Comedy has many subjects: leaders, governments, things we don't understand.
Regarding that last topic, I suppose it is understandable that comedians pick on religions. In any event, freedom of speech allows them to do so. What is generally not condoned, however, are continuous and sweeping insults aimed at those with differing points of view. The worst forms of prejudice and racism are bred out of this type of one-sided banter.
Blacks in this country never were given the chance to defend themselves against claims of being less intelligent than whites during the time of slavery. Jews and non-Aryans never were given a chance to defend their humanity during the Holocaust. Muslims never were given a chance to defend themselves during the Crusades, and on and on.
Whenever a group of people is slandered repeatedly, with no consideration of a contrary view, intolerance flourishes and the seeds of human rights violations are planted. We should be more careful. Our country still feels the effects of slavery, the Holocaust is an unmentionable tragedy, and even the most fervent Christian regrets the Crusades.
How is it, then, that we still hear in this country this sort of rhetoric from seemingly intelligent men? Why is it that yet another group is being subjected to one-sided slander? Is it because comedians and some members of the more serious media are willing to pick only on people who generally don't defend themselves?
This time, the group is Christians, and one of the more recent examples of this malevolent behavior came from Bill Maher. He's been known to go on rants, but he raised the bar with one he made recently. I'm certainly not advocating that Mr. Maher be stripped of his First Amendment rights, but I'd prefer he show some humanity and attack the belief system rather than the adherents. I can appreciate an equal-opportunity comedian, but when the focus is monomaniacal, it breeds an attitude that divides people and sanctions prejudice.
I hope these are not things Mr. Maher desires and that he simply didn't realize the historical similarities, but that is the danger.
The rant was incited by announcements for the movie "Noah," starring Russell Crowe. Discussing the movie, Mr. Maher appeared to indicate that God is a "psychotic mass murderer" and that Christians are crazy for worshipping someone who drowns babies. The rant continued for about five minutes, during which time there was some laughter and applause, but his guests seemed to become increasingly uncomfortable as the tirade continued. In a peculiar twist, Mr. Maher claimed to be "pro-death," indicating that he is in favor of capital punishment and abortion. If this is true, it would seem that he'd be in favor of a God who wiped out people who violated the law. Such is the irony of trying to be a sometime comedian, sometime pundit and full-time provocateur.
The sad reality is that people such as Bill Maher often have little to no idea what they're attacking. In search of irony, he may be inclined to focus on the negative, but even a modicum of balance reveals his uncharity. That he is engaged in "comedy" is a thin defense.
Christianity, the favorite target of Mr. Maher, belies the comedian's attacks. There are countless schools, hospitals and organizations to help the needy that were founded because of Christians, Christian churches and Christian principles. There are dozens of Christian denominations, each with its own theology and moral stances, and no one would describe them as unified about very much aside from the importance of Jesus Christ (and even this is sometimes at issue).
To make a broad-brush argument and attempt to apply it to "Christians" reveals Mr. Maher's own bigotry and ignorance. Fortunately for him, in this country it often seems that intolerance of Christians is the last acceptable prejudice. It seems to be positively welcome in most quarters of what passes for the mainstream media.
As with any other group, the best way to understand Christians is to spend some time with them, have explorative conversations and, perhaps most important, observe what they do. Real understanding and familiarity are the products of prolonged exposure. Having a couple of marginal Christian friends doesn't make you an expert on Christianity, just as having a couple of Jewish or Palestinian friends wouldn't qualify you to make good judgments concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It would certainly not entitle you to ridicule their beliefs or mischaracterize them for comedic effect.
As individuals and as a country, we need to take strides to understand those who think differently. Comedy can be lots of fun and can even be a tool to help us see things in different ways, but it can do that only when it's not insulting.
Whether you want to call it karma or the Golden Rule, it's always more intelligent to treat others nicely because one day you might need help from them. With all the strife and problems of the world, it seems that our time would be better spent in understanding rather than in ridicule.
The fact of the matter is Christians (as well as those of other faiths, and those of no faith at all) do a lot in this country to fight hunger and suffering and, if for no other reason, they should be respected and appreciated for that. Mr. Maher, I would like to respectfully ask you to change your focus to something constructive and use your talent to bring awareness to your listeners.
• Armstrong Williams is sole owner/manager of Howard Stirk Holdings Inc. and editor-in-chief of American CurrentSee online magazine.