- which again is likely the result of Hume's own personal positive experience with the religion.
Given that it's Tiger Woods we're talking about here, the realistic danger is not that he would wind up in a psychologically abusive situation. Rather, the danger for Tiger in getting deeply involved with a religious institution is that he would be coddled and milked for money by an unscrupulous and greedy pastor without getting any real personal help out of the situation.
Personally, I would rather confront reality and resolve myself to my true situation rather than put my emotional eggs in the basket of some future eternal reward for conforming to anachronistic moral codes left over from the Bronze Age. But for those who can find contemporary value and meaning in their religions, I say, "Good on," and it doesn't bother me too much if they offer their experiences to others.
Sure, I think it's best if Tiger is left alone to make his own religious choices and decide for himself how to live his life. And to be sure, he's made some bad decisions and now has to deal with the consequences of them -- but at the end of the day, it doesn't matter what some commentator on a news show says, it doesn't matter what you or I think of him. It doesn't even matter whether he subscribes to one religion, a different religion, both religions, or neither.
It doesn't matter because this ball is teed up for him and him only. No one can outsource the resolution of these kinds of issues. It's up to him and him alone to either learn from them and do better in the future, or not. It's up to him to work out a way with his soon-to-be-ex-wife about how to raise their children now that they're split up. No one else can do that for him. Not God, not a minister, not a pundit, not you or me. He's got to work it out for himself.