Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Last Good American Atheist

Sean Salai S.J. writes movingly of the evolution of Christopher Hitchens from an independent-minded political journalist of the first order to an alcohol-fueled, full-time atheist. Salai begins his remembrance this way:
I asked the middle-aged man across from me, “Who was the last good American president?” It was the year 2000. As a 19-year old college journalist studying history and political science, I was eager to know my drinking partner’s response to this question. He had just finished railing against Presidents Clinton, Reagan and Bush '41. At this point, I was wondering if he liked any U.S. president at all.

To my surprise, I didn’t have long to wait for an answer. Without hesitation, Christopher Hitchens leaned across the table, looked me in the eye, and quipped with boozy conviction: “Eisenhower.” Then he sipped his whiskey, took a drag from his cigarette, and exhaled through his nose as he stared me in the eye, waiting for my reaction amidst the frivolity of our dingy student hangout.

Amused, I asked: Why Eisenhower?

“Because he was the last president who didn’t take a dump on the Constitution,” Hitchens shot back, taking another drag.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about Hitchens, the British-born journalist who died at 62 on Dec. 15, 2011. He had a knack for punctuating discussions with playful one-liners. Some of his witticisms still come to mind whenever I go to a bookstore and see his books on atheism perched—ironically enough—on the religion and philosophy shelf.

When I shared that drink with him in March 2000, the self-described “conservative Marxist” had come to Wabash College in Indiana to debate Ronald Reagan’s legacy with the conservative Catholic political pundit Dinesh D’Souza. It was Reagan Appreciation Week at Wabash, where the student news magazine I edited had paid for these two men to cross swords. Hitchens is on my mind partly because, 10 years ago this summer, he wrote an article for on the Wabash debate that remains posted online here [linked in the original].

At the time I saw him debate D'Souza, Hitchens was still a razor-sharp political writer for The Nation magazine, not the village atheist he later became. He was different in those days, more fun and less bitter. I, the future Jesuit, was not even Catholic when I met him.

Today I marvel at how God brought us together for that conversation after the debate. In my memory, the Hitchens who wrote leftist essays for The Nation 14 years ago was different from the Hitchens who made a public career out of atheism while dying from esophageal cancer. Sometimes I wonder whether they were even the same person.
There's more at the link. If you liked Hitchens, or if you didn't, you'll find Salai's essay interesting.