Jim Clark & Randy Cassingham: A Conversation

Randy Cassingham publishes one of the funniest newsletters around. This is True is a wonder; all he does is read the news wire and report what he finds. And boy, what he finds! Unlike “News of the Weird”, which is just that–one bizarre, nearly unbelievable story after another, “This is True” usually has a political or moral bent, exposing stupidity, inconsistency, ignorance, and deceit wherever he finds it. And doing it in a way that provokes laughter, though that laughter is often nervous or disconcerted. He and I share many beliefs, foremost among them that zero-tolerance is an idea of zero-intelligence. But shortly after the September 11th attacks, he blasted Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson for their ill-timed messages suggesting we may have lost divine protection by our sinful living. Here is where you can read his attack.

I had just written a letter to the Kansas City Star, which they did not publish, on this topic, so I sent it to him with a short introduction.

Your regular attacks on Christianity do seem feeble and foolish, but I can live with them. However, this one on Falwell and Robertson is beneath you. Taliban? Come on. I sent this to our local paper....have a gander.

Jerry and Pat became the second and third most vilified humans recently, after Osama, but ahead of Saddam. Their crime? Suggesting that Americans’ behavior may have been a cause of the recent attacks. Wait a minute...a lot of other people are suggesting that. We use too much oil, we bombed innocent Afghans, we propped corrupt regimes, we unilaterally support Israel. The terrorists may have a legitimate gripe with us. I have read it many times in this very paper. Oh, but their suggestion was different. They proposed that God may have withdrawn his special protection of America. America has sinned, and God, once our guardian angel, has permitted, or caused, this destruction. Why such an uproar?

I suspect many of those chastising these fallen evangelists do not believe in God. Then why such concern? If Wotan and Loki claimed this happened because Thor no longer guarded America, no one would have paid much attention. A bemused, condescending smile maybe, but no outrage. But this claim unleashed a barrage of criticism unknown in other areas. Do the critics somehow harbor some deep doubt about their agnosticism? Or are they worried that this is a time for us to come together? Then why no disparagement of those who make the claims described above? The apoplexy showed by those raining abuse on Jerry and Pat seems out of proportion to their claims. I suspect many Americans, disgusted by what they see as an erosion of honor and decency, faith and family, feel that God may turn away from us if we do not turn to him. Is there something wrong–inherently–with such a belief? Is it wrong morally? Or wrong factually?

If factually, then again, why the concern? We don’t normally slam those who hold beliefs in error. Let the silly fools go on as they want. People believe all sorts of things in this country; why, I have a friend who thinks the Cubs will indeed win the World Series in his lifetime. Do we blast him for that delusion?

No, it must be that such a belief is morally wrong. Now, this is a country that permits all sorts of things that many believe to be morally wrong. One of our so-called strengths is that those who disagree with us morally are allowed to hold, and follow, their beliefs. Except those who believe in the traditional, Christian God; they are not permitted the same freedoms, because, I suppose, there is always, without any proof, the assumption that somehow they will club their beliefs into the unsuspecting heads of others. When this ever happened, I’d like to know. Charlemagne converted with the sword, but no one since comes to mind.

Now personally, I think Falwell and Robertson a bit foolish for proclaiming these events a sign of God’s displeasure. Knowing the will of God is a tricky thing, and claiming that hurricanes and earthquakes are accidents (or “Acts of God”) while this deliberate act of evil is something else is dangerous. Evidence in this realm is hard to gather. But are they not entitled to their beliefs? And like all other Americans, permitted to express them?

He replied at length and thoughtfully, but does not want me to quote his response. I believe I can summarize, but unfortunately, a summary will lose the strength and depth of his opinion. The main points are:

  1. He attacks the stupid things Christians do, not Christianity
  2. Most people agree with his view on this one
  3. They are entitled to their beliefs, and he would eagerly defend them if he thought anyone was denying them the right to speak
  4. Judge not, that ye not be judged is a request for complete moral freedom

This was getting interesting; I had not expected such a thorough response. So I wrote back:

You sure get points for a quick and thorough reply. Let me offer 2 quotes to begin, both from Anatole France:

I am not big on categorizing people...I think it counter-productive at best, downright dangerous, as we attempt to see what we want, rather than what is there. I usually describe my self as a right-wing, libertarian, Christian, vegetarian communist. I wish the world was different, I work in every way I can to make it different (a friend once said "Conservative?! Not wanting to change things....more than anything I want to change things"), but I do not fail to see basic human nature, which appears to be soaked with evil.

I think you do attack Christianity. I would say your "Get Out Of Hell Free" card (can not find the link on his web page, but it is like a Monoploy "Get Out Of Jail Free" card) is just such an attack. I don't mind it...either hell exists or it doesn't, and I'm not too worried about it either way. But many Christians take it as a central tenet of their beliefs, and mocking that is a unilateral slam of those beliefs. There are beliefs that are wrong, and you may feel hell is one. But I cannot see that card as anything other than a mocking of the beliefs of those people. Sort of a "Hang A Nigger For Free" card.

