NYT takes on aliens, baggage, Trojan horse faith

It gets terribly exhausting trying to convince people that The New York Times publishes some pretty interesting and solid pieces. It consistently gets accused of liberal or anti-religious bias, but it employs some good reporters. Unfortunately, The New York Times Magazine has just published a terribly embarrassing column from its outgoing executive editor Bill Keller that only fuels the anti-Times fire.

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. Please do read the whole thing and then come back for some editing breakdown.

Yet when it comes to the religious beliefs of our would-be presidents, we are a little squeamish about probing too aggressively. Michele Bachmann was asked during the Iowa G.O.P. debate what she meant when she said the Bible obliged her to “be submissive” to her husband, and there was an audible wave of boos — for the question, not the answer.

Perhaps this is a legitimate question (as I explored earlier), but most people seemed to boo because her submission views have nothing to do with her policies. Presumably one could learn to distinguish between professional and personal decisions while getting a tax-law degree. I’m assuming that the the standard for questions about faith is something like, “How does your faith influence your policies?” Keller seems to want to take it further.

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.”)

If Keller’s standard is “how does your faith influence policies,” what do these views have to do with their policies? If that’s not his standard, what is? Is he implying that we shouldn’t support them because they are weird enough to support a “cult?” Why does it matter that other people think someone’s views are “just weird?”

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.

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?

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).

But Keller does care — otherwise we wouldn’t have to read this paragraph.

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.

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.

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.

Is there any evidence to suggest these candidates have supported the idea that some other text but the Constitution will be their authority? Whatever you think about her as a candidate, it seems like Michele Bachmann hit this home in her interview with David Gregory.

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.

Are we really talking about a Trojan horse? Is there any evidence that Mormons, evangelicals, Catholics, etc. would be Trojan horses? Did we not get past this idea with John F. Kennedy’s candidacy?

So this season I’m paying closer attention to what the candidates say about their faith and what they have said in the past that they may have decided to play down in the quest for mainstream respectability.

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.

Yes, Bill Keller, perhaps you should pay closer attention to what candidates say about their faith. Without getting partisan about this idea (but acknowledging the glaring difference), you certainly avoided this in 2008 when covering Barack Obama’s campaign. We already dealt with Ryan Lizza’s profile, but it really isn’t terribly unusual that Bachmann might believe in “innerancy” of the Bible.

Neither Bachmann nor Perry has, as far as I know, pledged allegiance to the Dominionists. Possibly they overlooked those passages in the books and sermons of their spiritual comrades. My informed Texan friends tell me Perry’s relationship with the religious fringe is pragmatic, that it is more likely he is riding the movement than it is riding him. But as we have seen with the Tea Party (another political movement Perry hopped aboard in its early days), the support of a constituent group doesn’t come without strings.

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?

And of course issues of faith should not distract attention from issues of economics and war. But it is worth knowing whether a candidate has a mind open to intelligence that does not fit neatly into his preconceptions.

News flash for Keller: many, many people take their personal faith more seriously than the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Are we to assume that someone with strong religious beliefs would not be open to intelligence?

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?

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?

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  • Mark Baddeley

    In no particular order, and off the top of my head:

    1. Does the person believe in absolutes or do they believe that things such as morality, purpose, and the like, are human constructs?

    2. What is their view of the “good life”? What does it consist of, how does one pursue it? Is there just one good life for all, or does everyone find their own? And if there’s more than one, how wide is the allowable pluralism? What is the role of government in that pursuit of the “good life”?

    3. Is religion a threat to democracy? Is any particular religion a threat to democracy? If so, which ones and why? Is religion an asset to democracy? Is any particular religion an asset? If so, which ones and why?

    4. What does it mean to be human? How should that shape the kind of laws a society should form?

    5. What does the candidate mean by the word ‘tolerance’ when they desire to help create ‘a more tolerant society’? What would this look like?

