Why I no longer debate Dinesh D’Souza

Why I no longer debate Dinesh D’Souza June 29, 2018

 

Dan Barker
Co-President
Freedom From Religion Foundation

“Are you Dinesh’s daughter?” I asked. She was sitting next to Dinesh D’Souza across the table from me, and nobody was talking to her. I had met Dinesh’s family in San Diego the year before, and I thought maybe she was the daughter I vaguely remember having seen there.

Dinesh D’Souza is the conservative Christian author and filmmaker who infamously pleaded guilty in 2014 to making illegal campaign contributions. He was recently pardoned by President Trump, who claimed Dinesh had been unfairly treated. The crybaby Dinesh had asserted he was singled out for prosecution during the Obama years because he was a harsh critic of President Obama. In any event, he did plead guilty to the felony. He spent eight months in a community confinement center (not jail) and was already four years into his five years of probation when Trump “set him free.”

But none of that had happened yet.

We were having a pre-debate dinner on Oct. 2, 2012, with about 40 or 50 people in the spacious dining room of the home of Kim Phipps, the president of Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa. Dinesh and I had been invited by this Christian institution to debate “Faith vs. Atheism: Does God Exist?” The president’s ample home is provided by the campus, and the banquet that evening was elegant. During the dinner prayer, I noticed that the only other person with eyes open and head unbowed was the pianist who had been hired to entertain us with soft classical music. So it is possible I was not the only nonbeliever in that room.

This was my 99th public debate. Dinesh and I had already done seven debates in as many states, beginning at Harvard in 2008. We had argued the existence of God, life after death, and “What’s so Great About Christianity” (the title of one of his books). In 2010, D’Souza became president of King’s College (an evangelical Christian college in New York City run by Campus Crusade For Christ, “committed to the truths of Christianity and a biblical worldview”), earning a salary of almost $200,000. He was also producing political movies, including the quasi-documentaries “Obama’s America” (based on his 2010 book The Roots of Obama’s Rage) and later “Hillary’s America,” both of which include multiple and over-the-top conspiracy theories and re-enactments in place of actual footage.

What kind of “assistant” was she?

Everyone was cordial at the meal. I was sitting next to Matt Hunter, one of the friendly Christian organizers who had picked me up at the hotel to transport me to the campus. During the drive over, Matt had told me that Dinesh had arrived earlier in the day, accompanied by his assistant.

It didn’t occur to me that the attractive young woman sitting next to Dinesh might be his assistant. They were obviously together, and I was thinking that it would be nice to involve her in the conversation, not realizing that asking if she was his daughter might be a something of a faux pas. Well, it turned out to be much more than that. Before she could answer me, Dinesh quickly leaned forward to block my view of her and said, “She’s my fiancée.”

The table got very quiet. Matt leaned back in his chair and raised his eyebrows. We all knew Dinesh was married. I had met his wife of 20 years, Dixie, in California, and assumed they were still together. In fact, they were: Dinesh did not file for divorce until two days later. Nobody had heard anything about a fiancée. The young woman’s name was Denise Odie Joseph II, a right-wing blogger (“conservative bloggette,” as she called herself) who had just gotten married herself nine months earlier. She was 22 years younger than Dinesh. Her blog announced that she believes “women should be the moral guardians of their homes.” She called herself a “strong believer in the concept of Republican Motherhood.” In the list of things that “I lust after . . .”, she included “Dinesh D’Souza.”

Apparently, Dinesh must have seen that comment and asked if she was serious.

I didn’t know any of that at the time. A few days later, Dinesh told the president of King’s College that he had suspected his wife was having an affair and that they had decided to separate, a claim his wife vigorously denies. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Dinesh is a hypocrite, but none of that was any of my business. Marriages do fall apart, and I am certainly not a moralist like others in that room might have been. My dealings with Dinesh had always been cordial, and backstage he was very friendly. So after dinner, before we walked over to the huge auditorium for the debate, I went over to Dinesh and Denise and congratulated them for their engagement. They smiled and said, “Thank you,” and seemed relieved to be acknowledged as a couple.

The sanctity of marriage

In less than a week, it was all over. When a reporter discovered that the couple had checked into a single room at a hotel where he was giving a talk in South Carolina on Sept. 28 (four days before our debate in Pennsylvania), Dinesh was confronted by King’s College. He immediately resigned from the college and broke it off with his “assistant.” “I had no idea that it is considered wrong in Christian circles to be engaged prior to being divorced,” he later wrote in his defense.

