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.