The Hatewatch blog is managed by the staff of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organization.

In Christian vs. Atheist Documentary, a Bizarre Advocate for Christianity

By Sonia Scherr on October 27, 2009 - 4:24 pm, Posted in Christian Right

In a new documentary pitting atheism against faith, contrarian critic Christopher Hitchens debates evangelical pastor Douglas Wilson on the merits of Christianity. “Collision,” released today, has already generated buzz: Hitchens and Wilson have appeared on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” CNN’s “The Joy Behar Show” and Fox News Channel’s “Fox and Friends,” among other programs. Newsweek Religion Editor Lisa Miller devoted a column to the 90-minute film, which she thoroughly panned: “So uncinemetic is this picture — two middle-aged white men talking — that my attention insistently wandered toward anything humanizing and finally dwelled, for too long perhaps, on a fleck of something on Hitchens’s eyelash.” Hitchens responded in a column for this week’s Slate, writing that “the subject of religion is back where it always ought to be — at the very center of any argument about the clash of world views.”

What’s missing from the media hubbub are a few salient details about Wilson. The 56-year-old pastor from Idaho seems an odd booster for Christianity, considering that some of his views sound downright un-Christian. Wilson co-wrote a booklet called Southern Slavery, As it Was, which describes the institution in almost reverent terms. “Slavery produced in the South a genuine affection between the races that we believe we can say has never existed in any nation before the [Civil] War or since,” Wilson wrote with co-author Stephen Wilkins, a founding member of the racist League of the South. “Slave life was to [slaves] a life of plenty, of simple pleasures, of food, clothes, and good medical care.”

The booklet ignited a controversy six years ago that roiled the community around Moscow, Idaho, where Wilson had established a religious empire that included a private Christian academy, an accrediting agency for Christian schools, an evangelical college, and a church with over 1,000 members. Hundreds of University of Idaho students demonstrated against Wilson, two local university presidents issued anti-racist statements, and two academic historians wrote a damning essay disputing the booklet’s portrayal of slavery.

In 2004, a retired philosophy professor at the University of Idaho uncovered another problem with Wilson’s book: At least 22 passages had been plagiarized from a discredited 1974 academic treatise. Canon Press issued an updated version of the book that corrected what Wilson termed a “citation problem” but continued to promote myths about slavery.

Wilson’s extreme views extend beyond race. He asserted that if a woman is raped, the rapist should pay the father a bride price and then, if the father approves, marry his victim. He told Christianity Today that exile (as opposed to death) might be an appropriate punishment for certain homosexuals. However, he’d support execution for cursing one’s parents and, in some cases, for adultery. He wrote in one of his books that the children of parents who don’t believe in Jesus Christ are “foul” and “unclean.”

Wilson doesn’t always practice what he preaches. Although he wrote in his 1999 book Fidelity that the penalty for child abuse should be death, he urged a sentencing judge to be lenient on a college student who had molested young children. The Moscow-Pullman Daily News reported in 2006 that people were upset because Wilson had failed to promptly notify families in his church about the student, who had spent time in their homes.

Wilson increasingly has found favor in mainstream Christian circles. The senior pastor of a 6,000-member Baptist church in Minneapolis recently invited Wilson to speak at a national conference marking the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. In June, the prominent Christian right leader and Watergate ex-convict Charles Colson was on the program of a conference hosted by Wilson.

“Collision” had its genesis in a written debate between Hitchens and Wilson that was published on the website of Christianity Today. The exchange grew into a book called Is Christianity Good for the World?, which they promoted in several East Coast cities last fall. Filmmaker Darren Doane tagged along to shoot the footage for “Collision,” which premiers tomorrow and Thursday in New York and Los Angeles.

