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A nation of persuaders

When Brit Hume said Tiger Woods should change religions, he may not have been polite. But he was only doing what Americans always do.

January 11, 2010|Gregory Rodriguez

Fox News analyst Brit Hume ruffled some feathers last week when he suggested that Tiger Woods should convert to Christianity from Buddhism if he hoped to recover from his humiliating personal fall. Hume's public proselytizing was clumsy and presumptuous, but it seems to me that the only rule he broke was the one that dictates that you shouldn't talk about religion in polite company.

I mean, the guy gets paid for giving his opinion, and, well, he gave his opinion. But religion is different, right? Well, actually, no. Among many other things, religions are worldviews, and our right to free expression allows -- indeed encourages -- us to share our worldviews. And when I say "share," I'm not referring to the "aren't all cultures wonderful?" pageantry of, say, public television, but of the rough-and-tumble world of competing ideas and beliefs.

The doctrine of the separation of church and state seems to leave a lot of Americans thinking that religion has no place in the public square. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, recent history shows that democracy actually energizes public religious activity and competition among faiths.

As Emory University law professor John Witte Jr. wrote: "The problem of proselytism is one of the great ironies of the democratic revolution of the modern world. . . . On the one hand, the modern human rights revolution has helped to catalyze a great awakening in religion around the globe. . . . On the other hand . . . the human rights revolution has brought on something of a new war for souls between indigenous and foreign religious groups."

In the United States, the Constitution doesn't merely protect religious practice; it also protects a believer's right to try to change someone else's beliefs. As the ninth vice president of the U.S., Richard Mentor Johnson, once put it, "Our Constitution recognizes no other power than that of persuasion, for enforcing religious observances."

Indeed, if you step back, you'll see that our institutions actually encourage religious persuasion. We put a premium on individual belief (which in part derives from the Protestant doctrine of the "priesthood of believers" -- all men have equal access to the God), and from elementary school on we are taught to "decide for ourselves" and choose our own paths. In our willy-nilly search for truth, we Americans make our way through a bazaar-like marketplace of ideas where aggressive salesmen try to make us see things their way. If we respect our intellectual culture and political tradition, we have to admit that proselytism is not a threat to the public square; it's integral to it.

And no, it's not polite. Hume basically said, 'My faith is better than Woods' " and he was attacked as "sanctimonious" and "stupid." He wasn't being respectful, and neither were his critics. Neither is our intellectual and political tradition.

The page you're reading this column on is dedicated to people who are trying to change your mind about all sorts of issues. Cable news shows are all about the clash of opinion shapers. From the now-nonstop political campaigns of Democrats and Republicans to advertising to PR onslaughts, it's nearly impossible to escape the daily bombardment of persuasion. Contemporary social media now enables just about anyone with a computer to shape their friends' views on anything from politics to movies. You can become a fan of any cause on Facebook. If you have a bad experience at a restaurant, you can weigh in against it by writing a review on Yelp. If you loved that book you just read, you can let everyone know by writing a review on Amazon.com.

And not only are we a nation of persuaders, we are citizens of a persuasive nation that likes to try to convince others of the rightness of its views on human rights, capitalism and democracy. In no small way, the entire Cold War was an attempt at global persuasion. We wanted

the world to be like us, and we

still do.

Social psychologists have done extensive work on the mechanics of how we are influenced by others. But only recently have they turned their attention to what people get out of influencing others. Some of these studies have shown that the persuasion of others is a part of our attempt to better control our environment.

I suspect that whatever the researchers find in the end won't be too different than what Goethe discovered in the early 19th century. "People," he wrote, "have a peculiar pleasure in making converts, that is, in causing others to enjoy what they enjoy, thus finding their likeness represented and reflected back to them."

Hume wasn't just trying to help Tiger Woods; he was trying to mold him in his image.

grodriguez@latimescolumnists.com

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