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Fox, Tiger, and Christianity: A Defense of Brit Hume

4 years ago
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Thirty years ago, as she accepted her Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa told the story of a group of American professors who'd come to see her doing the Lord's work in Calcutta. Before taking their leave, they asked for a bit of wisdom to take home with them. "Smile," she replied, "for the smile is the beginning of love."

Mother Teresa's contention was that the first duty of a person who believes in Christ is to show others that you are happy -- that Christianity is working for you. This is the initial step in bearing witness to faith. A second is to enunciate that faith aloud. This would seem to be a requirement of those who follow Jesus; after all, he instructed his followers to give their testimony "to the ends of the Earth."

But the secular world can be as resistant to hearing the "good news" of the gospel as it was in Jesus' time, and few places in modern America are more secular than a big-city newsroom. Just ask Brit Hume, who had the temerity to offer a brief affirmation of his own faith this week -- and was promptly pilloried for it, especially in the media.
In case you missed it, Hume was on a panel of pundits talking about Tiger Woods' troubles. Noting that the great golfer once publicly identified himself with Buddhism, the faith of his mother, Brit Hume said: "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 was a pretty mild pitch, as these things go, but only if God-talk is familiar to you. It was clearly quite jarring to many of Hume's colleagues. In a typical reaction, Jay Bookman of the Atlanta Journal Constitution asserted that "faith is a private matter between that person and God, and is not a matter to be judged by some pompous TV anchor." In case Hume was misunderstood, Bookman subsequently called him "rude and crass" and guilty of "bad manners." MSNBC anchor David Shuster maintained that Hume had somehow "denigrated" and "diminished" Christianity. Even knowledgeable religion writers were nonplussed by Hume. USA Today religion writer Cathy Grossman asserted on her blog that the Fox commentator was "talking trash."

Others used the occasion for ad-hominem attacks on Fox News, Hume, and conservative Christians. (A few of these bon mots were clever: My friend E.J. Dionne passed along a quip making the rounds that Fox's new mantra should be: "We report, you convert.") But good natured ribbing seemed the exception. Many of Hume's critics tended to be mean, misinformed, and all-too-willing to engage in the very intolerance they were decrying.

Leading the charge was the Huffington Post, which makes sense in today's environment because it's even more partisan than Fox News -- and on the other side of the political spectrum. But an ideological point of view seems an inadequate excuse for the kind of invective on display at HuffPo. In one post, Hume was blasted for being "sanctimonious" and "distasteful" and "inflammatory." This much was true: HuffPo was certainly inflamed.
"Beware the Brit Humes in Your Office," blared the headline from another Huffington Post blogger. This one, penned by business columnist Eve Tahmincioglu, included the following passage: "The fact that a journalist -- and I use that term loosely as it pertains to Hume -- would go on a national news show and put down another high-profile individual's faith should tell all of us that religious bigotry, and bigotry as a whole, is a growing problem in this country."

The most steamed scribe may have been Tom Shales, the prominent television writer at The Washington Post. Shales complained in his column that Hume's comparative riff "sounded a little like one of those Verizon vs. AT&T commercials -- our brand is better than your brand -- except that Hume was comparing two of the world's great religions, not a couple of greedy communications conglomerates."

"Further," Shales added, "is it really his job to run around trying to drum up new business? He doesn't really have the authority, does he, unless one believes that every Christian by mandate must proselytize?" Shales went on this way at some length, gratuitously (and inaccurately) insulting Calvin Coolidge along the way. Hume's "madness" and "off-the-cuff, off-the-wall" comments were, Shales insisted, destined to be "one of the most ridiculous" public statements of the year. "First off, apologize," Shales instructed Hume. "You gotta."

Hume most definitely did not apologize. In fact, he was booked again on Fox News, this time as a guest, telling Bill O'Reilly that "if you speak the name Jesus Christ – and I don't mean to make a pun here – but all hell breaks loose." For those of us who knew Brit Hume before his conversion to Christianity, this droll observation was vintage Brit. It didn't do much for his critics, however. Jon Stewart, who prides himself on his sense of irony, mocked Hume for playing the victim, apparently not realizing that in his sneering segment Stewart confirmed what Hume was saying, which is that you could prescribe almost anything for Tiger Woods without making yourself the target – anything but a spiritual solution.

Certainly no one pushed back when commentators on nearly every network offered up the junk science diagnosis of "sex addiction" for Tiger Woods. You just couldn't tell Tiger to get to church. Lisa Miller, writing in Newsweek, put it this way: "I'm not at all sure why the liberal left is always so shocked that evangelical Christians want other people to become Christians."

But even Hume's rare defenders, such as Miller, couldn't countenance his overt comparison of Christianity to Buddhism. This is obviously politically incorrect, and it probably ought to be. I get that. In an era of worldwide sectarian violence, much of it propagated by religious fanatics who shriek "God is great," before killing themselves along with innocent strangers, the emphasis ought to be on ecumenism, not sectarianism.

That said, it's obvious that Hume has no particular animus for Buddhism; he was mainly using it as a rhetorical launching pad. Still, Woods is not known to closely follow any spiritual system, and practicing Buddhists didn't appreciate being used as a foil in Hume's brief sermon. But a funny thing happened when journos called prominent scholars of Buddhism for comment: They tended to confirm Hume's underlying point about the Eastern faith.

Stephen Prothero, a Boston University professor on Buddhism, told Tamara Lush of the Associated Press: "You have the law of karma, so no matter what Woods says or does, he is going to have to pay for whatever wrongs he's done. There's no accountant in the sky wiping sins off your balance sheet, like there is in Christianity." Added James William Coleman, a professor of Buddhist studies at Cal Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif. "If you do what [Tiger Woods] has done, it comes back and hurts you."

