Should a Presidential Candidate’s Religious Beliefs Matter?

I would make a horrible religion reporter. I don’t know if I could talk about someone’s faith without interjecting my own commentary. Good religion reporters keep their own beliefs out of the picture. They just let you know what the subjects of their stories believe.

That also makes it frustrating when reading mainstream coverage of the current crop of Republican candidates for president. Despite the fact that many of the popular candidates right now love to tout their faith as evidence that they’re honorable, trustworthy, and just like most Americans, reporters seem reluctant to press them on what those actual beliefs are lest the candidates play the “I’m being oppressed” card.

But if there’s one area in which we need to know what a person believes, it’s politics. In 2008, I didn’t mind voting for Obama despite the fact that he was a Christian because I didn’t believe he would let his faith get in the way of strong evidence and good policy. He might believe God created all of us, but he wasn’t about to abuse his position and advocate against, say, good science in public school classrooms. (Whether he actually kept church and state separate is another question.)

So what do we do in 2012, when some of the Republican candidates for president (like Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum) go out of their way to proclaim the strength of their faith? It’s not just some benign issue — their beliefs will guide the policies they endorse (and the judges they appoint to federal benches) and we deserve to know exactly what they believe.

Last year, I wrote something to the same effect for the Washington Post On Faith website:

Do you really want a president who could launch a nuclear attack… who also believes he/she will be in “God’s glorious presence” in the afterlife?

Do you really want a president who can appoint important positions in the field of science like the head of the National Institutes of Health… who also believes the Earth was created about 6,000 years ago and that evolution is a lie?

Do you really want a president who has the power to veto legislation regarding women’s health care… who also believes abortion is equivalent to murder and that life begins at conception?

I wouldn’t feel comfortable voting for those people. It has nothing to do with the labels they give themselves and everything to do with what they will do with those beliefs. I want a president who makes decisions after hearing from experts on the issue, not after hanging up on a conference call with a group of pastors.

I’m an atheist and I don’t care if Obama wants to call himself a Christian or not. I didn’t care what label George W. Bush gave himself, either. Their actions in office tell me everything important I need to know about them.

Now, Bill Keller, editor of the New York Times, is making the same point… and some religion reporters are not happy with him.

Right out of the gate, Keller goes for the knockout blow:

If a candidate for president said he believed that space aliens dwell among us, would that affect your willingness to vote for him?

Yet when it comes to the religious beliefs of our would-be presidents, we are a little squeamish about probing too aggressively… There is a sense, encouraged by the candidates, that what goes on between a candidate and his or her God is a sensitive, even privileged domain, except when it is useful for mobilizing the religious base and prying open their wallets.

His point is that if we knew a candidate believed something so patently absurd, would we really want that person running our country? Of course not. We deserve to know what kind of beliefs they hold and how those beliefs influence them. Or, more bluntly, we deserve to know how crazy these candidates are. If they believe 9/11 was an inside job, or that aliens abducted them in the past, or that Jesus rose from the dead, then we ought to question their sanity.

Especially if they go around talking about these beliefs as if they are reasons we should vote for them. As far as reporters are concerned, If candidates are using their faith to get votes, it should be fair game for further inquiry.

Keller also mentions that faith alone may not be a problem; it’s how that faith manifests itself in public policy that matters:

… 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.

But I do want to know if a candidate places fealty to the Bible, the Book of Mormon (the text, not the Broadway musical) or some other authority higher than the Constitution and laws of this country. It matters to me whether a president respects serious science and verifiable history — in short, belongs to what an official in a previous administration once scornfully described as “the reality-based community.” I do care if religious doctrine becomes an excuse to exclude my fellow citizens from the rights and protections our country promises.

And 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.

Yes. What he said. All that stuff matters.

At Get Religion, a popular blog written by religion reporters, Sarah Pulliam Bailey calls Keller’s piece “embarrassing.” (Keep in mind that the focus is on the journalism and not whether or not the religious beliefs are true.) ***Update***: Another blogger at Get Religion has also chimed in, calling Keller’s piece “bizarre.”

Keller is determined to ask Republican candidates for president tougher questions about their faith, which is a good idea, if you can agree to hold the same standard to both sides. Unfortunately, you know the column is off to a poor start when it leads with, “If a candidate for president said he believed that space aliens dwell among us, would that affect your willingness to vote for him?” I’m not joking…

Did he really just dismiss a belief that most Catholics hold as “baggage” and “bizarre to outsiders”? It’s almost as though he is saying “I don’t care,” while demonstrating that he does. It’s okay, he’s not judging them because he was once an idiot, too. He’s just enlightened now, or something.