  • http://kenfallon.net Ken Fallon

    Sorry, Sarah, but I couldn’t get past the first two paragraphs of that Keller column (I had a hard enough time reading the snippets you pulled). That is Exhibit A for why I have a difficult time believing the Times’ apologists when they protest accusations of anti-religious bias. It seems to me that Keller could have written this, and conveyed the same thoughts:

    No one would — or should — take a candidate seriously if he said he believed that space aliens dwell among us, regardless of the fact that a third of our country might share such looney-tune beliefs. And since believing in God as a guiding force in one’s life is equally looney-tune (despite the fact that a much larger segment of our society is foolishly deluded into accepting such drivel), I can’t believe that we’re not hammering on those Republicans presidential candidates who espouse such beliefs.

    The level of condescension in my spoof is only slightly higher than Keller’s, in my opinion.

    And by the way, I don’t mind the first two questions in Keller’s bullet-point list at the bottom, but the third one is a gotcha question about as worthwhile as asking the price of milk, since the president has no control over the teaching of evolution (or creation, for that matter).

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: I grew up believing that a priest could turn a bread wafer into the actual flesh of Christ.

    Sigh. No, he can’t. Jesus Christ turns a bread wafer into His actual flesh, at the entreaty of the priest. It’s clear from the text of the Eucharistic liturgy. Orthodox, Oriental Christians, and (many) Anglicans believe this too.

  • Dale

    Mr. Keller wrote:

    Asking candidates, respectfully, about their faith should not be an excuse for bigotry or paranoia.

    . . . and Mr. Keller is off to a poor start on that score. He’s so off-base he’s beyond help.

    But it is worth knowing whether a candidate has a mind open to intelligence that does not fit neatly into his preconceptions.

    How would Mr. Keller know? He’s already demonstrated his inability to get beyond his own preconceptions about religious people. He’s clearly unable to judge that characteristic in others.

    Questions that I would ask the President:

    Do you read the New York Times?

    Do you believe that it contains an objective reporting of fact, free of partisan hackery and religious bigotry?

    Assuming the answer is yes, do you also believe that space aliens live among us?

  • Grumpy

    “Did we not get past this idea with John F. Kennedy’s candidacy?”

    Actually we seem to have turned this issue on it’s head, where GOP candidates are now required to pledge their faith and fealty in Jesus Christ above all else. Would love to see the candidates asked to make the pledge regarding the absolute separation of church and state made by Kennedy in his historic 1960 Houston speech. Could they, would they?

    http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/jfkhoustonministers.html

  • rob in williamson county

    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?

    Although I shouldn’t be, I’m just astounded at the condescension displayed by Keller toward religious faith. I think the attitudes that make up what they used to call “secular humanism” are as cold, lifeless, and deluded as Keller seems to find people of faith; however, I wouldn’t feel the need to publically ridicule them, even if I had the opportunity and an audience that would listen. Willie Morris called New York “the big cave”, and I don’t think I really understood the phrase until today. If the cave is big enough and if you live in it long enough, you start to forget that there’s a whole world outside it, and that the shadows you see cast on the wall are actually real (I’ll stop now–my apologies to Plato for badly appropriating his parable). When the ridicule is this bald it just doesn’t seem right that it should mask itself as “journalism”.

  • Grumpy

    Re: I grew up believing that a priest could turn a bread wafer into the actual flesh of Christ.

    Sigh. No, he can’t. Jesus Christ turns a bread wafer into His actual flesh, at the entreaty of the priest. It’s clear from the text of the Eucharistic liturgy. Orthodox, Oriental Christians, and (many) Anglicans believe this too.

    Neither has a basis in reality of course, so what’s your point?

    Yes, the column drips with condescension, but for some people, many being his audience of NYT readers, it may appear time to begin confronting the emperor about his clothes. The column was obviously very personal, but aren’t columns supposed to be personal?

  • Sarah

    Fear of evangelicals is irrational and just ignorant. It would be like being worried about Packer fans in Green Bay. They have been there a LOOONG time already.

    This debate might even make a modicum of sense if we were to pretend that Christians were new immigrants to America and we had no idea how they would influence the political process. But the truth is they have been around in the majority since the foundation of our nation, and its entire development.