In other words, although Hume may have been inartful, he was not necessarily inaccurate: Redemption is a concept flowing out of the Judeo-Christian tradition rather than Eastern thought, although, again I concede that truth is not always a defense to insensitivity. (And, as my esteemed colleague David Gibson noted, polling suggests that American Buddhists are less likely to step out on their spouses than Protestants. So one alternate lesson would be that Tiger Woods ought to embrace his mother's Eastern religion more faithfully.)

Hume's own faith journey

I first met Brit Hume in the early 1990s when I covered the Clinton White House for The Baltimore Sun and Brit was the senior correspondent for ABC News. He was already an established presence in Washington journalism with an impressive résumé, a hefty salary, and the diffident presence of a man confident in his own abilities. He'd sit in the front row in the White House briefing room or on the press plane doing crossword puzzles, seeming not to take the anxieties of the day too much to heart. He was known for a laconic sense of humor that could be earthy at times. One example comes to mind. The 1996 train trip to Chicago for Bill Clinton's second nominating convention was interrupted by the sex scandal of a Clinton campaign adviser named Dick Morris. Hume regaled his colleagues with an imagined scene in which Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who stayed at the Jefferson Hotel -- where Dick Morris had some of his liaisons -- called the front desk to complain that "the couple with the dog is making noise again." (It was an in-joke, obscure even then, that exaggerated on some of the claims made by Mr. Morris' hired escort).
My point is that Brit Hume didn't take himself too seriously. Once, because the men's rooms in the White House briefing room were occupied and Brit was preparing for a broadcast, I saw him putting on makeup by using the glass reflection on a vending machine. He looked back at me and shrugged, and said with a grin, "Helluva way for a grown man to make a living, isn't it?"

But he always took our craft seriously, which the writers on the beat appreciated especially because Brit had started in print journalism, first at a newspaper in Hartford and then briefly for United Press International before landing at the Baltimore Evening Sun. At a Washington seminar, he met Ralph Nader, who talked him into probing corruption at the United Mine Workers. It was a fortuitous pairing: Hume's work on the UMW culminated in a well-received book, an assignment to write a piece for The Atlantic Monthly, and a job offer with legendary muckraking columnist Jack Anderson.

Eventually, Hume landed with ABC. A solid reporter, he'd initially had trouble learning the ropes of looking natural in front of the camera. By the time I knew him, he'd mastered it, first on Capitol Hill and then at the White House. In 1991, he'd won an Emmy for his coverage of the Persian Gulf War and American Journalism Review twice named him in the "best in the business" at covering the presidential beat. In other words, nobody ever questioned Hume's journalistic chops -- until he went to Fox News.

I didn't know his politics, although I knew he'd had friction with ABC anchorman Peter Jennings. (Much later, Hume told Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post that he pushed back on an assignment about how the first President Bush "isn't doing anything" by countering "Has it ever occurred to you that this guy's a Republican and Republicans don't believe that government is the solution to all the country's problems?")

In the next administration, Hume chafed under what he thought was a blind spot on the part of the ABC brass, Jennings included, when it came to the flaws of Bill and Hillary Clinton and he eventually jumped to Fox.

Interestingly, although he had once lost his temper at Hume in a Rose Garden press conference, President Clinton made a point of saying he thought Hume's coverage was, well, fair and balanced. This happened on Dec. 13, 1996 at Hume's farewell White House news conference for ABC News when Clinton surprised us all by suddenly saying, "Brit, let me say before you leave, I know this is your last White House press conference ... but over the last several years, I think all of us think you have done an extraordinary, professional job under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, and we will miss you. And we wish you well, and congratulations on your new position."

Fourteen months later, however, tragedy struck Brit Hume and his family. On Feb. 22, 1998 his son and namesake, Alexander Britton Hume Jr., committed suicide. Sandy Hume, as he was known, was 28 years old, an up-and-comer in Washington journalism. He'd been drinking heavily one night, was arrested by the U.S. Park Police for driving under the influence, had tried to strangle himself in his cell, and then, inexplicably released by authorities, had gone home and shot himself.

Such a horror is not something you ever get over. But you have to go on, and Brit Hume was able to do so, by his own account, because of the people who reached out to him in God's name. Nearly 1,000 sympathy cards arrived, from strangers as well as friends.

"I read them all," Hume told Christianity Today. "My mailbox would be stuffed with them night after night. I'd weep over some of them. Some of them were prayer cards, some of them would tell me a tree had been planted somewhere. I felt that I was seeing the face of God. I felt people's support and love. To me it was a miracle. I've been trying to face up to the implications of believing in Christ and believing in God ever since."

It only stands to reason, then, that out of this crucible, Brit Hume would want to share that miracle with others who are hurting -- with Tiger Woods, for example. And so, channeling Mother Teresa and not Tom Shales, Hume's first duty is to smile, as painful as that must be some days. His second duty, as he sees it, is to share the reason he's able to smile. So why would anyone begrudge him that?

Well, one reason is excess partisanship. If you're a hater, all you need to see are the words "Fox News" or "Brit Hume" then you are against whatever he's for. I don't get that kind of thinking, and don't have much to say to those who engage in it -- but that isn't the only factor that made some people uncomfortable about Hume's homily. Like Sandy Hume, I'm a second-generation journalist, and old-school besides. There's a phrase we used to recite, a mantra, if I may mix my religious references, and it is very simple: "No cheering in the press box."

A Christian must bear witness to the very ends of the Earth, the Book of Acts tells us. A reporter ought to keep his opinions (and his religious beliefs) to himself. Two noble creeds that are occasionally at odds. Brit Hume came down on one side the other day, and seemed comfortable doing it. I submit that his critics would have more credibility if they toned down their own press box cheering – and their booing as well.

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