Bill Maher: Enabler of the Religious Right
On the April 8, 2005 edition of Real Time, Maher had Mario Cuomo as a video guest. He asked the former New York governor how he reconciled his religious beliefs with his intelligence:
MAHER: If you disagree so much with so many of the rules, why do you need religion at all? I have a lot of trouble understanding why somebody like yourself who is a brilliant man, I have trouble understanding why brilliant people can even be religious. Quite frankly, I don't mean that disrespectfully.
Cuomo went on to eloquently but effectively school Maher in the concept of the shared values of believers and non-believers alike. Instead of falling into the host's trap of making belief a test of intelligence the pluralistic Catholic offered a more inclusive vision for society.
And apparently Maher was caught off-guard. Since that show aired I have never seen him approach a religiously progressive guest (the recent one-on-one show with Bill Moyers immediately comes to mind) with the same query. Instead he has featured dedicated segments with fellow neo-atheists Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, both of whom who took the occasion parrot Maher's view of belief in a supreme being as a symptom of delusion and that religious Americans are dumb. Nowhere in the four years since Cuomo has there been a similarly dedicated segment discussing the issue faith with anyone of the Religious Left such as Chris Hedges.
The Cuomo exchange reveals that actually Maher doesn't know much about religion or religious people. While his ignorance is a rolling embarrassment - and no doubt why he is unable to engage serious religious intellectuals and political figures, what is worse is that he views religious faith in much the same light as many on the Religious Right - the only true religion is that of contemporary orthodoxy and any deviation from same is somehow less religious. Maher apparently cannot comprehend that most people are in their way, religios dissenters, and that relatively few are fully orthodox. Religious faith is a means, and not an end, no matter what the orthodox may say.
Maher loaded his question to Cuomo by making the desire for bread conditional upon being only able eat one of many varieties. This is a running theme in the religious world according to Mahar. For example, in his April 11, 2008 dedicated segment with Richard Dawkins the religious were defined as those who believe in talking snakes while those religious who view the Eden story as metaphor are simply "airbrushed out" of the picture.
In Dawkins's most recent appearance guest and host engaged in a tag-teaming put-down of religious Americans (again, after pigeon-holing them within a fundamentalist framework). They took particular glee in disparaging Mormons, painting them as a politically conservative monolith. Reality is quite different. Take for example Stewart Udall the Secretary of the Interior for both JFK and LBJ. Udall was instrumental in bringing to fruition a plethora of progressive environmental legislation. His ardent liberalism was on par with that of his late brother, the former Member of Congress and 1976 presidential candidate Morris Udall..
But perhaps the best example of Maher's botched stereotyping of all Mormons as right-wingers would be Marriner S. Eccles, FDR's Federal Reserve chairman. It was Eccles''s famous quote on credit reliance being akin to the few holding all the chips in a poker game that Maher cited prominently, on his October 17, 2008 show. (I will give Mahar the benefit of the doubt and assume that Mahar did not know about Eccles' Mormonism.) Perhaps it has never occurred to Maher that these famous Mormon liberals found their moral compass within the framework of their faith, not despite it.
Maher the Enabler
By now you may be asking, yourself, how does this aid and abet the agenda of the Religious Right? Well quite simply it plays directly into one of movement conservatism's two favorite themes: godless liberals believe themselves to be superior than the average American (the other being that government does not work).
Here is what I mean: A constant talking point of the Religious Right and their secular apologists is that only the orthodox practice of faith the only legitimate brand. Anything less - such as that practiced by Reform Jews, Mainline Protestants and Vatican II progressive Catholics - is akin to no belief at all. Such an outlook appears to be designed to skew the neo-atheist argument against faith by trying to paint it as being irreconcilable with science and reason.
But at the same time this approach obscures the liberal agenda Maher supports. While it devalues the legitimacy of a true Religious Left (one that strongly supports the separation of church and state instead of one that all-too-often adopts the Religious Right's frame on biological issues) - and further splinters the Left -- it also builds up the Right's straw-man argument that liberalism is hostile to people of faith.
His relentless degradation of poor and working class whites compound Maher's counter-productive attack on faith. During any give broadcast of Real Time the host's constant drumbeat of proclaiming "American dumbness" or description of supposed ignorant toothless rubes is ever-present. If anything he risks turning himself into the posterboy for what movement conservatism says is wrong with liberals.
The Daily Howler's Bob Somerby recently described the upshot of such behavior:
"Big government never did anything well?" As a statement, that's basically false. But as a piece of messaging, that's quite potent, whether we eggheads understand that or not. With great regularity, voters have heard variations on this message for the past fifty years-variations which often fold in the second claim, the one about liberal elites. When George Wallace talked about "those pointy-head government bureaucrats," he was killing two parakeets with one country stone. He was describing a race of people who looked down on average people-and could do nothing well.
Maher with his continuous insults levied against religious folks and ordinary Americans makes the messaging easier than it should be. And that is in no small part due to Maher's need to kick down at the misled instead of focusing his comic wit solely on the misleaders.
The Issue at Hand
Maher's neo-atheistic pronouncements are of course protected by the First Amendment, and so no matter how bigoted, ignorant or counterproductive, he has every right to say what he says.
But Maher holds himself as being a progressive with a libertarian streak. And yet he constantly shoots the progressive agenda in the foot by splitting the Left in order pursue a personal war against faith.
This being the case, Maher simply does not know what liberal values are truly about, if in fact he holds them at all. He also does not seem to know liberalism's history. Many of the ordinary folks Maher and others like him deride as dumb, were at one time liberalism's core constituency. It is the folks who may have "one tooth" who need liberalism the most. They are the ones who need universal health care and unions. They are the ones for whom liberal lions like John, Robert and Ted Kennedy, and for that matter, Martin Luther King fought. Shall we recall that the day before King was assassinated he had marched with sanitation workers, mostly poor and African American, who were on strike?
None of these, and for that matter, FDR and Harry Truman to mention a few more, never insulted any voter's faith but held high the common dreams and aspirations we all share. A core liberal principle is respect for religious difference. Hostility to religion and to religious people is not a liberal principle.
Stating a case for atheism harms no one. But that is not what Maher does. Instead, he tears down the beliefs of others. Maher should look in the fun house mirror of his own invention to see that in his self-righteous certitude, he mirrors the Religious Rightists who engage in similar behavior towards atheists, agnostics and non-orthodox people of faith.
Bill Maher: Enabler of the Religious Right | 22 comments (22 topical, 0 hidden)
Bill Maher: Enabler of the Religious Right | 22 comments (22 topical, 0 hidden)