    When the Left tries to act as if Christians are a new phenomenon to American life or politics, it just comes off as absurd.

  • Ryan K.

    @ Grumpy,

    If by separation of church and state (which is not in the Constitution) you mean the first amendment, and by that the Constitution, than I have already heard every GOP affirm allegiance to it.

    This is just stunning stuff, to act as if being a Christian is now something the majority of America needs to be afraid off. Considering that the Supreme Court does not have even one Evangelical Christian serving on it right now, and ALL of them were nominated by professing Christians, I think that the evidence shows that Mr. Keller is just fear-mongering.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Unlike Ken Fallon, I read the whole thing, with a fascination akin to what it must be like to watch a roller coaster jump the tracks and fall to earth.

    They did correct Santorum’s religious affiliation, but that error strikes me as indicative of the overall quality of the essay. This is the fervent evangelistic writing of a “collapsed Catholic” who casually dismisses the Catholic Faith and those who hold to it. Clearly, we have no place in the public square. It properly belongs to the Brights.

    I don’t have a lot to add to the comments above, with which I am in substantial agreement. The questions in #1 work for me. I might add that I would be interested to know how candidates on both sides will deal with disagreement. George W. Bush employed gays and probably a few fundamentalists. The practical reality is that the Republicans (I’m not one) are actually more inclusive and broad than the small political world of Keller and his secular faith. There is room for John Hagee and Log Cabin Republicans.

    Keller and his essay aren’t really that important, though. People who agree with Keller will be confirmed in their faith; the rest of us have additional evidence of the bias which the NYT brings to traditional Christianity.

  • http://www.sheepfeeder.wordpress.com Kim Hamlin

    Perhaps this is a legitimate question (as I explored earlier), but most people seemed to boo because her submission views have nothing to do with her policies.

    I believe her submission views have everything to do with her politics, just as I believe that one’s religion is part of who you are and can/does influence your leadership. If it doesn’t, then you are not that serious about your religion. Dividing our representatives’ personal and professional lives and excusing the one to reap the benefits of the other hasn’t done us any favors. Furthermore, the booing I did, in the comfort of my own living room, was in reference to the fact that none of the GOP male candidates were asked whether or not they were p!@#y-whipped by their wives. I prefer the questions to be asked across the board, for all candidates, so that answers can be compared and contrasted.

    Thank you so much for this post Ms. Bailey, it was well-written and thought-provoking. I’m a new visitor and I already enjoy it immensely!

  • Mike O.

    Why does Keller get to decide which questions voters actually care about?

    I don’t think that’s a fair question. How many hundreds upon hundreds of articles have there been where a writer gives a list of questions he wants to see asked of political candidates (usually prior to a debate)? This is no different.

  • Chris

    “But it is worth knowing whether a candidate has a mind open to intelligence that does not fit neatly into his preconceptions.”
    Alas, the most frequently held human preconception is that each of us is the center of the universe, and that our (necessarily) idiosyncratic view of reality is the true one. Religious believers, secular-humanists, and, yes, even editorialists (like Mr. Keller), would do well to to examine themselves on this point.

  • Gordon

    How can you seriously compare JFK who believed “in an America where the seperation of church and state is absolute” to this crop of “god told me so” candidates?

    The whole point of the “tougher questions” is to ask “are you intending to govern for the people or for your faith?”

    That seems fair. There’s a big difference between a President who happens to be christian – like JFK, and a President who makes their policies based on their view of christianity.

  • R9

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

    It is bizarre to some of us. So, actually, are the ideas of an ancient book of scriptures being inerrant, or wifely submission to husband. I get this sense you want to shrug these things off just cos they’re standard operating procedure to some varieties of christian?

  • Mox

    When these crazy religious fundies stop discriminating against homosexuals, stop pursuing an anti-choice agenda removes any control women have over their own bodies, stop railing against issues like climate change that affect the future of civilization, stop peddling creationist woo in public, and stop portraying atheists as traitors and enemies of the state, then I’ll “respect” their ridiculous beliefs. Like it or not, the crazy things these people believe have direct effects on their policies, and its perfectly legitimate for Keller to compare them to space aliens or to flying spaghetti monsters or invisible pink unicorns.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    I’m aware of Perry’s semi-statements about evolution, but I missed the article(s) covering “Bachmann on appointing a Muslim/atheist”. Where can I find that?

  • Bob Smietana

    I’m willing to cut Keller some slack. It’s a column after all, and he knew that the space alien line would make people sit up and take notice. He was right.

    This paragraph, in the middle of the piece, was the strongest bit:

    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.

  • John Small Berries

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

    But it is bizarre to outsiders. To those who were raised in Protestant denominations that hold that the bread and wine are merely symbolic (and to all non-Christians), the idea that the wafer and wine literally transform into actual flesh and blood is beyond bizarre.

    And to those of us who, as children, went up to receive communion in a Catholic church because we didn’t realize we weren’t supposed to, it’s an obviously false belief (unless Jesus was made out of some weird Styrofoam-like substance and a fluid indistinguishable from wine coursed through his veins).

    But really, the absurd notion of transubstantiation wouldn’t concern me when considering a political candidate. It’s not a belief that (as far as I can imagine) would inform any of their policies or initiatives.

    A religious belief that children should not be taught legitimate science, but a fairy tale instead: that would concern me.

    A religious belief that doctors and pharmacists should be permitted to refuse to perform certain medical procedures or dispense certain medications because it conflicts with their faith, even to patients who do not share that faith: that would concern me.

    A religious belief that certain people do not deserve full civil rights because a book written in the Bronze Age calls them “abominations”: that would concern me.

    A religious belief that the President of the United States should defer to her husband in all things if he tells her to do something: that would definitely concern me.

    A religious belief that the United States should be governed under Biblical law: that unquestionably concerns me.

    If candidates make their faith a visible part of their campaigns, and proclaim (or even merely imply) that their decisions while in office will be guided by their beliefs, we deserve to know what those beliefs are.

    You claim that Keller’s column is “terribly embarrassing”. But you’re the one who’s advancing the embarrassing notion that the American people have no right to know what will be guiding their politicians’ decisions and actions; that journalism should care absolutely nothing about the truth if it intersects with the sphere of religion.

    Shame on you.

  • Bill Snedden

    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.

  • Hector

    Re: To those who were raised in Protestant denominations that hold that the bread and wine are merely symbolic (and to all non-Christians), the idea that the wafer and wine literally transform into actual flesh and blood is beyond bizarre.

    And to the rest of us, the idea that Jesus was making a feeble joke when he said, “I am that living bread which came down from heaven; if any man eat of that bread, he shall live for ever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world”, is also beyond bizarre.

    Incidentally (though I’m increasingly inclined to shy away from the essence/accidents distinction and to merely say ‘It’s a mystery’), the RC Church does not hold that the taste, chemical composition, physical properties, or biochemical reactivity of the bread and wine change, so the fact that the sacrament tasted like bread or wine is neither here nor there. The teaching is that the essence of the bread and wine changes, while leaving the accidents unchanged.

  • http://aleksandreia.wordpress.com Hector

    Re: A religious belief that doctors and pharmacists should be permitted to refuse to perform certain medical procedures or dispense certain medications because it conflicts with their faith, even to patients who do not share that faith: that would concern me.

    Sorry, but doctors can and must have the right to refuse to murder the unborn. One’s conscience is a higher authority than the fact that our Supreme Court embraces the big lie that the unborn are not persons. That’s not religion, it’s simple morality.

  • Bill R.

    Putting #18 (Berries) and #19 (Snedden) next to each other has got to be some kind of fire code violation… too many straw men in one place :)

  • Grumpy

    I’m increasingly inclined to shy away from the essence/accidents distinction and to merely say ‘It’s a mystery’

    It’s not “a mystery”. Reality is not multiple choice. We also have a right to know if our candidates for president feel it is.

  • Mark Baddeley

    Re: 18 John Small Berries

    This is fine as a piece of advocacy:

    If candidates make their faith a visible part of their campaigns, and proclaim (or even merely imply) that their decisions while in office will be guided by their beliefs, we deserve to know what those beliefs are.

