Asking Questions About Religion of the Presidential Candidates

Posted on August 26, 2011

At GetReligion, Mollie Hemingway is so upset with outgoing New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller’s article on the GOP presidential candidates and their religious beliefs that she facetiously says the entire thing must be an exercise in satire. Keller’s column is so bad, Mollie writes, that “there must be some deeper meaning here.”

Mollie appears hostile to Keller from the outset, labeling him an “anti-Catholic.” Keller grew up in the faith, he says, but has since left it. On occasion, he’s made some fairly standard criticisms of the Vatican — similar to ones routinely raised by Catholic press. Mollie also evidently considers Keller’s throwaway description of himself as a “collapsed Catholic” to be in bad form. Very well.

This all would be immaterial anyway if Keller’s piece indeed turns out to be full of specious reasoning, unfair characterizations, and whatever else set Mollie off. So let’s go through her complaints one by one.

She begins,

“The whole piece is about the need to ask more questions of presidential candidates. He has general questions and then specific questions. But he doesn’t have any for President Barack Obama.

It’s unclear why Bill Keller is obliged to include questions for Barack Obama in an article having to do with the Republican presidential candidates’ religious views. Focusing specifically on the Republican primaries is nothing sensational, and Keller’s omission of talk about Obama doesn’t imply that he also believes Obama should be exempted from the same line of questioning. I’ve never discussed the matter with Keller, so can’t say this definitively, but my guess is that he feels it would also be appropriate to ask Obama serious questions about his religious views.

Certainly the case can’t be made that questions for Obama aren’t newsworthy. I mean, “people” may have “questions” about the religious views of Michele Bachmann. Sure. But are you really going to pretend that “people” don’t have “questions” about the religious views of President Obama? Are you joking? So why the disparity?

Again, Mollie seems to assume that Keller’s discussion of Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry’s religious views somehow signals his active disinterest in discussing Barack Obama’s religious views. I think you’ll agree that there is more than enough material to talk about on the Republican side at the moment, but in any case, Keller is free to focus on whatever subjects suit him. Unless Mollie wishes for Keller to abide by some bogus “religion commentary objectivity” doctrine, the demand that he devote equal attention to President Obama seems strange.

Is it because his paper, under his direction, thoroughly vetted the religious views of President Obama? Heh. Um, no.

Aha! So Mollie’s consternation really has less to do with whether Keller raises legitimate questions about the GOP candidates’ religious beliefs, and more with her generally negative view of the New York Times’ religion coverage — which I’m sure is worthy of criticism. Let’s be clear, though, that Mollie’s umbrage over the article is considerably amplified by her preexisting contempt for the New York Times as a cultural actor. Might make it more difficult to assess the piece on its own terms.

“If the piece isn’t satire, why would the lede mention space aliens, much less compare belief in an alien invasion to Christianity?”

Likely because Keller is invoking a well-known thought experiment, usually posed in reply to those who would claim that candidates’ private beliefs are off-bounds for consideration so long as they have no impact on public policy. It goes like this: if some candidate harbored private views about the inferiority of a particular race, we would very much be entitled to ask questions about that view — even if it would never have any observable impact on the candidate’s governing choices. This is not, of course, to say that belief in aliens, racial inferiority, and the transubstantiation are all on equal moral or intellectual footing. It is simply to say that candidates’ personal beliefs ought to be a matter of public concern no matter what, and should be inquired about more often than cultural etiquette currently tends to allow for.

If the piece isn’t satire, why would Keller say that Rick Santorum is part of a “fervid subset of evangelical Christianity”? He’s Roman Catholic.

Yep, definitely a factual error. Santorum’s no Protestant, but he does practice a peculiarly Evangelical type of Catholicism — which might’ve contributed to Keller misidentifying him like that. The error was corrected in an addendum, I now see.

If the piece isn’t satire, why would he claim that “many Americans” view Catholicism, Protestant Christianity and Mormonism as “mysterious or suspect”? Does he have any concept of what percentage of Americans fall into one of those three categories? Of course he does. It’s clearly satire.

Bill Keller indeed asserts that some of the Republican candidates “belong to churches that are mysterious or suspect to many Americans.” So, can this assertion be adequately proven? Let’s go one by one.

