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Is Obama Appointee Harry Knox an 'Anti-Catholic Bigot'?

4 years ago
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Even if you've never heard of Harry Knox, you might want to pay attention: He's the latest nexus in the ongoing politicization of religion. Or maybe it's the religious-ization of politics?

Knox is the director of the Religion and Faith Program of the Human Rights Campaign. He's a former licensed Methodist pastor. He's gay. He's a member of the Obama administration's Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

And depending on whom you ask, he's an anti-Catholic bigot.

I learned that last part from a news release sent out by a group called the Media Research Center. The release has a link to a petition demanding that "Obama Fire Anti-Catholic Bigot Harry Knox" signed by U.S. Rep. John Boehner, the House minority leader. And there was also a helpful link to a list of Knox statements headlined "Instances of Harry Knox's Bigotry."

You can read the whole thing, but the two statements that seem to have twisted the most knickers are: "The pope's statement that condoms don't help control the spread of HIV, but rather condoms increase infection rates, is hurting people in the name of Jesus." And "The Knights of Columbus do a great deal of good in the name of Jesus Christ, but in this particular case [Proposition 8], they were foot soldiers of a discredited army of oppression."

Which is pretty pungent rhetoric. But is it either anti-Catholic or bigotry?

The question is not mere hair-splitting. Leaving aside issues of biology or psychology, Knox is disagreeing with Catholic doctrine -- it's an argument about applied theology. He apparently believes that the pope (and therefore the Catholic Church) has misread the will of God regarding birth control and homosexuality. That's certainly anti-Catholicism.

But that's also the kind of disagreement that any exclusivist faiths will have. Southern Baptist doctrine teaches that Jews, Muslims and Hindus are all headed for Hell if they don't accept Jesus. Muslims believe that the Quran has corrected errors in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Jews believe that Christianity has fundamentally misunderstood the lessons of the Torah and the Talmud.

And I daresay that there are Catholic leaders who believe that the decision of the Episcopal Church to approve the blessing of same-sex relationships is "hurting people in the name of Jesus." In fact, there are more than a few ex-Episcopalians who would likely sign onto that. With the same feeling in the other direction, no doubt, from current Episcopal Church leaders.

So all of them are anti- the theology of all the others. That's unavoidable. Necessary, maybe, in the American religious salad bowl.

On the other hand, there are positions that can't simply be excused because of theology. Consider the racist positions held for too many years by the Southern Baptists in the U.S. and by some churches in apartheid-era South Africa. In both cases, the churches used religious language as lipstick on the pig of their bigotry.

Why do Knox's opponents claim that he is not merely wrong, but a bigot? How do you draw that line? The head of the Media Research Center, Brent Bozell III, was kind enough to engage me in a conversation on the topic.

"When somebody says to me that my church is guilty of behavior that is immoral and is insulting to Jesus, my response is 'How dare you say that to me?' " he said.

Well, yes. I can see that you'd be offended. But what makes it bigoted? Knox apparently understands Jesus in a different way than you do.

"His point is ungrounded in 2,000 years of tradition and 2,000 years of faith and the Catholic Church established by Peter. That's what I'm grounded in. If that church is labeled immoral, I take that as a personal attack."

And I get that. But why accuse Knox of being a "bigot"? Doesn't that ratchet up the rhetoric needlessly? Why not simply say that he's wrong and insensitive?

"You are asking a very important general question. To what degree should a Catholic or Christian or anybody of faith be willing to withstand criticism without calling it bigotry?" he said. "It is a question I do pose to myself."

But other than as a sort of paraphrase of Justice Potter Stewart's famous definition of obscenity -- "I know it when I see it" -- Bozell wasn't able to explain how he set the line.

Then he asked a good question about the Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships: "Is the purpose to have people on there who will be divisive? What craziness is that?"

I looked up the membership of the council. It includes the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. The president of Catholic Charities. The director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. The head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. In short, a broad spectrum of theologies that don't often come together at the same table.

What should the standard be for civility in this context? Did Knox go over that line?

I decided I needed to talk to someone who was hip to both politics and religion -- but who had no dog in the theology fight about what Jesus would think about condoms or gay marriage.

Rabbi Irwin Kula is president of the National Jewish Center For Learning and Leadership, which bills itself as a leadership-training institute, think tank and resource center in New York City. He suggested that both sides need to look in a mirror.

"They are just doing politics in religious drag," he said.

Meaning that both sides have existing political positions and they're using religion to "prove" that God is literally on their side. And that's not all. Both sides pull out language guaranteed to heat up the argument: "Foot soldiers of oppression"; "Anti-Catholic bigot."

"These are not helpful. These are just name-calling," Kula said. "All that this assures is that the other side will be offended. And people who are trying to figure out how to what to do with their lives in a moment of transition are turned away."

And yet, the rabbi found something hopeful in the broad range of religions represented on the advisory panel. People who look each other in the eyes and really listen are less inclined to pull out the insults, he said.

And how likely is it that the people on all those sides will really listen to each other?

"Are we going to be hopeful or not? It is important for us to be hopeful about that," Kula said. "If not, the country is going to devolve in ways that will be very dangerous."

But how do you get across the divide of religion if two sides really believe they know what God wants -- and fundamentally disagree?

After reporting about religion for a few years I came up with what I called Weiss's Law of Religious Relativism: Every religion is crazy, by definition, to a nonbeliever.

In this argument I find an inverse corollary: To a fervent believer, a nonbeliever appears irrational. To the extent that the tenets of your faith shape your worldview, someone who disagrees will seem as nuts as if they were claiming that the sky is chartreuse. How can any mere discussion bridge that divide?

"Either you figure out how to have a conversation with a 'crazy person' or the person with more power wins," Kula said. "Generally one side does win, but you can never vanquish the other side. The other side husbands its power and bides its time and comes back with a vengeance."

This is hopeful? The specter of an eternity of nasty religio-political battles?

While the current arguments are plenty bitter, history shows that people of divergent faiths really are moving in a positive direction, Kula said. Even this argument between Bozell and Knox offers grounds for hope, he said.

"Protestants and Catholics are not killing each other in the streets now," he said. "They are calling each other names."

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