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Politeness police

Who made the rule that Brit Hume so publicly broke?

Issue: "Pro-baby," Jan. 30, 2010

So exactly who was it who set the rule that it's not polite to talk about your faith in public?

For sure, Nancy Spagnolo of Bethany, Conn., was speaking for millions of Americans when she emailed television personality Bill O'Reilly following his celebrated interview with newsman Brit Hume. "Religion is such a deeply personal issue," she said confidently, "and it is wrong to discuss what another person should believe. Mr. Hume should have contacted Tiger Woods privately instead of taking it public."

"That's not a bad point," O'Reilly responded. "I'm sure Hume had noble intentions when he addressed the golfer publicly, but it was a deeply personal assessment of Woods' predicament. We are all sinners. How many of us want to be told how to achieve forgiveness in a public forum?"

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At that point, O'Reilly is trying hard to look good on both sides of the question. He's defending Hume-but he's holding him a bit accountable at the same time for maybe running rough shod over one of the basic rules of polite society. He's not nearly as judgmental as is his email correspondent Nancy Spagnolo, but he is reminding us of that basic rule that we all seem to know somehow we ought to observe scrupulously: When you're talking about issues of religion and faith, walk very carefully.

My question is: Who said so?

Who said it's fine to discuss in public which stock to invest in, which restaurant to dine in, which football team deserves the higher ranking, whether Fords are better than Toyotas, whether radiation is a better treatment for cancer than surgery-or a thousand other controversial subjects-but that to recommend that a friend consider Christianity over Buddhism is obviously a no-no?

Who gets to say-and why-that some subjects are legitimately on the playing field and others are out-of-bounds? What gives Bill O'Reilly the prerogative to judge, as he did: "Hume has a perfect right to espouse what he believes is a healing tonic. The forgiveness Christianity offers has helped millions of human beings throughout history. The world would be a better place if every person on earth understood the basic philosophy of Jesus. Hume was simply exercising his free speech rights, and the fact that he is paid well to do so speaks to his intellect and insight."

If O'Reilly is right, then does it all just boil down to good taste? Is it just a matter of being polite and gracious? But if that's the case, shouldn't we be ready to rule out about 95 percent of everything that comes to us through all the news and entertainment media? Where have the politeness police been hiding out?

Or is there something unique about issues of faith and ultimate reality that says we need to be gentle, deferential-and maybe even altogether silent-in those realms even while we play smash-mouth and insult each other on a thousand other fronts? Are people really so consumed with the record of religious disagreement degenerating to bloody conflict that they fear the same thing is bound to result if we express our faith differences on network TV?

Two by-the-way responses deserve reflection.

The first is that those of us who call ourselves believers in Jesus always have a lot to learn about both framing and expressing His gospel. We should be embarrassed and repentant when our approach has obscured rather than enhanced it as the "good news" that it claims to be. We've got to keep our focus on needy people rather than debating points. And maybe before we go on to the second point, we should always ask whether we've allowed our own pride to take center stage.

But the other is that no matter how deftly and winsomely we express it, the "good news" will be interpreted otherwise by some hard-hearted folks. Brit Hume put his finger on it when he said in his interview with O'Reilly that at the very mention of Jesus Christ, in the ears of some people, "all hell breaks loose."

It's one thing, in a fuss like this, for folks to object to someone like Brit Hume and to respond: "I really didn't appreciate your attitude in what you said about Tiger Woods." It's something altogether different to say: "You shouldn't even talk about such things in public. It's not polite."

Not polite? When we hear things like that, all the rest of us need to say together, just as sweetly but loudly as we can: "Who says?"

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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