Michele Bachmann is probably easiest to start off with. Even a cursory review of her religious history and upbringing make clear that the subset of Lutheranism to which she belongs is far removed from mainstream American Christianity. She has picketed abortion clinics, attended Oral Roberts University (the only Christian law school in the United States at the time), said God called her to run for Congress, and said God commanded through her husband that she pursue a career path she personally disliked. Bachmann entered political life as a Christian activist by trumpeting opposition to gay marriage, making it her number-one campaign issue.

This is only to rattle off the first few attributes that come to mind. Certainly, many Americans are fine with or attracted to these parts of Bachmann’s past. But just as certainly, there are more than enough people who find these beliefs unsettling to suggest that “many Americans” is an accurate description.

As for Rick Perry, all you have to do is pay attention to who the man associates with and what he says in his own words. Just as a quick overview, starting in reverse chronological order — Perry openly rejects evolutionary theory, rejects all of climate science, can’t offer even a ballpark estimate of how old the Earth is, and most notably threw a massive Evangelical prayer rally with leaders from the “bleeding edges of American Christianity,” in the words of the Texas Observer’s Forrest Wilder.

Perry maintains many open, politically-charged relationships with prominent pastors, all of whom make it loud and clear that their intention is to shape public policy. Pastor John Hagee, who helped organize the prayer rally in Houston and delivered a rousing address there about the need for America to protect Israel, last week spoke at another prayer rally, this one in Israel — hosted, if you can believe it, by Glenn Beck.

I’m not arguing that Rick Perry must disown John Hagee, nor do I generally really care for the guilt-by-association smear tactic. But I definitely don’t think that raising questions about Perry’s relationship with Hagee is some kind of “gotcha” move on the part of the media. Perry doesn’t appear ashamed of his association with Hagee, so he should be more than comfortable speaking about it forthrightly with the press. I think Gov. Perry would actually be less offended by the question than Mollie lets on, in fact. My approach would be simple: ask if he shares any of Hagee’s many opinions that have been described as hateful. Pick one — there are more than enough to choose from. Same goes for all the other preachers involved in the Prayer Rally who are now presumably supporters of, if not already active participants in, Rick Perry’s presidential campaign. These individuals include Lou Engle, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, the New Apostolic Reformation people, that minister calling for Jews to convert, and so on.

Evangelical Christianity might be looked on with favor by a significant subset of Americans, but there is also another significant subset of Americans who don’t care for it. Mr. Keller is correct to note this. On Saturday, in fact, Rick Perry is meeting with an Evangelical pastor by the name of Jim Leininger, who happens to be the lead bank-roller of anti-gay marriage initiatives in Texas, according to the Dallas Morning News. Perry’s warm relationship with a man like this is all-well-and-good for “many Americans,” but it’s troubling to “many Americans” as well — perhaps even the majority of the country, who now favor same-sex marriage, would find that association distasteful.

With respect to Mitt Romney, it’s equally obvious that a sizable portion of Evangelicals, other Christians, and secular people alike have reservations about Mormonism — making it true that “many Americans” share this opinion. Keller is right.

Why would he traffic in the type of crude stereotypes about Mormons that result in condemnation from liberals?

Mollie doesn’t provide any examples of these “crude stereotypes,” so I’m not exactly sure what she’s talking about. Here’s how Keller describes Mormonism (in bold):

I honestly don’t care if Mitt Romney wears Mormon undergarments beneath his Gap skinny jeans,

It’s true that devout Mormons like Mitt Romney often wear special undergarments, and it’s true that Mitt Romney has reportedly taken to wearing “skinny jeans.”

or if he believes that the stories of ancient American prophets were engraved on gold tablets and buried in upstate New York,

As far as I know, this is an uncontroversial tenet of Mormon doctrine.

or that Mormonism’s founding prophet practiced polygamy (which was disavowed by the church in 1890).

Also uncontroversial. Where are all those “crude stereotypes” that were supposed to discredit the piece? Mollie goes on,

If this weren’t satire, why would he mis-state what Catholics believe about Communion? What’s more, would he really call that sacrament “baggage” and “bizarre” unless he was trying to make a point about bigotry? I can’t imagine he would.

