Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- After urging Tiger Woods to accept the "forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith" -- and comparing Buddhism unfavorably to that hope -- journalist Brit Hume insisted he was not proselytizing. In this, he is wrong. His words exemplify proselytization.

For this, Hume has been savaged. Media critic Tom Shales put him in the category of a "sanctimonious busybody" engaged in "telling people what religious beliefs they ought to have." Blogger Andrew Sullivan criticized Hume's "pure sectarianism" which helps abolish "the distinction between secular and religious discourse." MSNBC's David Shuster called Hume's religious advice "truly embarrassing."

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The assumption of these criticisms is that proselytization is the antonym of tolerance. Asserting the superiority of one's own religious beliefs, in this view, is not merely bad manners; it involves a kind of divisive, offensive judgmentalism.

But the American idea of religious liberty does not forbid proselytization; it presupposes it. Free, autonomous individuals not only have the right to hold whatever beliefs they wish, they have a right to change those beliefs, and to persuade others to change as well. Just as there is no political liberty without the right to change one's convictions and publicly argue for them, there is no religious liberty without the possibility of conversion and persuasion.

Proselytization, admittedly, is fraught with complications. We object to the practice when an unequal power relationship is involved -- a boss pressuring an employee. We are offended by brainwashing. Coercion and trickery violate the whole idea of free religious choice based on open discussion.

But none of this was present in Hume's appeal to Woods. A semi-retired broadcaster holds no unfair advantage over a multimillionaire athlete. Hume was engaged in persuasion.

"Persuasion, by contrast," argues political and social ethics professor Jean Bethke Elshtain, "begins with the presupposition that you are a moral agent, a being whose dignity no one is permitted to deny or to strip from you, and, from that stance of mutual respect, one offers arguments, or invites your participation, your sharing, in a community."

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."


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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