    You claim that Keller’s column is “terribly embarrassing”. But you’re the one who’s advancing the embarrassing notion that the American people have no right to know what will be guiding their politicians’ decisions and actions; that journalism should care absolutely nothing about the truth if it intersects with the sphere of religion.

    But it is a misreading of the post. Sarah did not beat her chest and lament the horror that Keller would want to question presidential candidates on their religious beliefs. It would be odd if she did, for GetReligion has regularly argued that a knowledge of religion is necessary to understand what is going on.

    She queried how idiosyncratic the choice of questions were, given the number of people in America who hold to the beliefs in question. They are the kind of questions that only a minority of Americans would be interested in.

    She also drew critical attention to how partisanly negative Keller’s stance was towards those beliefs he was questioning. It didn’t (and doesn’t) read like the judicious, balanced, dispassionate analysis of ‘the paper of record’. It read like a piece by the president of the local New Atheist club. Keller can have those views. He can publish them. The question is whether it is good journalism for the New York Times to publish them, given its self-image.

    If it wants to become the soap-box for the views of a minority of Americans (because Keller’s views and stance towards religion as expressed in that editorial are a minority) it can. But it is hard to do that and be the newspaper of record at the same time.

    I have never been so reminded of the sociologist Peter Berger’s comment that “if India is the most religious country in the world, and Sweden the least, then America is a country of Indians ruled by Swedes” as reading the editorial and then some of the comments on this post. It surely made Keller’s job of shaping the reporting of the news more difficult that he just didn’t religion at all, when religion is so important to so many of his countrymen and women.

  • Mark Baddeley

    Picking up 15:

    When these crazy religious fundies stop discriminating against homosexuals, stop pursuing an anti-choice agenda removes any control women have over their own bodies, stop railing against issues like climate change that affect the future of civilization, stop peddling creationist woo in public, and stop portraying atheists as traitors and enemies of the state, then I’ll “respect” their ridiculous beliefs.

    and 18:

    A religious belief that doctors and pharmacists should be permitted to refuse to perform certain medical procedures or dispense certain medications because it conflicts with their faith, even to patients who do not share that faith: that would concern me.

    A religious belief that certain people do not deserve full civil rights because a book written in the Bronze Age calls them “abominations”: that would concern me.

    I’d want to add two more questions to my list in comment 1:

    + Does the American democracy embrace the right of people to have laws that they want, within the bounds of the constitution? Or are they only allowed to have laws that do not spring from religious convictions?

    Because the general tenor of #15′s comment is to hold that religious people cannot seek to have their religious views and values instantiated in law, even when they hold a democratic majority. It’d be worth knowing where a candidate placed themselves on that vexed question.

    + What does ‘freedom of religion’ involve? What are its limits, what does it include?

    Because reading comment 18 after comment 15 gives a fairly one-sided combination. On the basis of 15 religious people can’t seek to have their views reflected in law. But on the basis of 18 they can’t seek to have the freedom not to comply with opposing views enshrined in law. One only has to invert this to see that it is getting close to a kind of ‘secular Sharia’ law whereby ‘freedom of religion’ means little more than ‘freedom to think something in your head and practice it privately’, but it is not to have any public manifestation whatsoever.

    Taking those two comments together, only ‘secular’ views are a legitimate basis for law, and everyone must be required to comply with them.

    I think that kind of combined view is not uncommon, so I’d like to know what a Presidential (or Congressman’s or Senator’s) views on the nature and boundaries of religious freedom were. How he or she sees that as supporting ‘the common good’. And why.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Lots of really good comments here. Let me try to address a few.
    R9, no I don’t think you should shrug off questions about faith. Ask away! But hopefully they are more relevant to policy. For instance, submission was fine, but it turned out to be more about her personal life than her hope for all women in America.
    Mike O, good point. Perhaps I was too flippant. When I said

    Why does Keller get to decide which questions voters actually care about?