So much for the sanctity of marriage.

In 2016, Dinesh married another conservative political activist, this time only six years younger than himself. It is no surprise that Donald Trump cares about Dinesh D’Souza. They are cut from the same cloth.

When I learned the facts of the story a week or two later, I realized that I had missed a golden opportunity. Standing before that huge evangelical audience at Messiah College, I should have started my opening remarks by thanking the president for the wonderful dinner, and then congratulating Dinesh for his engagement. “Is Denise in the room? Why don’t you stand up so we can give you a round of applause for your happy engagement.” Darn. That would have been a fun moment. It might have knocked him off his stride.

Abortion debate backfires

The year before that Pennsylvania debate, Dinesh asked me if I would come to Ohio to debate abortion at the “Bringing America Back to Life Symposium” for Cleveland Right To Life. I turned him down. This was scheduled for a Saturday night, and I didn’t want to spend a whole weekend of personal time helping a religious anti-choice organization. Dinesh persisted, telling me that he had already basically promised them we could do a debate. I talked it over with Annie Laurie, who agreed that there were better ways to spend my time, and felt that debating him was beneath me. When I told her that Dinesh was offering to split his $5,000 fee with me, she said, “Well, I wonder what we could do with that money to promote reproductive rights.”

So on March 12, 2011, I flew to Ohio. We did not announce that event to the public — it was for registered attendees only — so I had no friends or supporters there. It was weird to be the only liberal and freethinker in a huge ballroom full of uber-devout evangelical and Roman Catholic anti-choice conservatives, many praying and crying with arms lifted. The program that evening began with a gala dinner and a youth choir, followed by our debate: “God, Morality & the Dignity of Human Life.” (You can hear the debate here.)

During the debate, I mentioned that I saw a number of people wearing “WWJD” buttons. (“What would Jesus do?”) I pointed out that the bible is silent about abortion. It never addresses the problem of an unwanted pregnancy. Jesus did not say a single word about abortion. “So if you want to do what Jesus did, you should keep your mouth shut about abortion,” I advised.

Dinesh responded that even though Jesus did not exactly teach anything specific about abortion, we can infer what he would have said based on everything else he said about the dignity of life. The audience, which had grunted at my remark, was naturally appreciative of Dinesh.

As soon as I got home, I signed the $2,500 check over to The Women’s Medical Fund, the longest continuously operating abortion charity in the United States, founded by FFRF’s principal founder Anne Nicol Gaylor and currently co-administered by Annie Laurie Gaylor. (The Women’s Medical Fund is entirely volunteer and last year helped more than 1,000 low-income women exercise their constitutional right to end unwanted pregnancies.) So thanks to Dinesh D’Souza, the Cleveland Right To Life helped at least ten Wisconsin women obtain a safe abortion.

No more debates

In October 2016, Dinesh invited me to do another debate:

Dan, how are you doing? It’s been a while. I’ve been embroiled in my usual political controversy prior to the election. The latest film, “Hillary’s America,” is now out on DVD, and my accompanying book got to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.

Hey, I spoke at Pastor John Hagee’s Cornerstone Church in San Antonio a few weeks ago. They expressed an interest in my debates, and I told them I’d be open to doing one at their church. I know you aren’t shy about debating in “unfriendly” environments — just like me.

So: would you be interested in debating with me on Sunday, July 23, 2017? This would be an evening event at the church. We can work out the topic, but I propose something like, “Is Christianity Good for You — and For the World?”

The church would pay a modest honorarium, probably something in the $2,500 range, and of course cover your travel expenses.

If you’re interested, we can work out the final details. Let me know.

best, Dinesh

This time I knew the story of his cheating, divorce and felony conviction — not to mention his biased and debasing films — so I turned him down. I told him that it would not help FFRF’s or my image to be associated with him anymore. I said I would be happy to debate at Hagee’s church if they found another opponent.

Dinesh was surprised at my response. The church wanted a debate only if he were involved. He told me that his star is shining in the evangelical community even brighter than before and sent me a photograph of himself speaking before a massive crowd at Liberty University. This all proves that his reputation has not been tarnished in the least.

I think that says a lot.

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