It sounds like Bailey is unhappy with the piece because Keller equates a clearly preposterous belief (space aliens dwell among us) with a preposterous one that a whole bunch of people happen to agree with (that god exists). But, just because millions of Americans believe in god, it doesn’t mean they’re right…

And yes, the belief that a consecrated communion wafer is actually the flesh of Christ *is* completely bizarre. It’s a belief many Catholics hold, yes, but its still an absurd notion.

Could Keller have been more tactful? Perhaps, but I like that he’s stating what so many of us think — religious beliefs, while common, are still irrational — and stating it so directly.

To those of us who live in reality, Keller just points out basic truths: Communion wafers are not Jesus, magical underwear doesn’t confer special protection to Mormons, large-scale prayers won’t solve our country’s problems, etc. And if the candidates want to make those beliefs part of their campaigns, we should be calling them out on it.

If they’re smart, they’ll do everything they can to avoid questions regarding their sanity. They dislike mainstream journalists and “elites” because we go after their sacred cows. However, their resistance just means those journalists need to keep pushing harder.

Keller offers a number of questions that he sent to all the candidates… no word yet on if/when they’ll respond. I’m not holding my breath.

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?
4. If you encounter a conflict between your faith and the Constitution and laws of the United States, how would you resolve it? Has that happened, in your experience?
5. (a) Would you have any hesitation about appointing a Muslim to the federal bench? (b) What about an atheist?
6. Are Mormons Christians, in your view? Should the fact that Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are Mormons influence how we think of them as candidates?
7. What do you think of the evangelical Christian movement known as Dominionism and the idea that Christians, and only Christians, should hold dominion over the secular institutions of the earth?
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?

These are important questions. We need answers to them. If the Republicans don’t respond to Keller, other journalists with access to them need to ask the same questions.

There’s no reason to let their beliefs slide. It’s true we don’t have a religious test for public office, but no one’s stopping the candidates from running. We have every right to know how their faith is going to guide their decision-making. If a candidate believe God should take precedence over experts and evidence, we shouldn’t trust that person to be president.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Anonymous

    It wouldn’t matter if we knew that they don’t let religion influence their decisions and if they didn’t make a big deal about religion.

    People who say that their faith should be a private matter are idiots. The politicians don’t keep it private in the first place. The Republican candidates all mention god every five seconds. Even Obama is pretty open about religion, though by the absurd American standards he is actually private with it.

    In a more secular country, it wouldn’t matter. But given what passes as American politics these days and how anti-education, anti-science, anti-women and anti-human it is in places, people deserve to know what politicians think about certain issues.

  • http://www.theaunicornist.com Mike D

    Of course it matters. When people of faith feel as though they can reject science, revise history or repress the civil rights of others, we ought to hold them accountable for the preposterous beliefs that fuel those actions. 

    • Paul Abraham

      How about when people of non-faith do it?

      • Oakwise

        Name one non-believer who’s abused his power in the name of non belief or atheism.
        Christianity is absurd enough to invalidate anyone’s claim to secular power because it operates outside of reality, outside of ANY healthy moral code. It’s bullshit and we need to keep it and it’s deluded followers out of power.

        • Nordog

          Lenin
          Stalin
          Mao
          Pol Pot
          Robespierre

          Oh, wait.  You only asked for one.

          • JustSayin’

            Hmm…I don’t recall any of those folks being DEMOCRATICALLY ELECTED.

            A huge fail on your part, Nordog. False equivalence and all that.

          • http://lovejoyfeminism.blogspot.com Libby Anne

            Dude, those guys abused their power in the name of communism (except for Robespierre), NOT in the name of atheism. Fail. 

            • NorDog

              You guys and gals are funny.  Fail?  I think not.  “In the name of…” etc. is a rhetorical red herring.  The fact is those guys were atheists and they abused their power “in the name of” if you insist, communism.  Communism without athiesm is like a day without sunshine.

              Besides, does anyone really think that an OP who wrote…

              “Christianity is absurd enough to invalidate anyone’s claim to secular power because it operates outside of reality, outside of ANY healthy moral code. It’s bullshit and we need to keep it and it’s deluded followers out of power. ”

              …would have any problem abusing power to suppress the Christian objects of his bigotry.

              Me fail?  Not by a long shot.