  • ATLAS

    All of you people who accuse Wilson of racism need to learn nuance, because if the following quote teaches us anything, it teaches us that while Wilson himself may not be a racist, it’s very clear that he believes Jesus Christ was a racist:

    “Jesus was not above using ethnic humor to make His point either. . . . (Mt. 15:22–28) . . . . My understanding of this encounter is that Jesus was pulling his disciples’ chain. This woman was not a Jew, and the Jews had problems dealing with such people, considering them beneath contempt — in a word, dogs. Put in terms that we might be more familiar with, Jesus was white, and the disciples were white, and this black woman comes up seeking healing, for her daughter. She gets ignored. The disciples ask Jesus to send her off. She comes up and beseeches Christ for healing. It’s not right, He says, to give perfectly good white folk food to ‘niggers.’ Disciples mentally cheer. But she sees the look in His eye, and the inverted commas around the epithet, and answers in kind. He relents, which was His intent all along, and heals the woman’s daughter. If this understanding is right, then Jesus was using a racial insult to make a point. If it is not correct, then He was simply using a racial insult.” (Douglas Wilson, A Serrated Edge [Moscow: Canon Press, 2003], 43–44)

    According to Wilson, “Jesus was using a racial insult to make a point. If it is not correct, then He was simply using a racial insult.”

  • Snorlax

    “Hitchens, like so many other contemporary atheist evangelizers, bases his arguments largely on the premise that religion = fundamentalism, especially Christian fundamentalism.”

    You must not get out much.

    Christianity DOES equal fundamentalism today.

    The fundies own the brand now.

  • Snorlax

    “I’ve read (Wilson) long enough to know that he is no racist.”
    by Lawrence

    You must be functionally illiterate.

    Wilson’s glorification of slavery puts him firmly in the racist category.

    I expect you fit there as well, Lawrence.

  • Alan Aardman

    It’s hard to claim that these comments are the result of data mining from years of Wilson’s work when he seems to be writing books and journal articles (or attempts at journal articles) on the subject.

  • IslandGyal

    JC,
    How do you take ““Slave life was to [slaves] a life of plenty, of simple pleasures, of food, clothes, and good medical care.”” out of context? Do you know what context means?

    Religion takes away any common sense that people have, geeez.

  • RS

    Wow, Sonia Scherr, you must have a vendetta, or at the least are feeding off the same, ugly, recycled blog material on Pastor Wilson that taints the internet. It is sadly apparent that Moscow, ID is far from Alabama, and that you haven’t come to visit. I live here, and will tell you that your characatures are straw men. Let me address a few of your more slanderous but unfounded points. There is no empire here, only a growing group of men and women drawn together by a desire to love God, and therefore to love our neighbors. You might be suprised at the depth of knowledge among our congregations, marked by advanced degrees from Oxford and Cambridge. I bet you would be astounded at how well thought our children are, at breadth of what they study, and particularly how different they behave from the rednecks, neonazis and bigots that you suppose us to be. And you might be struck speechless by the love of the many families who that have even been motivated to adopt AIDS orphans from Africa, families that weekly listen to Pastor Wilson preach. Would you consider for a moment that you have swallowed someone else’s angry but uninformed biases? We would welcome you to have dinner with us, to read our words for yourself, to watch how we live.

  • Nathan

    Its funny that in a post criticizing Wilson for his lax academic standards, with numerous plagiarism and failures in citation, there are no references but merely bald-faced assertions regarding Wilson’s views. If you want to write something useful, please include standard citations next time so that we the reader can look up the quotes and decide for our selves.

  • Don Smith

    Your article just proves that the eyes and ears of secular thinkers really don’t recognize or understand simple biblical truth. Pastor Wilson is an exellent representative of biblical Christianity. By the way, Mr. Hitchens also is very articulate as a representative of the evolutionary mindset. What if your organization took seriously the name “Hatewatch”? Maybe you wouldn’t hate so much. This reflection of mine is not about race, poverty, or law. It is about the pure religion of biblical truth. I am sure that truth-telling is rather an act of love, not hatred.

  • L and M

    Ian,

    “It’s your book, take it or leave it.”

    That’s just the point: It’s not my book. I’m a religious believer but Wilson’s beliefs don’t represent or even resemble mine in any way. I don’t believe in Jupiter (that’s “God the Father” in Latin) and I certainly don’t believe it’s necessary or proper to insist on the literal, factual accuracy of the Bible or any other scripture.

    The core of my objection to this whole dog-and-pony show is that it frames religion in terms of a false dilemma: Your only choice is between fundamentalism and atheism. That’s a grotesque misrepresentation, but I guess it serves the interests of the two participants.