    I felt like Keller was kind of using his bully pulpit of the NYT to get the responses he personally thinks are most important. Sometimes you’ll see an editorial board meet with a political candidate – I’d be much more interested in some reporters gathering to come up with the best questions rather than Keller simply because he’s the executive editor.

    Ray Ingles, if you watch the David Gregory interview, Bachmann’s responses on Muslim and Atheist appointments are there. I think I have a link to the transcript there.

  • Martha

    “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.”

    Lovely. So, if you believe in some kind of deity, that’s the functional equivalent of schizophrenia (from the Schizophrenia Ireland information page):

    “Delusions

    Delusions are false personal beliefs held with extraordinary conviction in spite of what others believe and in spite of obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. For example, a person experiencing delusions may believe that thoughts are being inserted into their mind or that they have special powers or are someone famous (for example Jesus Christ or Elvis). People may also think that they are being spied on, tormented, followed or tricked, or may believe that gestures or comments are directed specifically at them. Delusions will occur during some stage of the disorder in 90% of people who experience schizophrenia.”

    I appreciate Mr. Keller informing us how, as an impressionable child, he was indoctrinated with crazy beliefs until his native intelligence was just too great to swallow such nonsense and he rose above it all.

  • Martha

    “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.”

    It would also be nice if these smarter than the average bear folks could bestir themselves to discover that, for example, belief in Biblical inerrancy covers a vast range, from the die-hard six days of twenty-four hours each creationists to those who don’t read Genesis as a science text but do believe in the reliability of the Word of God.

    Evangelicalism, as I have discovered in my interactions online with actual real, live, breathing Evangelicals, is not monolithic.

  • Martha

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

    Depends. Is he David Icke?

    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?

    Was the United States of America consciously founded as a Christian nation? I would have to say that there is room to debate on this one way or the other, but that its roots certainly do come out of Christendom. Are there more faiths than Christianity represented in the U.S.A. – certainly, and this should be respected. Are the majority of Americans still Christian of some variety? Apparently so. Where you want to go from there depends on whether you think matters are sorted on a bare majority (and those who want a secular whatever can be just as bad on insisting that when they manage to win 51% to 49% of the vote, their view has won, is now legal, and must be upheld with the full rigour of the law, as referenda in Ireland have demonstrated) or that minority views need special protection.

    * Would you have any hesitation about appointing a Muslim to the federal bench? What about an atheist?

    No, and no. If they’re qualified and haven’t in their legal careers to date made any nutty decisions, then no reason. On the other hand, if Mr or Ms Atheist is giving interviews left, right and centre about how this is going to be an opportunity to advance secular/rational/free-thinking/the scientific world view in society by the decisions they will make on the bench, I think that should disqualify them – just as much as if they were Catholics and said that they planned to base their rulings on Encyclicals and Canon Law instead of the law of the land.

    * What is your attitude toward the theory of evolution, and do you believe it should be taught in public schools?

    Seeing as how Sister Rosario taught us all biology in my girls’ only convent-run secondary school and we learned about Lamarck and Darwin for our state national examinations, can you guess my answer to that one?

  • CarlH

    In a companion post at the NYTimes Magazine “The 6th Floor Blog”: Tougher Questions for the Candidates, Bill Keller compounded the problem, adding some new questions which he said were in a questionnaire he sent to all candidates, and listing specific questions tailored to each candidate (but still, of course, only the Republican candidates), some of which are more thoughtful and relevant, but others from the religious-baiting mindset that informed the column itself.

  • Kevin

    Hm. So I have to wonder if Keller agrees or disagrees with this atheist about the value to societies of holding faith in balancing reason, or if his massive, throbbing, native intellect has risen up and swallowed silly atheism, too.

    Pope earns rare praise from leading German leftist
    http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE77O7JX20110825

  • http://www.ooblick.com/weblog/ arensb

    Kevin @#32:
    Why do you say Gysi is an atheist? The article you link to says that some of his supporters include atheists, and that he comes from a secular Jewish family, but I don’t see anything that says whether he personally believes in any gods.