              What is a fail is the ironically fatuous echo chamber of atheist bigotry that goes by the name “Friendly Athiest” and its attendant fellow travellers found in the comments.

              Now THAT’s a fail.

              Post Script:

              @Just@834c5541b7b4473644b8ff3d18dca288:disqus  Sayin’, the question did not include a qualification as to the method of acheiving power.  Thus your all caps histrionics are an additional fail.

              • Rich Wilson

                Sometimes people do bad shit because they think God is telling them to.  (Probably 9/11, at the very least for the guys on the planes, maybe for OBL)

                Sometimes people do bad shit and say “God told me to!” as a way to get people to do it (maybe OBL in the case of 9/11)

                Sometimes people who do not believe in God do bad shit (Your big three of Stalin/Pol Pot/Mao) mostly as a way to consolidate power.

                But here’s the kicker (and I’d say it’s really a tautology based on the definition of atheism) Nobody ever does bad shit because they think no god wants them to.

                There’s a clear path for people to do bad (and good) things they think God wants them to.

                There’s no way a lack of a voice of God is going to make someone do something, good or bad.

                The best you can do is “Stalin didn’t believe in God, so since he didn’t think there was a God to condemn him, he felt free to do his shit”.  But a belief in God hasn’t stopped a lot of people, so that one’s pretty lame IMO.

                (And you’re right, democratically elected was never part of the original statement)

                • Rich Wilson

                  Oh, maybe here’s one for your side:  Imagine Perry gets elected and starts dismantling ‘the wall’.  I could envision some crazy person who is an atheist getting upset and thinking the remedy is to off Perry, or start a campaign of domestic terrorism until someone publishes his manifesto.

                  ok, THAT might be someone doing bad shit ‘in the name of atheism’.  Although I’d think it would be equally possible for anyone who didn’t fit Perry’s brand of religion too.

      • http://www.theaunicornist.com Mike D

        Well then it’s totally okay!

        Seriously, what kind of question is that? Firstly, I’m not aware of any non-believers going around touting their atheism as a virtue, throwing giant atheism rallies or “no prayer” days, and saying that their non-belief gives them the privilege to reject science, revise history or repress the civil rights of others.

        But obviously, whenever that sort of thing happens, we ought to expose the underlying motives and hold such individuals accountable. Religious beliefs just happen to be by far the most common excuse.

  • Anonymous

    More than anything a person’s religious faith guides their actions. That alone should be enough of a reason for a candidate’s faith to matter.

    It’s not like we’re saying a person of a certain faith shouldn’t be allowed to run for president. I have my reasons for voting for who I vote for. They’re nobody’s business but my own.

    • http://cornelioid.wordpress.com/ Cory Brunson

      May i tentatively disagree? (Sorry for the unintentionally preemptive post.) While i should make no attempt to stop [generic] you from voting for whom you want it strikes me as very seriously my business when the person who wins the office will have so profound an effect upon my life. I’ll openly share my reasons and will welcome contrary suggestions and criticism, and i think i’d be justified in taking an interest in yours, and in criticizing you if you can’t back up you choice.

    • Anonymous

      A person’s religious faith, especially the leader of the free world, shouldn’t come into play when there are real world problems that need to be solved and managed.  Hanging out in the White House and offering a prayer does nothing to solve Medicare issues or economic concerns.  If a person has faith in religion, that’s all good.  But it shouldn’t be the litmus test for people to vote for that person.

      What if a candidate said “I like Pepsi over Coke…” and made that the main focus of his campaign.  Sure, he would get all the Pepsi fans to vote for him, leaving any Coke fan out in the cold.  All the while, his favorite choice of soda isn’t going to solve any financial or humanity issues.

      • Ing

        What if a candidate said “I like Pepsi over Coke…” and made that the
        main focus of his campaign.  Sure, he would get all the Pepsi fans to
        vote for him, leaving any Coke fan out in the cold.  All the while, his
        favorite choice of soda isn’t going to solve any financial or humanity
        issues. 

        Then they should be disqualified and not voted for for showing petty and inane judgment and clearly not being serious about the position. 

    • Annie

      “More than anything a person’s religious faith guides their actions.”

      That’s supposed to be the idea (if not, why bother with religion at all?), but I think it’s safe to say we have all witnessed plenty of examples where this just isn’t true.

  • Anonymous

    The fact that you even have to ask these question is disheartening.  It isn’t that you wonder if the presidential candidate is able to do the job but that you wonder if he or she (are any women running?) is sane.  If you have to ask then it is clear that you doubt their suitability for the job and you won’t be voting for them anyway.

