Bill Keller’s upcoming column for the New York Times’s Sunday magazine, “Asking Candidates Tougher Questions About Faith,” raised familiar liberal paranoia about the conservative religious views of Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry. The official headline for the upcoming print edition: “Not Just Between Them and Their God.” Keller had no time for respectful criticism: "Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are Mormons, a faith that many conservative Christians have been taught is a 'cult' and that many others think is just weird."
Keller, the outgoing executive editor for the Times, got off on the wrong foot by mockingly comparing the candidates’ Christian beliefs to belief in space aliens. Then he made the latest in his impressive string of column factual errors, identifying the Catholic politician Rick Santorum as an evangelical Christian.
If a candidate for president said he believed that space aliens dwell among us, would that affect your willingness to vote for him? Personally, I might not disqualify him out of hand; one out of three Americans believe we have had Visitors and, hey, who knows? But I would certainly want to ask a few questions. Like, where does he get his information? Does he talk to the aliens? Do they have an economic plan?
Yet when it comes to the religious beliefs of our would-be presidents, we are a little squeamish about probing too aggressively...
This year’s Republican primary season offers us an important opportunity to confront our scruples about the privacy of faith in public life -- and to get over them. We have an unusually large number of candidates, including putative front-runners, who belong to churches that are mysterious or suspect to many Americans. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are Mormons, a faith that many conservative Christians have been taught is a “cult” and that many others think is just weird. (Huntsman says he is not “overly religious.”) Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum are all affiliated with fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity, which has raised concerns about their respect for the separation of church and state, not to mention the separation of fact and fiction.
Actually, Santorum is a Catholic, not an evangelical.
I honestly don’t care if Mitt Romney wears Mormon undergarments beneath his Gap skinny jeans, or if he believes that the stories of ancient American prophets were engraved on gold tablets and buried in upstate New York, or that Mormonism’s founding prophet practiced polygamy (which was disavowed by the church in 1890). Every faith has its baggage, and every faith holds beliefs that will seem bizarre to outsiders. I grew up believing that a priest could turn a bread wafer into the actual flesh of Christ.
From Ryan Lizza’s enlightening profile in The New Yorker, I learned that Michele Bachmann’s influences include spiritual and political mentors who preach the literal “inerrancy” of the Bible, who warn Christians to be suspicious of ideas that come from non-Christians, who believe homosexuality is an “abomination,” who portray the pre-Civil War South as a pretty nice place for slaves and who advocate “Dominionism,” the view that Christians and only Christians should preside over earthly institutions.
Liberal Washington Post religion writer Lisa Miller advised liberals to take a deep breath on the perils of “Dominionism,” a broad term that means different things to different Christians.
Keller even sent the “aforementioned candidates” (presumably Romney, Perry and Bachmann) a list of loaded questions:
To get things rolling, I sent the aforementioned candidates a little questionnaire. Here’s a sample:
– Do you agree with those religious leaders who say that America is a “Christian nation” or a “Judeo-Christian nation?” and what does that mean in practice?
– Would you have any hesitation about appointing a Muslim to the federal bench? What about an atheist?
– What is your attitude toward the theory of evolution, and do you believe it should be taught in public schools?
But does Keller’s call for more rigorous religious questioning apply to Democrats as well?
His newspaper certainly wasn’t at the forefront of dissecting Barack Obama’s Christian beliefs, during the 2008 campaign, especially the then-senator from Illinois’ relationship to his racially inflammatory and conspiracy-minded pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Keller downplayed the Wright controversy in half a sentence, making sure to balance it with a John McCain reference: “In the last presidential campaign, Candidate Obama was pressed to distance himself from his pastor, who carried racial bitterness to extremes, and Candidate McCain was forced to reject the endorsement of a preacher who offended Catholics and Jews.”
The Times didn’t do much pressing of Obama on his toleration of Wright’s radicalism. It took the paper months to accurately quote one of Wright’s most inflammatory sermons: "Not God bless America, God damn America!" The Times also glossed over Wright’s despicable ranting “sermon” five days after the 9-11 attacks. In Wright’s rant, September 11 was a sign that “America’s chickens are coming home to roost” for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for supporting “state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans.” After Obama was obliged to address the issue in a speech on March 18, 2008, the Times fell over itself to praise the politically necessary address as Lincolnesque.
At the end, Keller promised to keep the heat on the Republican candidates: “We’ll be posting the campaigns’ answers -- if any -- on nytimes.com. And if they don’t answer, let’s keep on asking. Because these are matters too important to take on faith.”
At least when it comes to the beliefs of Republican candidates.