Here’s how Bill Keller describes transubstantiation, also known as sacrament of Communion: “…a priest could turn a bread wafer into the actual flesh of Christ.” Fine. Now let’s look at how Wikipedia describes it. This is the entry’s very first sentence:

In Roman Catholic theology, transubstantiation (in Latin, transsubstantiatio, in Greek μετουσίωσις metousiosis) means the change, in the Eucharist, of the substance (what the thing is in itself – see “Roman Catholic theology of transubstantiation”, below) of wheat bread and grape wine into the substance of the Body and Blood (respectively)[1] of Jesus, while all that is accessible to the senses (the species or appearances) remains as before.[2][3][4]

Sure, Mollie can quibble with Keller’s wording on a technical level. But is it so egregiously wrong as to warrant this level of hostility? I don’t think so. Mollie:

If this weren’t satire, would he really say that the Christian relationship to the Bible is one of lord and servant?

Looking over the piece, Keller never claims that “the Christian relationship to the Bible” — whatever that means — “is one of lord and servant.” Keller never stupidly says that there is a single standard for what “the Christian relationship to the Bible” really “is.” He simply describes the particular beliefs of people who have entered into the public eye by running for president.

Would he really pretend that in order to be a good candidate for office you have to believe that the Constitution is a higher authority than the Bible?

Keller never says this, though he rightly points out that candidates who view secular law as an instrument to enact God’s law (like Perry and Bachmann) ought to be questioned about those beliefs.

Would he really pretend that the laws of this country are inerrant?

Not sure I understand this.

Would he come up with laugh lines such as this?: I care a lot if a candidate is going to be a Trojan horse for a sect that believes it has divine instructions on how we should be governed.

Mollie might consider this a “laugh line,” but I’m not so amused — Bachmann, for instance, is unquestionably part of a fervid Christian political movement, one that has long endeavored to seize control of earthly institutions for the purpose of glorifying God. Why pretend otherwise?

If this weren’t satire, would a respected news man really be pushing the threat of Dominionism? Would he call someone a Dominionist who explained just two weeks ago that she had to literally Google the term to learn what it meant? Someone who explained quite clearly why the slur is inaccurate when used against her? I mean, I know he’s biased, but he’s not a hack.

Hipsters don’t tend to self-identify as hipsters — the term is more used as a descriptor by people external to the demographic subgroup. Likewise, the term “Dominionist” was coined by an academic in the 1980s to describe an emergent trend in American Christianity. People don’t need to self-identify with a term for it to be a legitimate way of describing them.

If this weren’t satire, would he pretend that his loaded gotcha questions were “respectful”? He knows readers aren’t stupid.

Mollie casually deems all ten of Keller’s questions “loaded gotcha” without explaining why any of them meet reasonable criteria for such a characterization. That’s because they are all perfectly legitimate to ask of people competing for the United States presidency. Keller links to the full set, which includes:

1. Is it fair to question presidential candidates about details of their faith?
2. Is it fair to question candidates about controversial remarks made by their pastors, mentors, close associates or thinkers whose books they recommend?
3. (a) Do you agree with those religious leaders who say that America is a “Christian nation” or “Judeo-Christian nation?” (b) What does that mean in  practice?

8. (a) What is your attitude toward the theory of evolution? (b) Do you believe it should be taught in public schools?
9. Do you believe it is proper for teachers to lead students in prayer in public schools?

No fair-minded reader could conclude these or any of the other questions listed are inflammatory or at all mean-spirited. In fact, Keller goes out of his way to provide a helpful disclaimer: “Asking candidates,” he writes, “respectfully, about their faith should not be an excuse for bigotry or paranoia.” I’d have to ask Mollie how much more diplomatically these questions could have been worded. How could you ask what he’s trying to ask without sinking into “gotcha” land?

Or is it that Mollie takes there to be something inherently offensive in the very suggestion that such questions should be posed to religious candidates — especially by an elitist, nonreligious executive editor of the dreaded New York Times?

If this weren’t satire, would he believe no one notices that there sure seems to be a lot of emphasis on religion for a race that’s largely about an unemployment rate of 9.1%?

