Skip to Content

Opinion: I’m a Catholic bishop who has found an ally in Bill Maher

Opinion by Bishop Robert Barron

(CNN) — Bill Maher first came to my attention in the 1980s as a clever, wry and politically alert stand-up comic. But I began to follow him more closely about 20 years ago when, in the wake of the new atheist movement, he dedicated a good deal of his comedy to mocking religion and religious people.

Again and again, on Maher’s HBO program, “Real Time with Bill Maher,” he would often present the most extreme and simple-minded version of Christianity, and his audience would derisively laugh with him at the poor rubes who still believed such nonsense. All of this came to full expression in his 2008 documentary film, “Religulous,” which featured interview after interview with religious people utterly incapable of fending off Maher’s rather standard and tired atheist objections. (HBO and CNN share a parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery.)

Although he annoyed me, I suppose I continued to watch Maher to see what the “other side” was saying and thinking. In fact, the first YouTube video of mine that got a sizable audience was my rejoinder to “Religulous.” Actually, I can say with some confidence precisely why Maher’s understanding of religion was so weak. He and I are around the same age, and both of us were educated in a Catholic context (his mother was Jewish, but his father was Irish Catholic).

To put it gently, the time when we were going through school was not a golden age of the Catholic intellectual tradition. I remember that religion class was largely a matter of banners, balloons and a vague commitment to social justice. An awful lot of Catholics from our Baby Boomer generation fell away from the church because, when they grew up, the childish version of the faith that they had received proved grossly inadequate.

Over the past five years, Maher appears to have largely dropped his obsession with religion and has spent considerable time articulating his opposition to the “woke” ways of thinking that have managed to capture the allegiance of most of the major institutions of our country: universities, corporations, the military, government and so on.

As he has done so, I have found myself, time and again, nodding my head in agreement. To my surprise, the nemesis had become an ally.

Like me, Maher finds that what he and others have called “wokeism” represents not a development of classical liberalism, but a deviation from it. Whereas classical liberalism holds to freedom of speech, a colorblind society, equality of opportunity and the peaceful adjudication of dispute through argumentation, I see proponents of wokeism argue for strict limitation on speech, a racialized consciousness, forced equity of outcome and the stirring up of antagonism between those considered oppressors and those considered the oppressed.

Moreover, the classical liberalism espoused by everyone from former presidents Thomas Jefferson and John F. Kennedy to Martin Luther King Jr. called for the fixing of our social problems through reason and political action, whereas many on today’s left embrace the rhetoric of victimization and complaint. Finally, the classical liberal tradition holds to the objectivity of science and the reliability of mathematics, whereas what I see as the philosophy of wokeism treats the fields of both science and math as expressive of patriarchy and western cultural imperialism.

Classical liberalism has its shortcomings, to be sure. (If you want a detailed discussion of this, consult my book “The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism.”) Nevertheless, I would insist that liberalism is a heck of a lot better than wokeism. In opposing the latter and preferring the former, therefore, Maher and I very much make common cause.

Maher and I both feel that one of the ugliest aspects of our contemporary society is the all-or-nothing antagonism that is characteristic of wokeism and the brutal cancel culture that follows from it. The woke consensus is that those we disagree with are not just to be corrected or ignored; they are to be shouted down and silenced.

Perhaps the most sickening feature of the recent fiasco surrounding Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker’s commencement address at Benedictine College was the X (formerly Twitter) post by a social media manager for the city of Kansas City, specifying the suburb where Butker lives. (The post was quickly deleted and the mayor said the employee, who has not been publicly identified, no longer works there.) One is certainly permitted to quarrel with Butker’s views on sexuality, gender relations and marriage, but to expose him and his family to potential harassment or threats is beyond ridiculous. In calling out all of this dangerous nonsense, Maher, who pointedly described the overreaction to Butker’s comments as branding him as “history’s greatest monster,” is performing a real public service by standing up for those who may face backlash from expressing similar views.

In a Sunday interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Maher observed that political opponents today don’t just disagree with each other but have begun to perceive one another as an “existential threat.” What a sad decline, he lamented, from the 1980s when Republican President Ronald Reagan and former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a Massachusetts Democrat, could sit down for a friendly drink at the end of a workday. He said he couldn’t imagine President Joe Biden and House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, doing that today.

And Maher practices that fraternity across ideologies. Last week, he appeared as a guest on the Greg Gutfeld show on Fox. Gutfeld hosts the most popular program on late-night TV, and he represents a strongly conservative perspective. Maher listened to Gutfeld’s monologue, even laughing heartily a number of times, and then he engaged the host and the other guests — all conservatives — in lively conversation. Maher and Gutfeld especially locked horns in regard to former President Donald Trump and his fitness for high office, with neither man backing down from his position. But they didn’t insult one another; they didn’t resort to smear tactics. They presented arguments and, at the close of the program, they were both laughing.

What Maher was doing — and I give him great credit for it — was demonstrating in action that intellectual opponents do not have to demonize one another and that they can talk through issues without resorting to violence or personal attack.

And in so doing, he was both striking at the foundation of wokeism and showing, in a truly patriotic spirit, that he still believes in the democratic process. So, leaving aside for the moment his past and its far less than adequate understanding of religion, let me say, “Three cheers for Bill Maher!”

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

Article Topic Follows: cnn-opinion

Jump to comments ↓

CNN Newsource


KTVZ NewsChannel 21 is committed to providing a forum for civil and constructive conversation.

Please keep your comments respectful and relevant. You can review our Community Guidelines by clicking here

If you would like to share a story idea, please submit it here.

Skip to content