Even though they may remind you immediately of the worst racists you have known, bigoted bashers of religion often get away with it no matter how shallow, uncomprehending, unfair, overly generalizing, nasty-minded or obviously hostile their attitudes are.
Every now and then, however, someone strikes back, such as Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York. On his Web site, I first learned from a New York Post article, he recently took a swing at anti-Catholicism, particularly as exhibited in the New York Times, but did not stop there.
“It is not hyperbole to call prejudice against the Catholic Church a national pastime,” he writes. “Scholars such as Arthur Schlesinger Sr. referred to it as ‘the deepest bias in the history of the American people,’ while John Higham described it as ‘the most luxuriant, tenacious tradition of paranoiac agitation in American history.’ ‘The anti-Semitism of the left,’ is how Paul Viereck reads it, and Professor Philip Jenkins sub-titles his book on the topic ‘the last acceptable prejudice.’ ”
The archbishop then shows how the Times, in writing about the sexual abuse of children by Orthodox Jewish rabbis, applies standards different from those it exhibited in coverage of abuse by Catholic priests. He notes how the Times gave front-page play to a 25-year-old story of a Franciscan priest fathering a child. He is puzzled by the treatment of a story about Catholics opening their doors to Anglicans, and then he has at a “scurrilous piece” by columnist Maureen Dowd, a woman whose unending ad hominem ferocity apparently makes some chuckle even as it makes Mr. Dolan and others wonder about journalistic judgment at an ever-less outstanding newspaper.
Ms. Dowd, says Mr. Dolan, “digs deep into the nativist handbook to use every anti-Catholic caricature possible, from the Inquisition to the Holocaust, condoms, obsession with sex, pedophile priests, and oppression of women, all the while slashing Pope Benedict XVI for his shoes, his forced conscription - along with every other German teenage boy - into the German army, his outreach to former Catholics, and his recent welcome to Anglicans.”
Mr. Dolan then observes that anti-Catholicism is hardly limited to the pages of the Times, and he could have added that anti-religious bigotry is hardly confined to Catholicism. Bill Maher, a comedian whose most laughable quality is his intellectual pretentiousness, has an obsession with all religion that not so long ago manifested itself in a documentary making fun of a variety of faiths.
His strategy, as described by Los Angeles Times movie critic Kenneth Turan, was to take “his questions not to sober religious thinkers but to assorted fruits and nuts that populate the fringes of religion.” Did it not occur to Mr. Maher that you could do the same thing with any large group and that focusing on the peculiar few is the age-old methodology of those stirring up hatred against the whole, not least of all against racial minorities?
But step aside Mr. Maher, because here comes Larry David of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” On the show, he managed to accidentally urinate on a picture of Jesus. Later, two women believers view the picture, thinking they are witnessing a tear run from one of Jesus’s eyes - an astonishing miracle. While the reaction of Christians to these juvenilia seems to have been fairly mild, some bloggers and others have noted the consequences would have been something far less than mild if the picture had been of Barack Obama or Mohammed.
Mr. Dolan makes clear he is not against thoughtful criticism of religion, and I am not, either. Nor am I against religious satire. But there are times when some combination of overreach, tastelessness, gross insensitivity, stereotyping, double-standards, witless anger, narrow-mindedness and uncomprehending intolerance add up to an anti-religious bigotry that is poisonously bigoted, and it seems to me important to say so occasionally.
Jay Ambrose is the former Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard.