An Evening with S.E. Cupp

March 31, 2010

No, not a date. This past Sunday evening, I had the opportunity to represent the secular liberal worldview in a discussion with conservative pundit and author S.E. Cupp . The conversation was moderated — quite well I might add — by political comedian Scott Blakeman , who was host of the weekly show, dubbed “The End of the Week as We Know It.”

If you don’t watch FOX News, you might not know Cupp. She is a relative newcomer to the field of conservative commentary (her background certainly doesn’t give many hints: Cupp studied art history at Cornell University, is a classically trained ballerina, and since 2002 she’s worked at the New York Times in the Index Department). Yet in a short amount of time, she’s become a regular on Sean Hannity’s show, garnered a columnist gig at the Daily News Online, and written two books: ” Why You’re Wrong About the Right: Behind the Myths: The Surprising Truth About Conservatives ,” co-authored with Brett Joshpe, came out in 2008; and her new book, ” Losing our Religion: The Liberal Media’s Attack on Christianity ,” is set for bookstores this April.

Now, the interesting thing about Cupp is that she’s an atheist. She otherwise seemed to be a very nice conservative who I would have a couple disagreements with, perhaps a few points of agreement, and maybe even a drink and a laugh. But as soon as she started talking about religion, I was mostly baffled. Cupp said she desires to be faithful and that she has great respect for religion (she’s written before that she tries to adhere to Christian morality , which keeps her moral, and that Christianity is a “great religion” ). I have great respect for the power of religion, but for the beliefs? No. Why would I try to adhere to morality I believe is false? Further, she believes presidents and others in power perform better — to be exact, more honestly — when they think they have a (Christian) God looking over their shoulders. So, for instance, she doesn’t have a problem with former President George Bush’s reliance on the voice in his head (which he claimed was God) telling him to go to war in the Mideast. I wondered, does her statement mean that she, as an atheist, is dishonest? Or that the stronger one’s belief in God, the more honest they are? I couldn’t help but ponder if she had managed to warp her views on religion to sell herself better to a conservative demographic (you can get a fuller grip on her views on religion by watching this C-SPAN interview ).

But no matter. Blakeman interviewed her about her new book for a half hour, mostly covering the “liberal media” bit, and then brought me up for the next half hour of discussion. I’ll summarize four areas of our dialogue as best I can. Note that after my points, the conversation moved on, meaning either I scored good points, or I was talking gibberish. But hey, I report, you decide.

1. On Atheism

This was the first topic we discussed. Cupp said that she didn’t care for President Barack Obama’s inaugural speech inclusion of “non-believers,” stating that it makes atheism seem like another religion. Atheism, she said, is not about having different religious beliefs, it is lacking religious beliefs, and so “atheists” should not be lumped in with “Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus” and every other religious label.

Here, Cupp and I partially agreed. Atheism, in my view, is a lack of belief, not another belief.

But, I responded: “isn’t it important that Obama reached out to those who are of no faith, letting everyone — including the faithful — know that he considers us Americans, part of the democratic process? This wouldn’t be equating atheists with theists based on their religious or nonreligious beliefs, but equating atheists and theists as citizens, as it should be.”

2. The Media and Religion

In her new book, Cupp charges that the liberal media establishment is making a concerted effort to destroy Christianity. Among the evidence is the media’s past apparent obsession with a video of former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in church , which cropped up during the 2008 presidential election campaign. Of course, it was mentioned that the controversy over President Barack Obama’s minister, Rev. Jeremiah Wright was covered much more extensively in the media, but she denied that. I didn’t want to engage in partisan bickering, so I made the following point.

“Here’s the thing. I think we all agree that religious belief can be enormously influential in determining how a person looks at the world, more specifically in this case, how a person votes and legislates. Given this, I want to know about Sarah Palin’s religious beliefs, and so should the public. However you look at the media, it is their job, their responsibility to inform us of such things.”

3. Glenn Beck

At one point, Blakeman asked Cupp whether or not she agreed with Glenn Beck’s recent statements about “social justice” ( he charged the term is code for communism and Nazism ). Cupp declined comment, saying that she doesn’t watch Beck’s show. Blakeman pushed on, however, asking what she thought of the statement regardless of whether she tunes in.

Cupp answered that Beck was wrong. Good, I thought. But, she continued: “I don’t watch his show, I don’t enjoy it. But my parents do, though, they watch him all the time.”

Now, Cupp did come down on Beck by saying he was wrong (I think she even lamented that the guy breaks down and cries on camera). But she seemed to be leaving some room on the matter, so I jumped in:

“This is one problem that is particularly acute in the conservative movement right now. If you are a sane conservative who wants your side of the political aisle to be based in reality (hinting at her), you cannot say Glenn Beck is a preference. Conservatives who are really interested in having an honest discussion about future of this country need to condemn Beck and others like him for their rhetoric and actions, not crack him up to mere preference.”

4. On a Religious President

Near the end of our conversation, we got back into religion and the presidential office. Cupp said she would want a religious believer in the presidential office not just because of her afformentioned reason that God will keep him or her honest, but also because it reflects the will of the nation, which is about 75 percent Christian and only (she said) 2 percent atheist.

I deferred many objections here, and went right at the polling data.

“First, the problem with heaping that 75 percent together is that Christianity has many different sects that disagree on major tenets, even so much that I could argue certain of those sects have more in common with secularists than with their fellow religionists. Moreover, recent polling data shows that roughly 15 percent of Americans are now not affiliated with any religion. While this is no guarantee that atheism or secularism are marching forward, it does suggest a secular tendency is growing in America. Now, when you think about religion not in general, but in terms of sects, the 15 percent number makes for the third-largest grouping of people based on religious beliefs, behind Catholics and Baptists. And that number is expected to grow. So it’s not as easy as saying ‘Christianity is the majority.’&q

So, that was my evening with S.E. Cupp. She was charming, friendly, and clearly has a sharp brain — yet there were so many contradictory or bogus statements in both her past and her conversation, I could have stayed up there all night trying to wade through them all. I actually would have liked that, considering how valuable I think public dialogue is. But, maybe another time — though after this post, she might not want to talk with me again, let alone go on a date! (hey, I’m taken, anyway).