So What if Religion Inspires Violence?

Right Reverend A.J.,

I’m relieved by your flattery. When I tried to persuade you to switch team jerseys, I was worried your throat would become an open grave, with the poison of asps under your lips, your mouth full of cursing and bitterness (Romans 3:13-14). Thanks, actually, for pulling my old story excerpt. It’s my goal here to offend practitioners of every faith. I’ve already covered the Jews. (I kid you, God’s Chosen People. I need to stay on your good side. When the apocalypse comes, call me.) Now you’ve helped me alienate Pentecostals and Catholics. Who’s next? You want a piece of me, Bahais?

I’ve never understood people’s aversion to good, clean religious warfare—guys (like my venerable friend Christopher Hitchens) who like to dump all the world’s ills in religion’s lap, claiming it is the source of most violence. To which I say, “Yeah, so?” Sad as it is, the human animal is a violent one. It will always find something to fight about. There’s at least an outside chance that religion, practiced correctly, refines or subverts that impulse. In fact, it has plenty of times. Sometimes it doesn’t and is practiced incorrectly. But think about the stupidity that usually provokes your average bar fight: looking at someone the wrong way, spilling a beer on their shoes, cutting the line for the dartboard. On balance then, religion provides a much nobler reason to cuff somebody.

Now, back to Jesus-is-love/turning-the-other-cheek. About a decade ago, I covered one of those mass Moonie weddings at RFK Stadium, with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon officiating. There were thousands of tittering Asian girls on a football field in full bridal regalia putting rings on their own fingers, because their Moon-appointed grooms couldn’t get travel visas. The story, as you can imagine, wasn’t terribly nice. Afterward, my editor received an angry letter from a Washington Times editor (the Times being owned by Moon), who pointed out that my piece was a little too easy. He said a lot of people think it’s pretty dopey that we believe a guy was nailed to a piece of wood for our sins, then rose from the grave three days later. My editor pushed the letter at me with a satisfied smile. He’s Jewish.

In your book, you take a trip to Jerry Falwell’s church, shortly before he died. Having been raised a Southern Baptist (I now go to a Bible church, which is sort of like a Baptist church, without all the white belts and potlucks), I found myself getting involuntarily defensive while reading your account. You were very fair, to be fair, but I still bristled at the fact that most readers will consider that fairness to be counterintuitive when dropping into a land of such savage barbarians.

Keep in mind, I hated Falwell—more than you think you do. It’s hard to think of somebody who turned more people off to Christianity than he did. Maybe Emperor Nero, but he was tossing them to lions, so that doesn’t really count. As you point out, his regular sermons are standard Sunday-morning vanilla extract, what you could get in Anywhere, USA. But we know him for his more inflammatory/un-Christian pronouncements. I tell people, in an eerie rip-off of your Olive Garden riff, that thinking you’ve experienced Christianity because you’ve experienced Jerry Falwell is like thinking you’ve experienced French cuisine because you bought a sandwich at Au Bon Pain. The two have little or nothing to do with each other. We all tend to operate by the same rule: Your faith’s eccentrics are merely your outlying eccentrics, the other guy’s eccentrics are indicative of a pervasive cancer rotting his church from within. But it’s why I think it’s always a mistake to put faith in fallible men, with apologies to L. Ron Hubbard.

To answer your questions, the wackier of the Mosaic laws amuse me more than anything. From an observance standpoint, Christians put that all behind us in guilt-free fashion with the New Covenant. I follow the big ones (“thou shalt not kill”), or at least try to. But I do not, as you highlighted in your book, lose much sleep if I forget to break a cow’s neck at the site of an unsolved murder (Deuteronomy 21:1-4). I’m wondering—how many of these rituals stuck with you and became a permanent part of your OCD regimen?

I once brought an Orthodox rabbi to the Holy Land Experience in Orlando for an article. It was a Bible-based theme park run by a Messianic Jew. The rabbi was pissed. He wanted to know why we had to go around appropriating his history. We had the New Testament, why couldn’t we leave his Testament alone? “Out with the Old, in with the New,” he said.

I don’t feel that way. I love the Old Testament. There are parts of it that I love more than the New Testament, particularly in the King James Version, the language of which is terrifyingly beautiful. It’s lean and mean and lends itself to smiting scenes. But he’s partly right. Though I think of the Old and New Testaments as being of a piece, I’m thankful for the New Deal every time I sit down to a big plate of bacon, which is often.

Lastly: Are agnostics just atheists without balls? Sorry, I’m with Colbert on that one. Much as “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20), to me it would seem that “sacredness” without belief is like dancing without music. I don’t get it. But if you want to explain it, I’m all ears.

Bring me the head of Christopher Hitchens,
Matt Labash