  • Dale

    arensb wrote:

    I don’t see anything that says whether he personally believes in any gods.

    Gysi was a member of the East German Communist Party, a hardline Marxist-Leninist party. Membership required atheism. If someone belongs to an atheist organization, it is safe to assume he is an atheist, unless he affirmatively says otherwise, which Gysi has not.

  • http://realclearreligion.org Jeffrey Weiss

    As a matter of journalism (which is what we’re about here, yes?):
    1) Obama’s religious background was vetted to a fare-thee-well four years ago. Heck, I was part of that. And since then, he’s given several significant speeches about how his understanding of his faith informs his ideas about governance. (Lots of Social Gospel stuff. Ask Mr. Google.)The GOP-ers are (mostly) new figures on the national stage and have not faced the scrutiny.
    2) Keller’s flat-out statement that beliefs based totally on faith (ie. Transubstantiation) are bizarre to nonbelievers is not an attack on religion. It’s a fact, Jack. Get over it.
    3)The question about submission (which Bachmann ducked, btw) was not about doctrine but about how/if Bachmann draws lines between public and private in her application of her religion. Fair game.
    4) To criticize Keller for not listing *all* the possible questions seems odd. Space limits, after all. Me, I’d put other questions higher. But it’s not my column. My reading was that he was, in fact, trying for “How does your faith influence your policies?”
    5) Faith-related questions are particularly relevant for candidates who have made their faith a topline part of their public and political persona. The GOP candidate list has several for whom that is particularly true. Back when and Orthodox Jew was running for the Dems, such questions were particularly appropriate for Lieberman (who generally failed to provide good answers, IMNSHO).
    6) Finally, it’s a column, not a news story. And Keller was the boss of the whole freakin’ paper, not a line editor. Yes, leadership matters. But as a practical matter the influence of the executive editor of a paper that size on day-to-day coverage decisions is likely smaller than you think.

  • Bill Snedden

    Bill R:

    Putting #18 (Berries) and #19 (Snedden) next to each other has got to be some kind of fire code violation… too many straw men in one place

    Name one.

  • Dale

    Jeffrey Weiss wrote:

    Obama’s religious background was vetted to a fare-thee-well four years ago.

    A process during which the New York Times was conspicuously absent, and when it did appear, acted mostly as apologist and not journalist. That was Sarah’s point: the NYT was noticeably incurious about some rather outrageous aspects of Obama’s religious background, but now finds the religion of GOP candidates terribly important. Hmmm….

  • Dale

    Bill Snedden wrote:

    Name one.

    Let’s see. . . all of it.

  • http://realclearreligion.org Jeffrey Weiss

    Dale, you can bring up anything that is relevant. What’s the relevance of S&M or bestiality in regards to Frank’s homosexuality and his governance policies?

    (I find your lumping homosexuality in with S&M and (particularly) bestiality illogical. But that’s a discussion for another blog.)

    For this one: If someone with those proclivities is running for office, has made those proclivities key portions of their professional and political identities and there are potential governance issues that would be affected thereby, questions about them from reporters would be particularly appropriate.

    In Obama’s case: He did not start his campaign with a Christian prayer service in a football stadium (Perry). He did not make his specific adherence to particular interpretations of Biblical passages a key part of his stump speech (Bachmann). He never served as the equivalent of a priest or pastor for his church (Romney). Yes, he was a member of a church with a pastor who sometimes said loopy things. And in his autobiographies he wrote a bit about his conversion to Christianity. But his faith has never been as central to his public and political persona as is the case with several of this batch of GOP-ers.

    Is it fair game to query Obama now, assuming you have a question *today* about faith and governance that he has not addressed? Ubetcha. But the GOP-ers are a mostly fresh crop. The questions are all new for them.

    I’ll note that Keller was not a columnist four years ago. To slam him now for a column he didn’t write when he didn’t have a column seems off target.

    And finally, I hardly think that Keller’s column was beyond criticism. But the howls of rage I’m finding here on GR seem largely a rehash of old wars (What the NYT did or didn’t do four years ago or in news stories over the years) and a confusion about whether a pungent expression of disbelief is, per se, an example of bigotry. (Not.)