Now, this is an entirely separate issue from whether Keller’s piece holds up to standards of fairness and accuracy.

If this weren’t satire, would he really raise a question about whether the candidates have fealty to something above the Constitution, but then criticize squeamishness about appointing Muslim judges because of questions raised about some Muslims placing Islamic law above the constitution?

Again, here we see that Mollie’s indignation seems to arise more out of what she thinks Keller represents culturally than any real demerits of the piece in question.

If this weren’t satire, would he really suggest that it’s only problematic if Republicans are endorsed by people Keller doesn’t like — and not mention, I don’t know, that Hamas officials endorsed President Obama? No!

Of course, Barack Obama has never appeared onstage to graciously accept an endorsement from Hamas officials, nor has he ever organized a massive Prayer Rally with Hamas officials, as John McCain and Rick Perry have respectively done with Pastor John Hagee. There are gradations of how serious a candidate’s relationship is with an endorsee, and Pastor Hagee is leagues beyond any old schmuck who can say they support a candidate from afar with a few keyboard strokes. Perry actively works with Hagee, seeks his counsel, and would likely retain him in an advisory capacity of some kind. Conversely, Barack Obama can’t condemn Hamas more vociferously and unambiguously than he’s done already. Mollie’s objection simply doesn’t hold up. However, if at any time in the future Barack Obama decides to cosponsor a 30,000+ person Muslim prayer rally with Hamas in support of his presidential bid, I wholeheartedly agree that he should be asked some questions about that.

There’s got to be more to this. There’s just no way that Keller would be blowing up his paper’s relationship with religious people on his way out from leading the paper. There’s no way. Not the man who wrote that famous call for improved, accurate, fair coverage of religious believers.

If “blowing up his paper’s relationship with religious people” is the same thing as candidly presenting a critical look at certain religious issues that are affecting the presidential campaign, then any impending “blow up” over this article says more about the hyper-sensitive religious readers who’re supposedly out there than it does about Keller. Apparently, I give intelligent religious readers of the Times more credit than does Mollie. I think if they’re comfortable enough in their own beliefs, one challenging column by Bill Keller is not going to forever destroy their relationship with the newspaper. Maybe I’m naive.

There must be some deeper meaning here. There’s no way that the Times would openly display such bigotry or destroy its credibility so thoroughly. Is this a point about how campaign coverage should focus on the economy or role of government? Is this a point about counter-jihadists? Is this a point about how we should handle bigotry in the public square? What’s the point of it? I know it’s been done to prove a point, but I’m just not sure what.

There’s the million dollar word! Bigotry! You know how sometimes people on the left defend Islam from critics on the right by saying, “You’re being a bigot by singling out Islam like this!” And the person on the right will reply, “Hey, smart guy, it’s not bigoted to criticize a religion!” I think the person on the right is actually correct! Indeed, criticizing someone for the religious doctrine they ascribe to is much different than criticizing someone for the color of their skin.

Now Mollie has used the same specious reasoning with her own claim — that Bill Keller’s modest criticisms directed at Christianity are evidence of his “bigotry”! Very interesting!

To close, let me say that I have no interest in rising to the defense of Bill Keller for its own sake. I think he seems to have done a decent job at the NYT, but otherwise I have no eggs in his basket. What’s so revealing about the umbrage over his piece, I found, is that an overblown reaction is exactly what Keller would have anticipated if his central premise is correct — that there’s “a sense, encouraged by the candidates, that what goes on between a candidate and his or her God is a sensitive, even privileged domain.” I guess he was onto something.

Keller should be commended for this column, and journalists should heed his advice. Religion is a major factor right now in the Republican primary, and that’s no nefarious media fabrication; liberal antagonists aren’t the ones who stirred up Michele Bachmann’s flap over whether she’d be submissive to her husband. That was Byron York, moderator of a debate hosted by Fox News. Come on — Rick Perry essentially launched his campaign with a prayer rally, and is even meeting with pastors this very weekend. Bachmann has been courting clerical figures just as aggressively. I could go on.

Keller’s right — we need more questions about religion asked of these candidates. I thought a place like GetReligion would’ve appreciated that wise sentiment.


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