You know how some people you look at and you just kind of know what they ought to be? That guy is built to be a football player or that guy looks like a molecular biologist or that guy should be a used car salesman. When I saw Preacher Stephen White on the steps of the Graduate Library this week, spitting and stammering with his thinning yellow hair and patriotic necktie, I thought, “My God. This is exactly what this dude was put on this Earth (or at least on the steps of God’s green, uh, Graduate Library steps) to do.” And I thought that not because I believe God puts people on this Earth to do particular things – and not because I thought Mr. White was particularly good at proselytizing. I thought that because every liberal university that’s supposed to be a hotbed of debate and conflict needs a conservative fundamentalist (a “Jesus freak,” as such people are sometimes called), and Mr. White fit the bill perfectly.

Paul Wong
David Horn

I climbed up the steps and watched Mr. White’s “sermon,” and watched hordes of smart, undereducated and sophomoric students pick up their intellectual swords and attempt to duel. I have never been so amused and embarrassed to be a University of Michigan student as I was watching my classmates try to reason with a man for whom reason is a nonentity.

John Dryden once wrote, “Great wits are sure to madness near allied/And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”

John old boy, you should have seen what I saw.

Having an ongoing discourse with your roommate on the existence/benevolence/role of God over Saturday night kegs and Sunday night joints is a defining part of college for students who have a certain cerebral muscle that needs to be flexed. And while all the philosophy and theology classes in the world are wonderful fodder for those ripe brains, they do nothing when it comes to dealing with the Mr. Whites of the world.

Why are you arguing with him, dear classmates of mine? Do you want him to leave? Is he intruding on your liberal turf with his Byzantine arguments about martyrdom and sin? This is an environment where free speech is sacred and Mr. White will always be welcomed to shout from the rooftops (or the library steps). Do you want to change his mind? You won’t – he’s got God on his side and all you have is John Locke and a philosophy lecture you blew off most of the time because it started before noon. Nevermind that when you start trying to convince him of the validity of your own faith you’ve become as annoying and intrusive as he is.

The lesson here is one that extends beyond the chaotic bounds of the Diag. Religious fanaticism – indeed fanaticism of any kind – is a delicate beast and one that, if it is decided that it is to be fought, must be approached with caution and with tactics different from the ones we ordinarily employ. When students started attacking Mr. White with all the logical tools they had, they became fuel to his fire. Mr. White’s message (which I never quite got my head around) was only strengthened (in his eyes, at least) when he saw the anger and fervor he spurred.

Fundamentalism is often completely illogical, albeit self-empowering. As Americans, or as college students, or maybe as liberals, the weapons in our arsenal are often insufficient to combat them. And whether we’re dealing with Islamic fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists, Hindu fundamentalists or Jewish fundamentalists (haven’t heard that one before? They’re out there), it is important to realize that not everyone grows up with the benefits of our education, where the glorious perfection of reason science is constantly reinforced. To prove a point should never take gunpowder, but sometimes it takes more than a logical proof.

I hope that for the students frustrated by their inability to convince Mr. White of the charms of atheism or Judaism or homosexuality, they realized why their tactics were flawed. It’s not that you’re not smart – you are. And it’s not that he’s stupid – he’s just a different kind of smart than you are. He’s smart enough to not answer direct questions, to carry and wave around his Bible at all times, to set up shop on the Diag and to hide behind the patriotism of the red, white and blue. It’s fearful and irresponsible, and I don’t condone fundamentalism, but understand that when they don’t play by our rules, the rules – and our tactics – have to change.

David Horn can be reached at hornd@umich.edu.

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