    Rather than stating their religion it should be possible to see where they stand from their policies and from their voting record.  If a candidate has a history of first amendment violations then they shouldn’t be voted for.  If they have consistently voted against equal marriage rights for gay couples then don’t vote for them.  If they say that they want to limit women’s role in the workplace so they can spend more time at home popping out babies and making their menfolk sandwiches then don’t vote for them.  

    It shouldn’t matter that the basis for their actions and policies is rational or based on what goat herders thought thousands of years ago when the whole world they knew was a few hundred miles of desert and mountain.  If they are consistent then all you need to know is what they stand for.  If they aren’t consistent then don’t vote for them.

    • Sarah Moglia

      “(are any women running?)”
      Yes, there definitely are. Haven’t you heard of Michele Bachman, whose totally-not-gay husband runs a Christian counseling clinic that can “cure” homosexuality? Who called gay teenagers “barbarians” who “need to be educated.” Yeah, Bachmann is running, and she might be the craziest of them all.

      Although I haven’t even touched Sarah Palin…

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    I dream of the day when the religious faithful (who believe in an afterlife lasting an eternity) will be content to have dominion in that eternity of an afterlife and leave the relatively speaking infinitesimally short here and now to be governed with secularist, reason based, principles. But no, they want it all.

    • Paul Abraham

      Sounds like your applying the same flawed rationale you think they are…

      It should also be noted Secularist’s run North Korea.  They ran the USSR.  If you do not believe in religion then religion is but a philosophy amongst other philosophies.  We have seen in history the non-religious pursue with equal passion to further their comprehension of how things should be at least equally as oppressively as any religion.  Being religious does not mean you are  any more or less void of reason than any atheist. 

      • Ingdamnit

         No secularists don’t run North Korea.  Communists who build a cult of personality and encourage people to treat their leader unto like a GOD run North Korea. 

        So if your argument is against religionists and atheistic cult like organizations that act like religions.  Wow what a good argument!? 

        How about admitting we’re not talking about religion/irreligion but rationality and irrationality.  Hence the spaceman question.  A atheist who believes in Reptiloids is as nuts as a creationist but both should be disqualified by the same standard. 

        • Rich Wilson

          Likewise the USSR was Leninist, as represented by his earthly sidekick Stalin.

          And as Hitchens says, N. Korea even has The Father, The Son, and the Holly Spirit :-)

        • Rich Wilson

          Likewise the USSR was Leninist, as represented by his earthly sidekick Stalin.

          And as Hitchens says, N. Korea even has The Father, The Son, and the Holly Spirit :-)

      • OakWise

        Why do theocrats and myth peddlers always try to equate secular govt to dictatorships?

        A secular govt merely keeps religious dogmas from having state power. Secular doesn’t prevent people from believing nonsense (a la Rick Perry) nor does it require absolute power in a dictatorship.

        If you want to see secular govts in action, you need only look at every city, county, state and federal govt in America.

        Your Iron Age myths have corrupted your ability to think. Every thought is twisted to automatically defend mythology. This is no accident…. these absurd beliefs rely on your willingness to defend them from reason, integrity and honesty. The Jesus character is a myth with NO historical base I’m reality. (I’ve read the apologists and they are without exception, pathetic)

        Smile. There is No hell.

      • Anonymous

        Oh boy. North Korea is THE best example of a quasi-religious personality cult. They do pray and have services. To their Dear Leader. Who despite being dead is the Eternal President. The country is ruled in his stead by his son. Sounds very similar to Christianity to me.

        The Soviet Union under Stalin and China under Mao was poster children of personality cults and civic religions as well. They just channeled the worship into their leaders and the state.

      • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

        We of course should be on guard against any group that tries to force their beliefs on others whether those beliefs are Christianity (like the dominionists) or something like Stalinism.  The whole idea of democracy is that we are to leave up to the people to decide what is best.  In theory it is a bottom-up system where the notion of what is best can change over time.  We need to look out for people who fundamentally think that what is best comes from a certain particular “holy book” or manifesto and try to force all others to follow.  I do not agree with Stalinism for the same reason that I don’t agree with Christian dominionism.  I fear that Bachmann, Palin, Perry, and the like are all Christian dominionists.  They will force their beliefs on others at any opportunity presented to them.

  • JoeBuddha

    Seems to me it was an “issue” with Obama and his church. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, IMHO.

  • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

    There are two, quite separate, issues being mixed together here:
    - Would a president’s religion motivate certain policies that you may disagree with?
    - Can you trust a president who irrationally believes in things without an evidence base?
     
    Most people here probably come down against the Republican field on both questions, but they are distinct issues.

  • Anonymous

    ["If a candidate believes God should take precedence over experts and evidence, we shouldn’t trust that person to be president." ]  I agree, and since there is no God, it would be the “President’s” interpretation of what he believes God wants him/her to do that has me really worried. Zealots of any faith should be treated as if they “believed that space aliens dwell among us”.

    • Paul Abraham

      So should zealots without faith…Pol Pot, Stalin, Lenin, Kim Jog Il, Kim Il Sung, Hirohito, and on and on….

      • Ing

        Replace faith with dogma then.   The communist system isn’t exactly built on rationality or empiricism but by fiat and ideology.  

  • Paul Abraham

    Most politicians pimping a religious handle don’t really seem to operate within that religion’s mantra to begin with so, no, that person’s religion or religious beliefs is mostly irrelevant.  The atheist has his own personal philosophies that can be no different than a religious persons and he can enforce his will and world view just as wrongly.  The candidate could be the golden child acolyte of L. Ron Hubbard and it wouldn’t matter to me.  What matter’s is what the politician believes is his civic duty as it relates to both the responsibilities and LIMITS of his position as established by the Constitution (state and/or federal).  A person who believes the earth is 6000 years old can be just as capable of governing effectively as someone who believes we arrived by billions of events that happened to take place so perfectly as to create life and evolve into us to begin with (there is some faith involved in that, I don’t care who you are). 

    I don’t personally trust any politician who wears their faith as a badge.  They only seem to do so to appeal to a portion of the electorate.  It’s no different than those who want to soften expectations on minorities to get their vote, demonize the rich to get the poor vote,  etc.  It’s about votes and political power with politicians, that’s it.  If a decision is formed to support one group or another it is done to appeal a base of supporters and is not a decision informed by their faith or lack thereof.  Personally, I’d be more concerned about their political motivations than their religious ones…

    “A Society Of Sheep Must In Time Beget A Government Of Wolves.”
    -Bertrand de Jouvenel

    • GentleGiant

      Most politicians pimping a religious handle don’t really seem to operate within that religion’s mantra to begin with so, no, that person’s religion or religious beliefs is mostly irrelevant.

      Ahh, the No True Scotsman fallacy. You’re not off to a great start.

       

       What matter’s is what the politician believes is his civic duty as it relates to both the responsibilities and LIMITS of his position as established by the Constitution (state and/or federal).  

      And some of the current crop of very religious politicians (e.g. Huckabee) have directly stated that they want to change the laws to be more in line with the Bible, so clearly these are dangerous people.

      …as someone who believes we arrived by billions of events that happened to take place so perfectly as to create life and evolve into us to begin with (there is some faith involved in that, I don’t care who you are).  

      No faith involved at all, just evidence.
      Also, things didn’t “take place so perfectly as to create life and evolve into us” – lots of dead ends and such in evolution. Do you know what you’re talking about or do you just listen to your, equally uninformed, pastor?

       It’s about votes and political power with politicians, that’s it.

      Now that I can agree with. However, what they do with that political power can be scary enough (cf. Huckabee, Perry, Bachmann etc.).

  • William Snedden

    My comment, just posted on the GR website:

    Shorter Sarah Bailey: *sticks fingers in ears* “La, la, la…can’t hear you…can’t hear you.”

    Bill Keller’s column wasn’t embarrassing, but this one sure is.  Ms. Bailey either completely misses the point or is being deliberately obtuse.  Just a few examples:

    Discussing the Iowa debate and the now-infamous “submission” question asked of Michele Bachmann, Bailey writes,

    …but most people seemed to boo because her submission views have nothing to do with her policies.

    WTF?  This is either disingenuous or weapons-grade stupid.  Does Ms. Bailey truly believe that a President’s views on the status of women are irrelevant?  That a female President who believes she should submit to her husband doesn’t represent a problem for democracy (in that her unelected husband becomes the de-facto President)?  I did read her earlier piece on that same question and it’s filled with the same sort of disingenuous nonsense that one often gets from religionists attempting to defend the indefensible, so I guess that answers part of the question, but to suggest that the question isn’t germane is simply nonsense.

    Later, Ms. Bailey writes,

    Speaking of fact and fiction, Rick Santorum is not an evangelical. He is Roman Catholic in good standing. Besides, where is the basis for these raised concerns?

