What Christians Owe Hitch

Since it’s pay-walled, my thoughts on the long conversation Hitch and I had over the decades about Christianity:

For me, his finest moment was when he went on Fox News, the propaganda channel for the American far right, and went after Jerry Falwell as a charlatan, a cynic, a money-grubber and a hater of people he didn’t know. And yes: on the day after Hitch-chairFalwell’s death. He was utterly unintimidatable, drily dressing down the interviewer and finally rebelling against the whole charade with a rallying last retort: “If you gave Jerry Falwell an enema, you could bury him in a matchbox!”

Too much? For most. But we need the man or woman who says these things in public without fear. Freedom demands it. I’m a life-long believer in God and Jesus Christ, a dogged Catholic who, despite profound alienation within the current institution, cannot find a way to stop believing. Hitch knew all this from the get-go and teased me about my Catholicism with the same mischief he did my sexual orientation. He got extremely excited when I wrote an op-ed saying I was withdrawing from communion because of the sex abuse crisis and the Vatican homophobia that blamed it on gays in general. “I hear you’ve abandoned Mother Church!” he exclaimed, and then sank into despond when I told him the more complicated reality.

One night, we talked like college students about the Big Things, and my faith, and his hostility to faith. And it is my belief that he was a tonic for today’s Christianity.

I read his book on God with some trepidation but agreed with almost all of it. Ridiculing organized religion is like shooting a shark in a tiny barrel. But there was something quite exhilarating about Hitch’s deployment of a rhetorical AK-47. What the book didn’t do – what it couldn’t do – was weaken my faith. He was attacking the human follies and lies and cruelties that exploit and abuse faith.

As a Christian, I am grateful for that. If Christianity is to survive and prosper, it will not be because it has drawn back inside the castle of rigid orthodoxy, but when it has confronted and extirpated its anachronisms, absurdities, and abuses. Hitch’s reaction to the appalling child abuse scandal in the Church was less anguished than mine, but his point was inarguable. The current Pope himself was an accomplice to the rape of several children in Munich, when he was an archbishop, as well as complicit in the hideous abuses of Father Marcial Maciel. In any moral institution, which takes moral responsibility seriously, Benedict XVI would have resigned. So would all of the criminals in the far heights of the Church. It was an atheist who pointed out this Christian truth with the starkest moral vision. An atheist.