(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)
I have so far not commented on the Tiger Woods affair. While I enjoy salacious gossip as much as the next person and have followed the scandal in its general outlines, it is ultimately not a story with any deep significance. It is essentially a private matter for him and his family to deal with.
As far as I could tell, even before this story broke, Woods seemed like a calculating machine, using his skills and carefully controlling his image to rack up lucrative endorsements. He never used his celebrity status to address any issue of public interest that might be even remotely controversial. Mohammed Ali or George Clooney or the Dixie Chicks he was not. On the few occasions when his mask slipped, he revealed himself to be somewhat shallow. He may be a great golfer (a game whose appeal I find highly elusive) but that was about it. Basically, he was uninteresting as a person.
What I was curious about was how he would stage his comeback. There was never any doubt that he would and that this too, like every other aspect of his public life, would be carefully plotted and calculated by him and his handlers. His recent emergence and apology, consisting of a statement to a limited group with no questions, has been criticized as too obviously stage-managed but there was one mention of it in a brief report that caught my attention and that was when Woods referred to his religion. He said:
I have a lot of work to do, and I intend to dedicate myself to doing it. Part of following this path for me is Buddhism, which my mother taught me at a young age. People probably don’t realize it, but I was raised a Buddhist, and I actively practiced my faith from childhood until I drifted away from it in recent years. Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security. It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously I lost track of what I was taught.
Returning to the basic principles of Buddhism is not the normal statement of repentance that one is used to hearing from disgraced public figures in the US. Typically, they fall back on the standard sin-and-redemption trope of Christianity, saying that they know they have sinned against god because of their human weakness but have now, thanks to Jesus, seen the light, are truly sorry, and started a new life. This approach has a solid record of success. Max Blumenthal’s book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party describes case after case where prominent Republican and conservative public figures, the very people who loudly condemn others whom they felt were deviating from the path of Christian morality (such as sex outside marriage, homosexuality, blasphemy, pornography, abortion, unwed parenthood, and teen pregnancy, etc.) were those who, after getting caught with their pants down indulging in those very same acts, have been forgiven and received back into the bosom of their Christian followers after making that kind of apology. It seems almost like there is a set script that everyone follows, hitting all the same notes.
It seems like evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in the US can’t get enough of the redeemed sinner storyline, even if it seems patently insincere to the unbiased observer. Why is this so? Maybe it is because, as Gregory Paul argues in a recent study titled The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions, increased religiosity seems to correlate with the kind of behavior that these people condemn as immoral. He says that, “conservative religious ideology apparently contributes to societal dysfunction”. Paul uses comparative data from many countries and finds that “higher levels of conservative religious practice are associated with elevated levels of racial and ethnic prejudice. The patriarchal nature of traditional evangelical marriage may contribute to high levels of violence and instability, and conservative religious values do not appear to suppress uses of pornography to levels as low as those with more liberal views.” (Thanks to Machines Like Us.)
Blumenthal’s book supports Paul’s thesis and states (p. 68) that “ChristiaNet.com, an evangelical anti-porn group, found in a 2007 survey that 50 percent of evangelical men and 20 percent of evangelical women are addicted to pornography; 37 percent of evangelical pastors… called porn addiction a “current struggle.””
Thus Christians may like the idea of forgiving what they condemn as immoral behavior by fellow Christians because many of them are also indulging in similar behavior themselves, and want to keep open that escape route if their own transgressions are also discovered and revealed.
Fox News personality Brit Hume earlier suggested that Woods’ Buddhism would be a hindrance for his comeback and that he might be better off converting to Christianity.
While Hume seemed to be concerned about how best to restore Woods’s immortal soul to good standing in god’s eyes after the danger he put it in because of his sexual escapades (because we know that the god is deeply obsessed with people’s sex lives) and received some derision for his comments, I think that viewed purely tactically, Hume was right. Woods’ public relations damage control would have been better served prostrating himself before Jesus than appealing to the teachings of Buddhism.
So why didn’t Woods take this tried and true path? Maybe his handlers thought that religious regret, whatever the religion, was sufficient to receive absolution from his fans and thus, more importantly, his sponsors. But if it is later revealed that they tried to make Woods claim to have had a come-to-Jesus moment and he resisted because he truly believed in Buddhism and would not abandon it, that would make him a far more interesting person. It would, at the very least, provide evidence that he cared for something more than making money.
POST SCRIPT: Tiger Woods announces his return to what?
The Tiger Woods story is just perfect for an Onion parody. But be warned that it has very explicit sexual language.