Putrid Pundits: Bill O’Reilly, Ben Stein Call For More Religion In Public Life

The ills of the United States are not going to be solved easily, which is why we need real thinkers – not simply “pray-the-problem-away” charlatans – to get to work.

The Religious Right is still trying to sell Americans on the idea that merging religion and government is just the thing to turn this country around in a hurry, and now they’re getting some assistance from two media personalities: Bill O’Reilly and Ben Stein.

In an interview on NBC’s “Today Show” this morning, Fox News host O’Reilly said Americans are tired of secularism.

“I think people are fed up with secularism,” he said. “It gets just to be too much.”

So what is O’Reilly’s answer to this supposedly excessive secularism? Teaching “Judeo-Christian” values in schools, naturally.

“Kids, if they live in a secular home and go to public school don’t know anything about Jesus,” O’Reilly said. “Our Constitution was forged on Judeo-Christian philosophy and tradition.”

O’Reilly’s evidence for this is a little thin: He cited the presence of Moses holding the Ten Commandments inside the U.S. Supreme Court, but the court’s website says that display contains many historical lawgivers. It is intended to show the evolution of the laws over centuries and nothing more.

O’Reilly’s argument raised a red flag for NBC’s Matt Lauer, who conducted the interview. He told O’Reilly that he went to public schools and still managed to learn about Christianity.

“You shouldn’t have to go seek it,” O’Reilly responded. “It’s part of our history and it’s part of our heritage. People, kids need to know what Judeo-Christian tradition is. Because that’s what all of our laws are based on. That’s what the country’s philosophy is based on.”

Of course O’Reilly is wrong on that. The U.S. Constitution has no basis in religion. After all, people are free to ignore the Sabbath or disobey most of the other Ten Commandments with no legal consequences.

O’Reilly also asserted that students should learn about the history of Jesus’ life, though not the divine elements that are the basis for Christianity. That, too, left Lauer skeptical. He asked if it’s possible to teach about the historic Jesus without proselytizing.

O’Reilly agreed that proselytizing should not occur in public schools and said it can be left to faculty to make sure that does not happen. That is an extremely optimistic view, as the temptation to proselytize would be too great for some to resist.

Back in the 1970s, O’Reilly had a brief career teaching in a Catholic school, so it seems he fancies himself something of an education expert. Not long ago he tried to convince President Barack Obama to support vouchers. The president was not convinced.  

He jumped back into the education debate again today because there just happens to be a new edition of his book Killing Jesus: A History (now with illustrations!) for sale. O’Reilly seemingly wants to turn it into a public school textbook, so he’s pushing the idea that students can learn about Jesus without learning about religion.

As for Ben Stein, he said church-state separation is bad for America, and if God is returned to public life (even though he never left), then poverty could be eradicated.  

Stein is a Columbia-educated economist and Yale-educated attorney turned actor with a bit of a checkered history. He wrote speeches for the Nixon White House (we know how that ended) and he spoke at Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University in 2012. He also once hocked a shady credit reporting service called freescore.com in a series of commercials.

You may know Stein from his appearance in the ‘80s classic “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” or his stint hosting a Comedy Central game show “Win Ben Stein’s Money” from 1997-2003.

In a recent column for the right wing American Spectator, Stein said poverty in America really isn’t so bad.

Now, real poverty, where Americans lack cars or air conditioning (imagine that we now consider it poverty to lack something that was the ne plus ultra of luxury in my youth!) or solid food is extremely rare,” Stein said. “Yes, the government designates many tens of millions as poor, but they almost always have indoor plumbing (which my mother did not have in her small town in the Catskills) and they are super nourished as opposed to mal-nourished. They get food stamps. They get free medical care. They get vouchers for many of the needs of life.”

 So what, according to Stein is really holding low-income individuals back? Bad habits.

My humble observation is that most long-term poverty is caused by self-sabotage by individuals,” Stein said. “Drug use. Drunkenness. Having children without a family structure. Gambling. Poor work habits. Disastrously unfortunate appearance. Above all, and counted in the preceding list, psychological problems (very much including basic laziness) cause people to be unemployed, have poor or no work habits, and enter and stay in poverty.”

In the end, Stein said all these problems could magically go away if God were a part of public policy.

“What will make the genuinely poor stop sabotaging themselves? Maybe, just maybe, if we let God back into the public forum it would help,” he said. “I have seen spiritual solutions work miracles.”

Stein is not a fool, but his remarks are shockingly cruel and callous. The impoverished are not simply lazy, mentally-ill drug addicts. Poverty is a complex thing, which Stein well knows.

If anyone is lazy, it’s Stein – he’s making tired arguments instead of putting forth real solutions to a complex problem.

But let’s consider Stein’s absurd idea that religion could end poverty. Where is the evidence for that? In the Middle Ages when church and state were one, poverty was rampant. The serfs slaving away for their feudal lords probably prayed regularly, and they remained impoverished because social welfare programs did not yet exist.

O’Reilly and Stein are both woefully off base. A dose of their old-time religion is not the answer to America’s public woes, and injecting God into government activities isn’t going to fix anything. The ills of the United States are not going to be solved easily, which is why we need real thinkers – not simply “pray-the-problem-away” charlatans – to get to work.