It is hardly surprising that one of the most outspoken evangelists of
atheism would have less-than-kind words about a man who empowered
religion in American politics. But writer Christopher Hitchens went
even beyond his usual eloquent obnoxiousness by commencing his comments
in Slate about the late Jerry Falwell by asserting that "the discovery"
of the Baptist minister's "carcass" has significance mainly for
The word chosen by the petulant writer to refer to Reverend Falwell's
mortal remains is telling. As a self-declared and proud "antitheist"
whose most recent book carries the subtitle "How Religion Poisons
Everything," Hitchens has no reason to view human beings as different
from animals in any essential way. It is a stance that can lead to
things like Princeton ethicist Peter Singer's support for killing
severely disabled babies and the unconscious elderly. As Professor
Singer has explained: "The life of a newborn is of less value than the
life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee." If antitheist Hitchens asserts
some inherent human special-ness, he is not only insufferable but
Reverend Falwell, by contrast, made his reputation by forcing the
American body politic to consider that the human sphere, by virtue of a
Divine plan, is uniquely, meaningfully different from all else on
earth. The idea that men and women possess a spark of the Divine, that
our lives hold the promise of holiness, is the beta-point after the
alpha affirming G-d of religious belief.
Which is why Falwell, who coaxed religious Americans to raise a voice
they hadn't known they possessed, focused largely on issues that spoke
to the holiness of human life. Like the preciousness of even its
potential, and how the act able to create new human beings should be
regarded as something more than a meaningless equivalent of its analogue
in the animal world.
Predictably, such ideas make people like Hitchens crazy. The writer was
rendered apoplectic by the reverend's daring to voice opposition to the
societal sanctioning of feticide, or of intimate relationships
considered immoral by traditional Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and
Buddhist believers alike. Hitchens decried the "puddl[ing]" of the
reverend's "sausage-sized fingers into the intimate arrangements of
people who had done no harm." Hitchens' hatred is so fervid it extends
to Falwell's very digits.
Nor is the cantankerous Divinity-denier content to just damn the late
reverend (so to speak; Hitchens, of course, denies any ultimate reward
or punishment). He insists on smearing him, too, with the tar of
Associating the Moral Majority founder with an assortment of unsavory
characters on the sole basis of their common commitment to Christian
belief, Hitchens sneers that Falwell must have hated Jews. The tar,
though, doesn't stick. I don't know what Falwell may have held in his
heart of hearts, but a verdict of guilty on a charge of Jew-hatred needs
something more than guilt by the remotest association.
Ah, though, Hitchens points out, Jews are "unsaved" in the reverend's
Well, yes, some Christians' beliefs entail a rejection of Judaism.
Jewish belief, no less, rejects Christianity (at least for Jews).
Theological affirmations, however, need not bespeak animus.
It is odd, in any event, that an atheist would be so exercised by a
Christian's belief about the spiritual merit, or lack thereof, of
non-Christians. It certainly doesn't bother this Jewish believer (who,
well, believes he knows better).
I am not oblivious to how religions can beget and have begotten
hatred and violence. Nor am I certain that there is no future (or even
present) for Christian Jew-hatred. There are, after all, rabidly
anti-Semitic groups in the American heartland that claim a Christian
mandate for their hatred. Nor, to be honest, can I help but wonder what
prejudicial lusts might yet lurk in the heart of former president Jimmy
Carter and other similarly myopic defenders of populations pledged to
drive Jews into the Mediterranean.
But the vast majority of contemporary Christians including even those
like Falwell who believe Jews can get to heaven only by becoming
Christians do not menace members of the tribe these days; and I
respect a Christian's right to his belief just as I wish that he or she
respect mine to my own.
And so, while, as a believing Jew, I was not a Falwell-follower and was
not always enamored of some of his pronouncements , he deserves credit
not only for his support of Israel against her sworn enemies but for his
determination, whatever else he may have said or believed, to call
attention to the idea of the Divine.
Let us also recall some historical wages of Godlessness like
Stalin's "Great Purge" or Mao's massacres or the Cambodian killing
fields. While religion can, and often is, misused, there is much to be
said for a society pledged, however imperfectly, to the Divine, over one
that regards human beings as nothing more than quickened carcasses.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.