  • Luke

    “The Reverend Douglas Wilson may not be a professional historian, as his detractors say, but he has a strong grasp of the essentials of the history of slavery and its relation to Christian doctrine. Indeed, sad to say, his grasp is a great deal stronger than that of most professors of American history, whose distortions and trivializations disgrace American classrooms.”

    - Eugene Genovese, PhD Columbia University, author of nine books including “Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made”, winner of the Bancroft Prize in American in American History, taught at Rutgers, University of Rochester, Yale, Cambridge, and served as a distinguished scholar in residence for the University Center, Georgia.

  • Luke

    “The slave trade was an abomination, and those evangelicals in England like William Wilberforce who led the fight against it, are rightly considered heroes of the faith.”
    —Doug Wilson, p. 37, Black and Tan

    “…We as Christians, and especially as American Christians, must denounce as a matterof biblical principle every form of racism, racial animosity, or racial vainglory.”
    —Doug Wilson, p. 38, Black and Tan

    “The Logic of the Great Commission requires the eventual death of slavery as an institution in every place where it might still exist.”
    —Doug Wilson, p. 38, Black and Tan

    “The truth is, Southern slavery was open to sharp criticism (and SEVERE judgment from God)…One cannot defend the abuse some slaves had to endure. None can excuse the immorality some masters and overseers indulged in with some slave women. The separation of families that sometimes occurred was deplorable. These were sad realities in the Southern system, and when God finally determined to judge it, I am determined to say, AMEN to the judgment.”
    Doug Wilson, p. 42, Black and Tan

  • Roberto G

    If Rev. Wright isn’t a racist, Pastor Wilson by far isn’t one either.

  • Brett Flenniken

    I find it ironic that an article posted under the heading of “Hatewatch” could be so….hateful. I’ve met Mr. Wilson, heard him speak and read enough of his material to know he’s not a racist nor a misogynist. Could it be that your political and ideological biases are causing you to be so hostile? You even take issue with The New York Times (link below) regarding their reporting on Mr. Wilson. Or has the Times also succumb to the clutches of his “religious empire”?

    http://www.splcenter.org/blog/.....key-facts/

  • http://paxnortona.notfrisco2.com Joel

    I don’t know Hitchens’s role in pulling the movie together, but it sounds to me like rotten-cherry-picking: find the worst possible representative of Christianity and set him up as representative of all Christians. Kind of hateful in itself if this is true.

  • http://www.poohsthink.com Michael Metzler

    I have offered some commentary on the Hitchens and Wilson tango for a number of months, but more so recently as the media coverage has increased. You can find this at http://www.poohsthink.com. And I continue my project of writing a book about my experience with Wilson and his Kirk, titled The Kirk: Mother of War. I am, unfortunately, one of the leading ‘experts’ on pastor Wilson.

    This short, informative piece is important given that facts *about* Wilson is tangential to Hitchens’ current project. However, my one constructively intended criticism is that this article likely leaves the suggestion lingering in the minds of some that Wilson is in fact racist; I think this implies something not quite true about Wilson while leaving aside perhaps more important ‘hate’ issues involved with his actions the last decade. Wilson is a lot of things, but he does not have a particular problem with ‘black’ people, at least in terms of statements made about contemporary society and his own actions. He, is, however, ‘racist’ with respect to all the Others in his imaginative world, which include those who expose his infelicities. Wilson has responded to this article with this:

    “There are four ways to deal with Intolerista slanders like this. The first is not to click on the link (that I have helpfully provided for you to not click on), and go your merry way. Second, for those who are concerned, you could always get out your snow shovel, and work through the archives of this blog, in which every related lie is answered three or four times. Third, if the SPLC decides to dedicate more of its massive wealth and financial holdings in pursuit of me and my hateful ways, I may just have to answer them point by point. But I would only do this if it appeared that I could teach them how to play a fun little game that I like to call Tarbaby. And fourth, if you don’t want to spend a lot of time on their feverish imagination, you could just read through the article, and every tenth word or so, just yell false! That is not an infallible method, but it should at least keep you in the ballpark.”

  • JH

    I’ve read Wilson for years and received great pastoral counsel from a pastor he trained. The above is a sham. Wilson has written eloquently on the evil of racism. His explanation of Jesus intent to teach the disciples about racism in the account of the Canaanite woman Jesus called a “dog” is one of the best interpretation of a hard passage I have heard. Jesus was using satire to expose the ingrained racism of the disciples. He wasn’t insulting a woman whose faith he admired.

