The buckle of the Bible Belt hardly seems the ideal demographic for one of the world's most outspoken infidels. Yet when Bill Maher performed at the Ryman in 2009, the near-capacity crowd chortled, guffawed and practically groped at the hem of his unholy garment. Apparently, bastions of evangelism and right-wing extremism such as Tennessee have a way of making their more progressive-minded residents especially thirsty for a dose of sanity, reality and social satire — or as it's known in these parts, liberal bias.
The comedian, avowed atheist and host of HBO talk show Real Time With Bill Maher has been making headlines recently for his $1 million contribution to a pro-Obama super PAC. Conservatives are calling for Democrats to reject the donation, claiming that a comedian's suggestion that former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is stupid (gasp!) is akin to Rush Limbaugh calling a 30-year-old college student a slut and asking her to post videos of herself having sex on the Internet. (One of Maher's favorite terms, "fuzzy logic," comes to mind.)
Maher returns to Nashville Sunday night for a show at TPAC's Jackson Hall. With Rick "Mr. Medieval" Santorum's handy victory in Tennessee on Super Tuesday, the beleaguered minority of Tennesseans who like to engage in such blasphemous acts as thinking, learning and screwing for pleasure should turn out in droves. The Scene spoke with Maher recently about his anti-religion documentary Religulous, sex, the joys of performing in red states, sex, the Republican primary, sex and sex:
Your 2009 Ryman show was packed, and you got a great crowd response. Were you surprised by such a response in the buckle of the Bible Belt?
What I have found traveling around the country is that the best places, the ones I enjoy the most, are the red-state audiences, because they are the liberal people who live in conservative areas. So it's a little more of a treat when somebody liberal comes to their town. I hate to break it to the conservatives, but there is absolutely no part of this country that doesn't have a substantial progressive-thinking population marbled within it. I was in San Antonio and Albuquerque the last two days. These are not liberal bastions, yet again, those people come out to my show. We always have a grand old time.
I remember something Michael Moore wrote about how this country isn't nearly as conservative as people are led to believe. It's just that conservatives are a lot louder. Do you agree?
That is true. I think an important part of that is that people like that word "conservative." They like to think of themselves as conservative. They somehow got it into their head that the word liberal is a dirty word, and that it means someone who is not really serious, fuzzy thinking, over-sentimental. But if you go down issue by issue, yes, Michael's right. It's a much more liberal country than we think. If you ask people if they think abortion should be available — yes. Do you think gays should be married? Yes. But are you liberal? Oh God, no! Don't call me that!
It's a country that's changing a lot. It was only 2004 when Bush was able to put gay marriage on the ballot in those 11 states and have a lot of people vote against gay marriage. Here it is in 2012 and there's a big shift on that. It's just an example, but that's where the country is heading. The younger generation is a lot more tolerant of race, of homosexuality. They're more atheistic. They're just moving away from the old America, and I know that's upsetting to the Rick Santorums of the world.
Do you think that's why the right has gotten so loud? Is it the final gasp of a withering minority?
Absolutely. They must know that their base is shrinking. But there's not much they can do about it — after all, that is their base, and if they lose them, they've got nothing.
It almost seems like the country has made a U-turn lately. Things were gradually becoming more progressive, and now we're arguing about contraception. Those far-right voices have gotten louder because they're freaking out.
I think that's always the case. Whenever they're losing, they get crazier. I remember when Bush was leaving office, and all the people of the press were asking me and other comedians, "Gosh, do you think you'll have any material?" "Uh, yes. I think we will." Are you kidding? Bush looks like a professor compared to what came after him: Rick Perry and Herman Cain and Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum.
I just saw Religulous recently. When you were making that, did you have any clue that contraception would be such an election issue five years later?
I did not. [Laughs.] I want to call up to the moon colony of Newt Gingrich and say, "We're gonna be a little late up there, because we're still arguing about condoms down here on Earth." I guess I should have [seen it coming], because it's a pattern with the conservatives that things that you thought were settled, things like evolution, become an issue. Even 20 years ago they did not contest the idea that climate change was happening and man-made. But somehow they keep going backwards. We're re-fighting evolution, we're re-fighting global warming, and apparently yes, also [contraception] was not safe. I think when you saw what happened this week with Rush Limbaugh, and some of the comments Rick Santorum has made, you understand that this really was about sex all along. They couched it in the notion of religious freedom, but it really wasn't about religious freedom. It was about "women who fuck are sluts." And I guess for certain people who never got over the Civil War, it's a little much to think they'd get over the sexual revolution.
In Religulous, you briefly interviewed Geert Wilders, who has some pretty extreme anti-Muslim views. Are you totally on board with him?
Well, I don't know what he's said since. That was five years ago. But I do find myself angering liberals sometimes when I talk about what Sam Harris, the great atheist author, would call the Muslim problem. I think my theme is that generally, Western Civilization is an older civilization, and therefore has learned the most important thing that you can learn about religion, which is to blow it off — to ignore it.
A great example of that is the fact that we learned during this recent condom brouhaha that 98 percent of Catholic women use birth control, even though their church is specifically and strictly against birth control. Ninety-eight percent of them do it anyway. This is the hope for religion. We're probably never going to get rid of it all together, but what you have to have is a population that doesn't take it seriously. And that's not what you have in too much of the Muslim world. They take it seriously. They don't blow it off, because they're a much younger civilization. They're 1,400 years old. When the West was 1,400, that was the end of the Middle Ages. We were still being ruled by the pope.
If you read the Koran it's full of hatred.
So is the Old Testament, right?
Yes, but we don't take our religion as seriously.
This may be the ultimate liberal question, but is that a result of the nature of Islam, or more a result of the political and socioeconomic factors in those parts of the world?