It seems to me that when you attack the stupid rantings of some Christians you attack anyone who has faith at any level. Is it possible for Chritians to explain their beliefs without being stupid? You accuse Pat and Jerry of being insensitive (not the same as stupid), but all they did was utter their belief. They did not do anything but speak. You attack people's behavior, and I am a big adherent of behavior, not words, being our problem,...but in this case, all they did was say what they believe.

They may be allowed to speak, but it seems as if you wanted them to not speak. Sort of like saying "You can do that, but I will hit you if you do."

Did you complain about all the others saying we may have brought this on ourselves? There have been many.

I do not believe they told parents their children were to blame, though I never did see the entire story. As I understand it, they said we may have caused God to withdraw his protection from our society. All members of a society--even evil ones--get the protection of our Constitution and laws. If those were revoked, all members, even the good ones, would be without those protections. I do not think they believe these people were especially deserving...if they did that would be highly un-Biblical. I cannot pinpoint the source, but Jesus is being questioned by people eager to trick him, and they describe a collapsing building and the deaths of those inside. "Who is responsible? Those who died, or their parents or grandparents?" And Jesus replies how stupid such fault-finding is. I prefer his approach.

Could it be true that God has withdrawn his protection? Yes, if you believe that he had provided it before. Protection is not guaranteed against pain, suffering, and death (not the worst things that can happen from a Christian perspective--only from a human one). I only say I think it silly for people to say they know the thought of God. I do not know--and have no way of knowing--whether God did protect us, does protect us, and will continue to protect us. So, the question of God withdrawing is of no real interest to me. But, I note people returning to churches in great numbers; maybe they feel we have ignored his wishes for too long.

And he replied yet again. Main points:
  1. He did not say they didn't have a right to speak, they were incredibly insensitive to do so at this time in this manner.
  2. He chooses the most egregious examples to attack and cannot attack them all.

Conclusion: I'm not convinced. I do not see anything evil in what these evangelists did. It certainly is within the realm of possibility that God withdrew his protection. But if you are among those who think it isn't, that no such possibility even exists in any real, significant sense, then why the hubbub? Who cares what crackpots think? Whether religious, health, political. Either there is truth in what they say, and we ignore them at our peril, or they are foolish and safely disregarded. What is the third possibility?

Our culture is all about avoiding responsibility. Christianity is all about accepting it and recognizing there is nothing we can do about it by ourselves. Smokers who have read and ignored warnings on packs for years sue the makers of the cigarettes. Pregnant women terminate "unplanned" pregnancies, though the cause and effect is well known and has been documented for some time. A major portion of This Is True is about the stupidity of those who seek to blame others or excuse their problems, errors, disasters or crimes. Falwell and Robertson said "We are responsible ourselves for what happened, after spitting in the eye of God for many years, he has decided to no longer offer a blanket of protection that we have become quite accustomed to". Maybe not the best time, much like remarking to the widow at the funeral of a smoker who died of cancer "Well, it was his own fault." It quite likely was, but propriety suggests we not say such things at that time, true though they may be. But truth is what we are all about, or so I hope, and sensitivity and truth rarely get into bed together.

Thus Randy's quest for sensitivity seems particularly unusual. He just does not understand Christianity. I am in no position to explain something as big as God, but there are several prerequisites to beleif.

  1. I acknowledge I am not good enough myself
  2. I recognize the nature of man is not good but evil
  3. I am willing to submit
  4. And the most important I think, God's rules are set up not to deny us but to free us. We are liberated and protected when we follow his strictures.
When we blindly do as we want, and are surprised when things do not turn out perfectly, we complain. I once read a discussion about evolution:
Believing in evolution is like believing we can throw bricks over our shoulder and eventually build a house.
Ahhh, but in evolution we can select the bricks that land in the right place, and keep throwing for millions of years.

When I first heard this, I was convinced. But the flaw is there in that reasoning. Who chooses the bricks? It cannot be random, for a wall made out of one layer of bricks is not a wall and has no utility or "survival value". Only one with an overall vision could distinguish the useful bricks from the wasted ones. Only one who had an idea of how the house should look would be able to sort through and get the waste away from the worthy.

This seems the perfect metaphor for the way many people live their lives. Somehow they can act as they wish and pick and choose the results they want. The spam I get is all about this "Get out of debt ", "Get government money you never have to pay back", "Eat all you want and lose weight". I wouldn't get so many messages if people did not respond to these claims. Natural consequences are to be abolished, natural law overturned. Peace and harmony prevail. The bricks in the wrong place "go away". For people who think like this, religion is a belief on the scale of which team do you support. A pleasant diversion, a fun place to go on Sunday, but jeez, don't get too worked up about it. But for those who believe, there is no way not to get worked up; it is more important that everything else put together.

This week in "This Is True" Jerry Falwell gets slammed again for saying the Osama bin Laden could be saved, but still should be executed. Ironic, isn't it. The man who believes in divine forgiveness is chastised for what? Sayng we still should punish those who behave badly. Christians would be thrilled to see bin Laden embrace Jesus, and would sing and pray with him up till his execution, but they firmly and solidly believe in human justice.