Asking the right questions

questionmarkAfter the embarrassment of last week’s CNN-YouTube debate, you might think other media outlets wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. Ordinary voters were given the chance to ask candidates questions via video. But many of the questioners weren’t so ordinary, including one man who served on two of Hillary Clinton’s committees.

I didn’t see the entire debate, but there was one question from a man who asked each candidate if they believed every word of the King James Version of the Bible. It was telling — not only because I doubt that is a key question among ordinary Republican voters, but also because you get the feeling that CNN thought it was a key question among ordinary Republican voters. So various Republican activists were upset not just with the questions from Democratic activists but also the questions CNN chose to ask.

But that didn’t stop National Public Radio’s All Things Considered from using the aforementioned Bible question as a hook for an interview of Romney. Let’s look at how he handled it:

One last point: In the CNN-You Tube debate, there was a moment when one of the people who submitted a question asked all the candidates whether they believed in every word of the Bible, and two of your rivals — Mayor [Rudolph] Giuliani and Gov. [Mike] Huckabee — both made a point of saying, “Well, in some parts it’s allegorical, in some parts it should be interpreted, but yet, I believe in the Bible.”

And you seemed — if I read you right — to make a point of saying it’s the word of God, and even when considering some modification, you backed up, said, “No, I’ll just stick with that. It’s the word of God.” [That] left the impression — and I want to ask you — do you hold a literal belief, say, in the Genesis version of creation?

You know, I find it hard to believe that NPR is going to inquire on people’s beliefs about various parts of the Bible in evaluating presidential candidates, and actually, I don’t know that that’s where America has come to — that you want to have us describing our particular beliefs with regards to Genesis and the Book of Revelations, so –

I raise Genesis only because creationism is a national issue in a variety of ways, and –

Well, but then you could ask me a question and say, “Do you believe that we should teach creationism in our schools, in our science classes and so forth?” and I’m happy to give you an answer to that. But I don’t know that going through books of the Bible and asking, “Well, do you believe this book? And do you believe these words?”, that that’s terribly productive. Particularly when we face global jihad, when we have 47 million people without health insurance, when we have runaway costs in our entitlements, to be asking presidential candidates about their specific beliefs of books of the Bible is, in my view, something which really isn’t part of the process which we should be using to select presidents.

My point is the Bible is the word of God, and I try and live by it.

I’m all for reporters asking relevant religious questions of political candidates. Though the distinction doesn’t apply to all questions posed by reporters, I think that Romney’s contrasting of the newsworthiness of his particular interpretations of Scripture and the newsworthiness of his particular views on public policy (which may or may not be influenced by his religious views) is a good model to follow.

What do you think? In which contexts are journalists’ questions about political candidates’ particular religious views appropriate and in which contexts are they inappropriate?

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  • Jerry

    What do you think? In which contexts are journalists questions about political candidates’ particular religious views appropriate and in which contexts are they inappropriate?

    That’s a nice, hard question. Because it gets to the important question of how one’s beliefs affect one’s actions. Let’s flip the question around to a hot button. How would people react if the issue is abortion and the candidate said that he or she believed that abortion was evil based on the Bible but would support a woman’s right to choose? Wouldn’t that be interesting to some folk?

    And if we only apply the question to hot button items where the answer matters to many, where do we draw the line?

  • Stephen A.

    The CNN/YouTube question, and this one to Mitt Romney, were both designed to embarrass the candidates, to portray them as Religious extremists or some kind of “nuts” for believing in inerrancy. The other questions, BTW, were designed for the same purpose. God, Guns and Gays are what the liberals think the GOP obsesses over, and for some Republicans, that’s certainly true.

    But this debate almost exclusively highlighted these and other viscous stereotypes, played out to a national audience, asked by those who secretly support Hillary, Obama and Edwards. They were designed to defame the party in the eyes of the public, and it was a gross breach of journalistic ethics. For NPR to repeat the sin is doubly bad.

    The media have every right to ask, in a cursory way, about a candidate’s religion, and if it’s unknown to most Americans, to gently, accurately give a brief statement about that faith. If someone wants to base their vote on a candidate’s faith – or start up a 527 political group to spread the word (accurately) about a person’s “heresy” – they have every right to do so, and will be assisted in their research by such a media sidebar just as a librarian points out helpful books to a patron. But reporters should get out of the business of playing “gotcha” with the religious faith of those seeking office.

    I would remind them that in the US, there are no religious tests required of candidates for public office. Reporters who value the First Amendment right to free speech should read the entire Constitution before embarking on witch hunts.