    Ms. Bailey is apparently ignorant of the definition of the word “evangelical”.  There ARE, in fact, evangelical Catholics just as there are evangelicals in EVERY Christian denomination.  The point Mr. Keller was attempting to make should be clear to anyone really trying to comprehend it.

    Did he really just dismiss a belief that most Catholics hold as “baggage” and “bizarre to outsiders”?

    It’s almost as though he is saying “I don’t care,” while demonstrating that he does. It’s OK, he’s not judging them because he was once an idiot, too. He’s just enlightened now, or something.

    Yes, he did dismiss that belief as “bizarre to outsiders” because IT IS.  That’s the point.  And he’s not judging them as should be clear to anyone reading this with an open mind.  He’s setting the stage for a further point.  But apparently Ms. Bailey is not interested in context; she’s going for the cheap “pulpit-ready” point.

    And here’s where this “context-free” approach really begins to pay off:

    Does he really expect them to pledge allegiance to the Dominionists? (Which is what, by the way? Who created and defined that term, since there is no movement by that name?) Keller needs to make the jump from who Perry and Bachmann are courting to what kind of influence they have on the candidates. Is there any proof that these are political constituent groups and not more general, spiritual supporters of a prayer campaign?

    Ah yes, completely ignore everything else that’s been written about Bachmann and Perry, claim that you’ve never heard of Dominionists (which, from a reporter on religion, is an incredible admission of ignorance) and pretend that you, a religion reporter, know nothing about the vast influence that the religiously-motivated groups in question (like the Chalcedony foundation or the Family) have in government today.  Yes, that’s completely believable…certainly lends credibility to your piece.

    She concludes with this:

    Sure, I wouldn’t mind knowing the answers to these questions in a nice bullet-point list. But I don’t know, this list of questions just strikes me as pretty strange. Some of these candidates have already addressed these questions (Perry on evolution, Bachmann on appointing a Muslim/atheist, for instance).

    Why does Keller get to decide which questions voters actually care about? Help us out, dear readers. If you were in Keller’s shoes, what are you actually interested in?

    If the questions seem strange to you, it’s only because you’ve already drunk the Kool-Aid.  You don’t care how a candidates religious beliefs might influence their politics, no matter how those beliefs might conflict with a 21st century society and political system.  Who cares that a candidate believes no-one but Christians should serve in government?  Who cares that a candidate believes women are inferior?  Who cares that a candidate believes children should be taught lies in school?

    And Keller certainly isn’t saying that HE should get to decide what question is being asked.  He prefaces his list by saying, “…to get the ball rolling.”  These are clearly just his suggestions of what he believes to be appropriate questions.  To suggest otherwise is just nonsense.

    If I were in Keller’s shoes, I’d be interested in exactly the same thing he is:

    But I do want to know if a candidate places fealty to the Bible, the Book of Mormon (the text, not the Broadway musical) or some other authority higher than the Constitution and laws of this country. It matters to me whether a president respects serious science and verifiable history — in short, belongs to what an official in a previous administration once scornfully described as “the reality-based community.” I do care if religious doctrine becomes an excuse to exclude my fellow citizens from the rights and protections our country promises.

    That’s something with which we should ALL be concerned, religious and non-religious alike.  All of us except Ms. Bailey, apparently.

  • Annie

    For some bizarre reason, faith sells in US politics today.  The recent polls taken illustrate that most Americans (or at least those polled) certainly have religious preferences in a politician, and they appear to prefer at least some religion to none at all.  For me, there is a huge difference between the politician who goes to church each Sunday and ends every speech with “God Bless America!”, versus those that publicly call for citizens to pray for rain.  Anyone who publicly states that god wants them to run for office should be immediately perceived as mentally unstable.

  • Anonymous

    You know, Bill Keller is right.  If someone says they believe in space aliens, they get called out and people think they are crazy.  But yet belief in someone that can’t be seen that listens to people while they kneel and close their eyes and people claim all sorts of things that happen because of this invisible being and people are praised for it.

    Doesn’t make sense to me.  The last thing I want is someone leading this country, basing everything they do on their belief of someone who is not of this world.  A slap in the face to any real human being that should be more important in the day to day matters.

    • Jeanette

      Yep, only due to gratuitous Christian privilege in the U.S. would you get a quote like this (from the Get Religion piece): “If the piece [Keller NYtimes article] isn’t satire, why would the lede mention space aliens,
      much less compare belief in an alien invasion to Christianity?” It’s
      cute how the author really can’t seem to understand the connection. 