I would say the first. The 9/11 hijackers were not poor. Often terrorists are not poor. Obviously, poverty and deprivation are not helpful, and it's a factor when people have nowhere to go and nothing to do. Obviously, they turn inward. But it's not just that. And I think it has more to do with — as many scholars have pointed out — the fact that Islam needs a renaissance, the way the West had a renaissance that put science and knowledge in a primary position over faith and superstition. There are just too many places in the Muslim world where they read only one book.
There was a mosque near Nashville that was vandalized.
Well that's wrong. No one's suggesting that. But you have to be realistic. You can't just say, as so many liberals do, "Well, all religions are the same. We're all coming to God through one way." They're not all the same. I mean that's just a way of shutting your eyes to the reality of the situation.
I've interviewed a lot for Religulous, and also on my show. I've interviewed so many Muslim people who will say, "Most Muslims are not terrorists," and of course that's the truth. But here's something that's very troubling: When you press them — and these are reasonable and moderate people — they will not exactly condemn someone who kills or causes violence if the prophet is insulted. And that's a huge dividing line between the East and the West.
When the Koran gets burned, they go right to a combustible reaction of violence, and "You can't do that," and it's OK to kill Salman Rushdie. And if somebody burned a Bible, that wouldn't happen over here.
You once did a lengthy monologue on the benefits of hallucinogenic drugs. Do you think they would help in Muslim countries?
Totally! They need to get high, and they need to get laid. Maybe if we just start with hash. But a lot of it is sexual frustration. If you segregate the men and the women so strictly, as they do, and you throw the tarp over the women so you can't even see them, and boys are raised without women around, and you promise them 72 virgins in the next life if they blow themselves up, you're going to get some terrorists out of that. It's a pretty combustible mix.
There was a "Don't Say Gay" bill proposed in our state legislature that would have forbidden teachers to discuss homosexuality in the schools.
Oh, lord. Really? They can't even say it?
This is kind of Rick Santorum's message, when he was talking about how college was for snobs, and he said it's just a place for indoctrination. This is why he and 2 million other Americans home-school their kids. Because if you send your kid to college, oh my God. It's a despicable process where they first open people's minds, and then they introduce facts. And we cannot have that.
And that's what's going on. College is this liberal indoctrination squad. First they come for their guns, and then they come for their Bibles, and then they come for their bullshit.
We passed a law here making it legal to take guns into bars — and one of the bill's lead sponsors was arrested for driving drunk with a loaded weapon in his car.
They should just call that bill the "What Could Go Wrong" bill. I mean, listen — if you can't have firearms in a place where people are impaired mentally and trying to settle disputes, what's going to happen? Peace will break out?
Did you hear last week in, I think it was Virginia, they had had a law there limiting people from buying more than one gun a month, and they repealed it, because apparently this was too much of a burden on people. Because everybody who's on a budget knows it's terrible to get to the end of the month and run out of gun.
Well you've got to have one to go with each outfit, right?
We had a state senator here frantically attempting to ban Sharia law because he was afraid it was going to take over. Do you feel that's going a little too far?
Oh my. That is so ridiculous. I mean, Sharia law in America? Of all the people who are paranoid, you have to admit there is one group that is a little more paranoid than the others. I won't say them by name, but it begins with "tea" and ends with "baggers."
This is the group that was supposed to all be about economics. And somehow, it got to be about birth control and Sharia law and every old culture-war issue that we used to have in this country.
What kind of shelf life do you think the Tea Party movement has?
As a movement that is called the Tea Party? Probably not that long. But there was a Tea Party well before they were called the Tea Party. They used to be called the John Birch Society in the 1950s. Then they were the Conservative Christian movement. They keep changing names, but it's the same group of people with the same ideas, which is to take back America. That's what they always say — they want to restore it, they don't want to move it forward. They want to go back to this idyllic time in their mind — it's not a realistic place — but it's a time when America worked. It's a time when there was no welfare, and the races were in their place, and women were in their place. It's this foggy notion in their head that somehow, people like Barack Obama have stolen their country. This goes back a long way, and it's not going to go anywhere either. They might not be called the Tea Party in the future, but there will always be this element.
Does it ever seem to you that entire movement, particularly the Rick Santorum wing, is all about people who are uncomfortable with their own sexual urges and thoughts?
[Laughs.] I've thought that many times. I think Rick gets naughty feelings when he sees Justin Bieber's Jesus tattoo. I'm not starting a rumor that he's closeted or anything. I just think that this is a guy who gets up every morning and never loses track of the really important thing to keep in mind, which is men fucking. It's so ironic, because he really is running on two principles: One is that sex for fun is not OK, and the other thing is that Obama's too much in your life. I love it when he says those two things in the same breath. Obama wants to rule over you, but condoms are not OK. He doesn't talk in code about it. He actually says condoms are not OK. It allows you to do things in the sexual realm that are not the way it's supposed to be.
To me, that is the arrogance of religion, to be able to sit there on your throne and tell people how it is supposed to be. Well maybe it's supposed to be that way for you, Rick. But shouldn't we all get to make our minds up on that issue? It's awfully personal.
Are you surprised by how far he rose in this political season?
I was, and I shouldn't have been. I guess everybody was going to have a turn. Ultimately, it was always a comment on the fact that they were never happy with Mitt Romney — that somehow, they had to find somebody who wasn't Mitt Romney. And they tried on every pair of pants in the store. And they kept coming back to, "You know what? Everybody who is not Mitt Romney is somehow even a bigger asshole than Mitt Romney." At the end of the day, they're stuck with a guy they don't really like. But that's not different than the process in any other year. Politics is very often voting for the person who you hate the least.
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