As a child I was indoctrinated with some basic precepts regarding life among other human beings. Don’t put your elbows on the dinner table. Don’t speak with your mouth full. Blow your nose into a handkerchief.
(I pause to notice how quaint that one seems now, when linen handkerchiefs have wellnigh vanished from the stores. I guard my ancient horde very jealously. For the benefit of younger readers, I should note that blowing one’s nose without benefit of a handkerchief, or any other accessory at all, was still current practice among the older generation of English people in my childhood, at any rate in the lower classes — my father, for example, when out of doors and not observed by polite adult society. Hence the joke, current in mainland China at least as late as 1986: What is it that a rich man carries around in his pocket but a poor man leaves lying in the street?)
Where was I? Oh, yes. Don’t sit while a lady is standing. (More quaintness!) Don’t stare. Don’t make excuses. Stand up for the Queen (i.e. when you hear the National Anthem played). Don’t impose. (If, for example, while walking on the street you should spot a famous person, it would be absolutely wrong to go up and introduce yourself. That would be imposing. As it was neatly and memorably explained to me by a schoolmaster: To steal another person’s time is even worse than stealing his stuff. Your victim can always hope to get more stuff, but our time on earth is strictly limited. In this age of email spammers, telephone solicitors, paparazzi, cellphone yappers, and million-page income tax codes, I guess this injunction also looks pretty quaint.)
And then: Don’t mock another man’s religion. That one is the subject of today’s column. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
A few days ago my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru posted to “The Corner” some lines out of an e-mail he’d received from one of his readers. Among the lines was this: “I am, however, an evangelical Christian. The Corner lately has not seemed a friendly place for folks like me. I’m used to attacks from the likes of Stuttaford and Derb, but …”
This jolted me. I don’t care to think of myself as a person who would attack evangelicals — not for their being evangelicals, anyway. If some particular evangelical is a proven and convicted forger, traitor, child molester, poisoner of wells, serial murderer, or loud and incessant user of cellphones in railroad carriages, I would have no compunctions about attacking him for that. Not for his religion, though. In fact, I have lost one paying client this past few months for my unwillingness to participate in their (as it seems to me) gratuitous and narrow-minded insulting of Islam.
Might I nonetheless be guilty of the charge laid upon me by Ramesh’s reader? Possibly. If I were told to swear a solemn and binding oath that I had never, ever put my elbows on the dinner table or imposed on a celebrity, I could not. We all have our occasional lapses from the high standards we set for ourselves. Our original and intractable natures now and then poke a curved claw or a scaly fin out through the shrink-wrap our parents applied so carefully.
I accordingly posted the following to “The Corner:” “Could someone please direct me to any post, column, or broadcast in which I have attacked evangelical Christians?”
This brought many responses to my inbox. A heartening number of them — roughly a fifth — came from evangelicals assuring me that I had never said anything they took amiss. One of these readers, however, pointed to my 2003 “metro-cons” column, saying that, while he himself did not find it objectionable, he thought others may have.
(In that column I tried to argue that conservatism, in common with most other large social phenomena, has an urban manifestation — subtle, cerebral, intellectual, tending towards decadence — and a rustic one — plain, active, instinctual, tending towards fanaticism — and that the two factions ought to strive to get along in pursuit of their common goals, and in hopes that their negative tendencies will cancel each other out.)
Sure enough, another e-mail came in citing that same column as proof of my contempt for evangelicals as ignorant rubes. Read the column for yourself to see if that is a fair construction.
A third faction — around ten percent — told me that declaring myself a non-Christian constituted an attack all by itself. This just seems to me a gross abuse of the English language. While I have been writing this, somewhere in the world — in the Sudan, or in Nigeria, or in Communist China, or North Korea, or in Iraq or Iran or Afghanistan or Pakistan — a person was beaten or killed for being Christian. That is an attack — one carried out, in fact, by people who believe, just as my inbox’s ten percent do, that my not sharing your faith is tantamount to an assault on that faith.