  • Oakwise

    Christianity is a myth.
    And not a very good one.
    It’s evil.
    It’s dishonest.
    It has NO place in a secular govt born from Enlightenment ideals.

    Smile. There is No hell.

  • Ing

    @ae19cb043d41b8cb49d31e20b3e02730:disqus

    I think we can agree that you’re assessment that “when atheists act like religious zealots they’re wrong”…but you also miss the point that religious zealots are probably more likely to act as religious zealots.   The “You’re just like us, sometimes!” card isn’t your strongest one.

    Ok it IS your strongest one, you just have a crappy hand dealt. 

  • Demonhype

    What is the big issue religionists have with someone pointing out that some of their practices may seem bizarre to someone on the outside?  It’s a simple fact across the board.  My mom was raised Catholic (well, whole family both sides really) and was told her whole life that if she went to another church she’d burn in hell.   Out of curiosity, she attended a service at another church one day and was aghast at the people who, after doing their makeup and hair in the pews before the service, started  running around, howling to “Jay-sus!”, dancing, clapping their hands, and writhing all over the floor.  One woman came up to my mother and started asking her in an insistent way, “Doncha hear Jesus, honey?  Doncha hear Jesus calling you?”  She wanted to scream and run out of the  building for her life!  It was a huge shock to her system, because it was so completely different from any practice she had been raised with–she was convinced that she had entered an insane asylum, and began to think maybe the Catholic priests were right!  Fortunately, that didn’t lead to her becoming some kind of Catholic fundie.  Is that any less offensive than if one of them attended a Catholic mass and thought the doctrine of Transubstantiation was pretty strange?

    Some religionists (the milder ones, anyway) think that the fact that atheists don’t believe in god is unthinkably bizarre.  I don’t get pissed that someone finds my position strange–it’s when they start proselytizing, legislating, threatening, and becoming generally belligerent, manifesting some serious outright bigotry, that I get a bit pissed off.  Especially when they start demanding that you not fight back or defend yourself from their attacks.

    Besides, when someone says “Never ever vote for a Christian”, maybe that might be over the top.  But when someone says “Sure, vote for a Christian, just get a good handle on what they mean by ‘Christian’”, well, I’m not sure how that’s offensive either.    “Christian” has about as much meaning as “spirituality”, in that it means something different depending on who you’re talking to.  “Christian” could mean a really nice sweet guy like Jimmy Carter or Fred Clark, who has his faith but doesn’t need to push it on anyone, who uses the brain he believes God gave him to consider what the best answer will be for everyone and not just his fellow believers, who believes that God’s first desire from him is to be merciful and charitable to everyone,  or “Christian” could mean some kind of right-wing warmongering hate-filled nutjob who loves the rich and hates the poor like…well, lots of people in the Republican party nowadays.  And the dangerous thing is, the latter Christian can get the former Christians to vote for him just  by saying “I wuv Jesus” and fluttering his eyelashes, because much like the secret ingrediant of Slurm, it’s “whatever your imagination wants it to be!”, so those nice believers will just say “oh, he believes in Jesus, he’s good!” never realizing that their definition is a world away from the candidate’s definition.

    Then you get all sorts of nice Christians like my mother lamenting what is happening and asking how someone “who calls himself Christian” could do such evil things.  And when I explained it to her, she still turned to me with a reproachful look and said “I didn’t raise you to mock someone else’s faith!”  Because even with the world falling down around her ears, reverence to religious beliefs is still paramount, even when that very insulating reverence is what is ending your world.  The Faithful stand together against the Evil Atheist Conspiracy.

    She didn’t get it until she saw that “God Warrior” on Trading Spouses.  Now she finally realizes that many people who claim the same religion do not actually hold the same beliefs, either about God or about how to  behave towards others, and that criticism of someone like the God Warrior is not necessarily criticism of her own beliefs, which are more similar to Jimmy Carter with a touch of Edgar Cayce thrown in.  She finally realizes that when I bitch about what some “fundie” is doing, I’m not bitching about her own beliefs.

    So that’s why it’s important to pin down what a candidate believes, beyond “Jay-sus is Lawd!”  Because the public piety often comes down to a shady form of false advertising–and when it results in warmongers who are trying to cull the numbers of the poor and middle class, you may as well just hand them the red button and cut out the middle man.