  • mac

    Literal belief in the truth of the King James Version of the Bible is just as valid a litmus test for its particular demographic as any other such divisive issue. And, while I think it’s rather silly to have secular reporters using Bible citations as proxies for social issues, people’s professed belief systems ARE important elements of what at least I would feel entirely justified in inquiring into as far as their character is concerned. The Biblical interpretations of a member of the Heaven’s Gate cultists who was running for office is something I would feel completely entitled to know about and I don’t think it’s at all a stretch for candidates who publicly profess a faith, especially a Bible-based faith, to have to answer questions on how they interpret Genesis and Revelation. For persons professing a faith to discount the importance of their own beliefs and insights into the Bible is itself illuminating.
    That said, the problem is that secular media are entirely ill-equipped and unqualified to handle such matters on behalf of the interested public. I bust a stitch laughing every time Newsweek or Time runs an issue with an icon of Jesus on their cover. (It’s nearing Xmas again – here it comes!) But I believe we are all entitled to know if the leader of the free world does or does not believe in the literal Biblical account of Armageddon, particularly if he puts his faith at issue by avowing one particular faith over another.
    Real believers aren’t ashamed to tell their beliefs. That’s not about religious tests or witch hunts. That’s just saying that I’m not voting for the guy in the UFO cult. Nothing against him running, but religious nut jobs don’t get my vote, no matter their persuasion.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    From the Catholic point of view–and being old enough to remember the muck and swill thrown at JFK over the particulars of Catholic theology in the end making him virtually declare himself to have no faith whatsoever, I think Romney’s answer was great. Questions should be framed around any and all public issues in dispute or that may come up, NOT on the candidate’s interpretation of the Bible or the book of Mormon or the Key to Science and Health (Mary Baker Eddy’s book that is a virtual co-Bible for Christian Scientists). If reporters are not intelligent enough or creative enough to cover as many bases as need to be covered without going into the swamp of bigotry–they should immediately be fired.

  • Stephen A.

    But I believe we are all entitled to know if the leader of the free world does or does not believe in the literal Biblical account of Armageddon, particularly if he puts his faith at issue by avowing one particular faith over another.

    You may be right about that one, Mac. I think someone should probably have asked George W. Bush about that.

    Apparently, John McCain’s been courting a new group founded by television Pastor John Hagee that seems to be HOPING for and WORKING towards creating the Battle of Armageddon in our lifetimes – as soon as possible, in fact. I wish someone would ask McCain if he endorses this rather dangerous “Christian Zionist” view.

    But I frankly am less concerned about how Christian candidates interpret Genesis and Revelations (obesssions of some religious groups, I understand) than the rest of the Bible. Especially the Gospels. They often ignore the Book of James, too.

  • gfe

    I think Romney’s answer (or nonanswer) was exactly on target, and he was right to refuse to answer the question. His response is somewhat similar to what Mike Huckabee said today when asked about Romney’s religion: “I’m just not going to go off into evaluating other people’s doctrines and faiths. I think that is absolutely not a role for a president.”

    Incidentally, the NPR question suggests some ignorance about Mormon beliefs. The church does not teach a literal interpretation of Genesis, and there’s no reason to think that Romney would have such a belief.

  • Alice C. Linsley

    The Mormon Bible is quite different than the KJV and their geneological data on Abraham is without precedent. Mormonism’s view on Abraham’s ancestry misses the mark. It isn’t scholarly, as it serves another purpose.

  • gmw

    “Well, but then you could ask me a question and say, ‘Do you believe that we should teach creationism in our schools, in our science classes and so forth?’ and I’m happy to give you an answer to that.”

    Romney hits the nail on the head right here because he presses the journalist to think about a more relevant question. His beliefs about creation/evolution are not nearly so important as his understanding of how the subject ought to be handled in the American public square. That’s where the “rubber meets the road” for citizens–what difference does it make? is the chief question. And the answer to that question does not automatically flow from his personal belief on the subject, but rather from his understanding of how personal beliefs ought to relate to public policy.

    So, Romney proposed the question that actually moves us toward clarity and understanding, while NPR was pressing a question whose answer seems to shed light but upon the briefest reflection only serves to muddy the waters since we would be left to conjecture if he only answers the creationism question and leaves it at that.

  • Brian V

    But this debate almost exclusively highlighted these and other viscous stereotypes, played out to a national audience

    Stephen A:

    I rather like your use of the adjective “viscous” here. Stereotypes often have a thick, sticky fluidity to them.

  • Stephen A.

    Brian, um, yeah, sure, I meant to say that. ;-)

  • kenny

    I appreciate the question because it gives insight into how the candidate thinks and operates. What I see in Romney’s answers regarding the Bible is that either 1) he’s not willing to be totally forthcoming or 2) he’s not a thoughtful enough person to have a good answer to the question, and so he’s dodging it.

    To me, both of these are negative personality traits in someone wanting to lead the country.

  • gcsmithjr

    My issue with the questions – both on the YouTube/CNN debate and the NPR interview – is that neither really gets to any issues that are relevant to the election (and I’m horrified by the thought of any of the candidates arguing over which english-language translation of the Bible gets closest to the language and intent of the original Greek and Hebrew).

    Whether one “believes every word” or not, what seems to be important is how the candidates’ beliefs (or interpretation of certain passages of the Bible) might impact their worldview and how they govern.

    Honest, sincere people who “believe every word” of the Bible can differ significantly on their interpretation of those words, and I wish the media could focus on how the candidates’ beliefs would influence the way they might govern rather than looking for a bumper sticker phrase that pigeonholes them as some kind of a religious fanatic (which is what both the YouTube question and the NPR question seem to have intended).

  • Stephen A.

    Jesus wrote the Bible in King James English, didn’t He, gcsmithjr?