  • Wayne

    This article holds on to it’s little points by a thread, relying on guilt by association and sensationalist qoutes which are obviously out of context. I have respected SPLC in the past, but articles like this cheapen the effect of it’s many valid arguments. You people can do better.

  • tim prussic

    L & M, a few quibbles: First, Hitchens debates all sorts of religious leaders, some soft and centrists, others more extreme and less-compromised. He certainly has a more nuanced view than religion = fundamentalism. Second, Wilson’s not the best example of Christian Fundamentalism. He certainly holds to the “fundamentals” of the faith, but his ecclesiology is too broad and his theological consciousness too historically informed to be a fundamentalist (in the historic sense of that term). Finally, your imaginations of the movie are just that, and they’re probably not too helpful. Myself, having viewed every trailer available, I think the two men interact very well, I find them both compelling in their own ways, and it even appears to be visually stimulating (for this sort of documentary). Give ‘er a watch, L & M. Maybe you’ll be happily surprised!

    Oh, yeah, Hatewatch, this article is vile. You should be ashamed to have published it. All these accusations are either defensible or are shown to lack credibility. If you want to be taken seriously as a watchdog site, you should be more careful.

  • JC

    This article is called the hate watch. You won’t have to look too far. You have totally misrepresented two godly men with no regard for the facts. I know one of these men very, very well and the other, I read his works daily. You have managed to take out of context every thing you have written. You have purposely misrepresented these men and shed them in the worst possible light.
    The little book that you get all your ammo from is about misrepresantations of how slavery actually was. These men never condoned slavery and I’ve heard them teach that in the maturing world that God has made there is no place for it. Besides, these men never talk about slavery any more. So if you are really concerned about hatred and it’s spreading, then stop it!

  • Lawrence

    I don’t agree with Wilson on a number of points, but I’ve read after him long enough to know that he is no racist. SPLC is on a witch hunt. Anyone who has written as much on controversial issues as pastor Wilson will provide plenty of quotes for a hit piece like this to string together. Readers should take this article with a grain of salt.

  • Ian

    “Hitchens, like so many other contemporary atheist evangelizers, bases his arguments largely on the premise that religion = fundamentalism, especially Christian fundamentalism.”

    Of course we base our arguments on a literal, fundamentalist reading of the Bible. It’s your book, take it or leave it.

  • L and M

    Hitchens, like so many other contemporary atheist evangelizers, bases his arguments largely on the premise that religion = fundamentalism, especially Christian fundamentalism. So Wilson was a natural to accompany him on this moneymaking tour – sort of a Washington Generals to Hitchens’ intellectual Harlem Globetrotters act. It’s hard to imagine that the movie would offer any entertainment, except inadvertently, or any intellectual satisfaction, except to adherents of one or the other of the two extreme positions represented.

  • Existentialism

    The 56-year-old pastor from Idaho seems an odd booster for Christianity, considering that some of his views sound downright un-Christian.

    No, such ideology is core to Christianity.

    Wilson’s extreme views extend beyond race. He asserted that if a woman is raped, the rapist should pay the father a bride price and then, if the father approves, marry his victim.

    This is Biblical. Also found in traditional African and Mexican cultures which brighten America with “diversity”, which the SPLC wants to make sure every American “celebrates”.

    However, he’d support execution for cursing one’s parents and, in some cases, for adultery. He wrote in one of his books that the children of parents who don’t believe in Jesus Christ are “foul” and “unclean.”

    Again, Biblical.

    Wilson doesn’t always practice what he preaches. Although he wrote in his 1999 book Fidelity that the penalty for child abuse should be death, he urged a sentencing judge to be lenient on a college student who had molested young children.

    Based on the molester recanting his past sins, which is Biblical, hence no death penalty. According to the Bible, every sin is forgivable except cursing the holy spirit.

    Wilson increasingly has found favor in mainstream Christian circles. The senior pastor of a 6,000-member Baptist church in Minneapolis recently invited Wilson to speak at a national conference marking the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth.

    It’s all in the Bible.