Wednesday's installment of Nightline (ABC) marked the first "Nightline Face-Off," in which, according to a press release, "hot topics get discussed among prominent voices in their field." This inaugural segment also came billed as the first network-news debate about the existence of God. If He does exist and is just, it will be the last.
Representing the Supreme Being were evangelical minister Ray Comfort and actor Kirk Cameron—Mike Seaver on 123 episodes of the sitcom Growing Pains and, more recently, Buck Williams in three films adapted from the apocalyptic Left Behind novels. Together, Comfort and Cameron host The Way of the Master, a syndicated show most notable for discovering distasteful ways to combine street preaching and getting belligerent. Nightline dug up some footage of Comfort and Cameron trying to save the soul of an overtanned transvestite and merely ticking her off.
In the other corner were two representatives of the Rational Response Squad, one operating under the nom de guerre Brian Sapient, the other introduced as "his colleague, known as Kelly." (The two have received enough death threats from the lambs of Jesus that they find it wise to obscure their surnames.) The RRS is best known for its involvement with the Blasphemy Challenge, which merrily invites us to post YouTube clips denying the Holy Spirit. They're proselytizers in their own right, bent on recruiting the youth of a Christian nation to think for themselves. I don't know whether I'm more tickled by the way that Fox News digitally placed black bars over the eyes of the unfaithful in its report on the Blasphemy Challenge or by the fact that the RRS has advertised on the Web site of Tiger Beat.
Last night, ABC did its damnedest to slap together suspenseful buildup and cheap hype. Here was Cameron bearing his carry-ons onto the plane to New York. Here was an intimate, makeup-chair moment with Comfort, who applauded his partner's bravery in continuing to risk his Hollywood career for the sake of his beliefs, which suggested that Comfort had let his Variety subscription lapse 15 years ago. Here were the deniers lugging their garment bags into a Manhattan church. Brian ultimately wore a dark dress shirt unbuttoned to the navel to reveal an anti-God logo on a T-shirt. The neckline of Kelly's red halter dress did not quite make it to the belly button, but it had tried, and she completed the look with gleaming high heels. She had chosen to play the vamp, achieving an effective balance between the not-unladylike and the piss-off-your-parents.
In Cameron's introductory remarks at the debate—which can be seen at something like its full and numbing length at abcnews.go.com—he coolly claimed that "the existence of God can be proven 100 percent, absolutely without the use of faith." First, I grew excited at this promise, then began to wonder why no theologian, philosopher, or sitcom star in recorded history had done it before—Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, Tina Yothers, whoever—and realized I was in for a letdown. Comfort's cadences were not even those of a preacher but of an infomercial host, and the God Squad had but three arguments on behalf of the big guy: All things have makers; the human conscience is evidence of a higher moral power; if you read the Gospel, then Christ will be revealed to you. For reasons too stupid to type, this was not an airtight case, and the atheists made quick work of it in tones of juvenile sarcasm.
We all could have used this time better, especially we English majors who call ourselves agnostic but harbor a fondness for the story about Wallace Stevens' deathbed conversion to Catholicism. If Nightline wanted to host an enlightening discussion about religion, it would have invited some intelligent believers to mount a defense of faith and to talk about why faith and proof of it are mutually exclusive. Instead, the show served up Cameron goofing on Charles Darwin, apparently the preferred target of dimwitted theists. At one point, Cameron, mocking the theory of evolution, held up a photo-illustration of a duck with the head of crocodile. Seeing this, Brian, stunned, could not help but mutter, "Oh. My. God."