I was shaken by the news of the death of Christopher Hitchens. I felt bad. Like so many, believers and non-believers alike, I was rooting for him. And like so many believers, I was hoping for a deathbed conversion. If Hitchens had such a final moment, only God knows.
It’s a sign of the Christian charity of his opponents that I’ve read no articles lambasting Hitchens or hoping he is in Hell for denying God and composing horribly damaging works with awful titles like, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poises Everything. Nietzsche had unforgettably declared that “God is dead.” When Nietzsche died, the joke was that God now declared: “God: Nietzsche is dead.” I expected similar headlines at Hitchens’ death: “God: Hitchens is dead.”
Despite his militant atheism, I always respected Hitchens for his writing skills and independence of mind. On the war in Iraq, he upbraided liberals for their brazen hypocrisy in completely reversing innumerable stances they held on Saddam Hussein throughout the 1990s, turning on a dime once George W. Bush was in charge. But it wasn’t just Iraq. In my Comparative Politics class at Grove City College, I read an especially trenchant Hitchens’ piece on North Korea under Kim Jong Il—who, as I write, is reportedly dead himself. Christopher Hitchens could argue, a born polemicist who thrived on confrontation. And when he was right, you were thrilled to have him on your side.
I personally never met Hitchens. I almost debated him on MSNBC a few years ago. He and I were invited to debate George W. Bush’s faith and its place and appropriateness in the White House and public life. The producer was elated that I agreed to come on the show. He told me everyone else was afraid. I wasn’t afraid because I knew my subject, and I was very familiar with Hitchens’ fast-talking, wise-cracking tactics, especially his tendency to rapidly quote obscure British literary references to make his unread American opponents squirm, gulp, and feel intellectually inferior. I wasn’t worried about that. I’m a hick from Butler, Pennsylvania, and was secure in what I did and didn’t know. I was looking forward to saying to Hitchens: “I’ve never heard of that guy. How does it relate to our point here right now?”
I was spared the chance; Hitchens had to cancel. Interestingly, instead I shared the camera with Pat Buchanan, a fellow Catholic. We dealt with a point Hitchens had made in an article. I was taken aback when Buchanan noted that Hitchens had once referred to Mother Teresa as “the moonbat of Calcutta.”
Really, I thought to myself? Gee, that’s awful.
As I continued my familiarity with Hitchens in subsequent years, I indeed learned about his brutal opinion of this saintly little woman from Calcutta. It was bizarre. I discussed it separately with Peter Robinson and Dinesh D’Souza, two Catholics and friends of mine who spent a good deal of time with Hitchens, with D’Souza regularly debating him. Both likewise were perplexed by Hitchens’ contempt for Mother Teresa. When I first learned of Hitchens’ death on Friday morning, at my office, and walked next door to discuss the news with my Catholic colleague, Michael Coulter, Coulter said the same: “You know, the one thing I never understood was his position on Mother Teresa….”
Yes. It was cynically, singularly gruesome.
Alas, perhaps Hitchens’ position on Mother is a fitting symbol of where he stood in this life. Mother Teresa was truly a saint among us, widely revered by people of all faiths (and no faiths) and all political persuasions. She was a living saint in Hitchens’ lifetime. There was an inherent, discernible anger in Hitchens, both in general comportment and spirit. I watched him many times excoriate people. No charity there at all.
From what or whom did that anger stem? It must have been fueled in part by the lack of grace and light generated by that unyielding, militant atheism. Such dogged unbelief breeds darkness. When Hitchens encountered Mother Teresa, even from afar (I doubt he ever met her in person), he recoiled from what she emanated, or, better, reflected.
Of course, Mother Teresa struggled with the dark night of the soul, as did Saint John of the Cross and so many saints. But she carried her cross and persevered to Calvary. For Christopher Hitchens, however, the dark night was a long one. How ironic that it ended a week before Christmas, when the world celebrates the ultimate source of Goodness and Light—and that source’s infinite mercy. Hitchens will need it all.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand (Ignatius Press) and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.