  • Demonhype

    Also, aren’t the believers the ones always admonishing us to not “paint all believers with the same brush”?  And then telling us it’s “inappropriate” to try to get a handle on what a political candidate–someone who will wield a lot of power if elected–means when s/he says “I believe in Jesus/I am a Christian/etc.”?  So I’m not supposed to paint you with the same brush when one of the crazy ones and/or their whole churches fly off the handle, and understand that every believer is different–except when I try to apply that to a political candidate so I maybe can separate the crazy ones from the “good” ones like you?  Then I’m just supposed to hear “I’m a Christian”, assume they’re nice, and hope they won’t cut off my access to health care, my civil rights, my ability to find work, maybe start a few more wars, etc. etc. after I’ve put them in power.

    Nuts to you.  Maybe I’m the crazy one, but I personally want to know about the cliff before I step over it, even if you prefer to walk right over and just hope someone will throw you a rope in time.

  • Charles Black

    If the candidate’s religious beliefs get in the way of government then yes those beliefs matter & that is grounds to bar a candidate from presidency (Separation of religion & government).
    However if we want to prevent nutcases like Perry & Bachmann being in the Oval Office we must fight to keep religion out of government at all costs.

  • Peter Mahoney

    As a fan of the “Atheist Experience” podcast and YouTube show, my questions would center on asking WHY they believe what they believe. On what basis do they believe (their religious fairy tales).

    It then leads perfectly to the follow-up question: would you use a similar process to determine facts/truths upon which you would base your presidential goals, policies, strategies, etc. for yourself, your party, and our nation.

    If they “just know in their heart” that Jesus is god, will they rely on “just knowing in their heart” how to approach global warming, terrorist threats, international military involvement, economic collapse, fossil fuel shortages, or whatever else may come up. OR… would they assemble a group of experts (scientists, economists, etc.) to try to come up with the best understanding/policy based on this real/secular world as we know it.

    Along these lines, Rick Perry fails because his days of government-endorsed prayer already show that he would appeal to the supernatural world for help, despite no convincing/demonstrable evidence that such a supernatural world exists.

    SUMMARY: Ask politicians WHY they believe what they believe, and whether they would use similar standards/approaches in performing their government job. If so, explain. If not, explain.

    • Rich Wilson

      Like the little girl asked the scientist about the age of dinosaurs: “we’re you there?”
      PZ suggests a better question would  be “how do you know?”

  • NorDog

    “But here’s the kicker (and I’d say it’s really a tautology based on the definition of atheism) Nobody ever does bad shit because they think no god wants them to.”

    Actually, that is neither a kicker nor a tautology.

    It’s a sophistry.

    • Rich Wilson

      Your opinion of my intent says nothing of the validity of my argument.  Is my argument invalid?

      • NorDog

        It’s not an argument at all.   Like I said, it’s a sophistry.

        • Rich Wilson

          Sophistry (adj) speaks to the intent of the argument, not the validity.  So you might think I’m being deceptive, but so far you haven’t said anything about the validity of my statement.  That it’s a sophism means it’s an argument.  Perhaps a false argument, but an argument nonetheless.

          I’m just going to go ahead and assume you think I’m not only being deceptive but wrong.  Fair enough?

  • kaileyverse

    I think it really depends on the person and their religion.  I’m an atheist. I know and love many folks from a variety of religions/spiritual persuasions. Believe in god? Ok. Believe your god/holy book should dictate America’s laws? NOPE.

  • kaileyverse

    I think it really depends on the person and their religion.  I’m an atheist. I know and love many folks from a variety of religions/spiritual persuasions. Believe in god? Ok. Believe your god/holy book should dictate America’s laws? NOPE.

  • Michael Gibb

    Interesting. I just covered this very question in an essay for a ‘religion and politics’ course at university. The conclusion that I came to, is that while there are concerns about the voters serving as a sort de facto religious test, it is necessary to know the religious beliefs of the candidate if those beliefs influence their policies. As the case with JFK demonstrated, the majority attitude towards any religion can hamper efforts to get elected, all the candidate needs to do is explain and even demonstrate how their religion and beliefs will not affect their job in public office. In fact I think Kennedy’s response was almost perfect, as he basically said he would be president first and Catholic second.

  • Dan W

    I think reporters should be asking the sorts of  questions Keller mentions to candidates running for such important political positions. The religious beliefs (or lack thereof) of politicians often influence their decisions once they get in office. Not always, but often enough that the public deserves to know what their religious beliefs are, and how they will affect their politics if they are elected.


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