  • Dale

    What’s the relevance of S&M or bestiality in regards to Frank’s homosexuality and his governance policies?

    It’s about as relevant as a belief that aliens live amongst us is to any belief about the eucharist: not at all. When Keller starts off his column that way, its difficult to see anything but an intent to ridicule and demean by associating one belief as “weird” as another. In the same way, describing Frank’s homosexuality (and it does affect his governance) as “weird” like S&M and bestiality is not a substantive criticism. On the other hand, I may want to know how he intends to protect the religious freedoms of those who find homosexual sex acts immoral. I don’t have to characterize his sexuality as “weird” to ask the question, do I?

    I find your lumping homosexuality in with S&M and (particularly) bestiality illogical. But that’s a discussion for another blog.

    I see nothing logical about lumping Christian doctrine in with beliefs about aliens living amongst us. Nevertheless, that’s what Keller did. I find that rhetoric objectionable, just as you find the rhetoric about Frank that I gave as an example objectionable, even bigoted.

  • Mike O.

    Here are a few articles discussing certain beliefs of people in powr. These beliefs are definitely seen by some as strange, silly, dangerous, and/or illogical.

    Here’s an old NYT article about Ronald Reagan’s response to if he believes in astrology. So far all signs point to astrology as being useless.

    Here’s a story about Prince Charles pushing homeopathy with the UK’s ministry of health. Several tests have been done, including “overdosing” on an entire bottle of homeopathic sleeping pills and not getting drowsy, showing homeopathy is without merit. In fact, if used in place of actual medicine it’s dangerous.

    Here’s a story about a judge in the Phillipines who was removed from the bench for (among other things) claiming that he made a covenant with several dwarves and that he had psychic powers.

    Now I definitely have a bias when it comes to this topic. So I leave it to you all to see if the stories I’ve linked to are analogous to the one Sarah linked to, and if so how the articles and situations compare.

  • http://aleksandreia.wordpress.com Hector

    Mike O.,

    Astrology and homeopathy aren’t in any way comparable to religious claims. Religious claims are extra-scientific, they’re orthogonal to the laws of nature, because essentially they deal with the miraculous and/or the unobservable, which by definition science doesn’t deal with. Homeopathy and astrology, on the other hand, make the claim that the laws of nature are other than what we believe them to be, and in that sense they’re anti-scientific, not extra-scientific.

    The story about the dwarves and the judge is more analogous to a religious story, assuming that the dwarves are supposed to be supernatural.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Idiosyncratic beliefs are not the same as serious mental illness, but I’m thinking the judge was showing signs of schizophrenia or, possibly, dementia of some type or another. Of course, the article was short and the man’s history is needed for real diagnosis. I spent a few years around folks with severe mental illness; it’s almost always clear whether you are dealing with mental illness or personal beliefs.

  • Mark Baddeley

    re: Jeffrey Weiss,at 35 and 39:

    6) Finally, it’s a column, not a news story. And Keller was the boss of the whole freakin’ paper, not a line editor. Yes, leadership matters. But as a practical matter the influence of the executive editor of a paper that size on day-to-day coverage decisions is likely smaller than you think.

    And finally, I hardly think that Keller’s column was beyond criticism. But the howls of rage I’m finding here on GR seem largely a rehash of old wars (What the NYT did or didn’t do four years ago or in news stories over the years) and a confusion about whether a pungent expression of disbelief is, per se, an example of bigotry. (Not.)

    I think that’s reasonable in abstract, but I’m not sure it works that well in reality.

    Let’s say the NYTimes seemed to primarily take a pro-Republican and pro-’conservative Christian belief’ take on things in its editorials. Its stance seemed to favor either highly conservative or moderate views, strong progressive views were rarely expressed. Atheism, agnosticism, even more revisionist takes on Christianity seemed to regularly get a less favorable spot-light than traditional Christianity.

    And then a senior editor came out with an editorial that said that a bunch of possible Democratic presidential candidates needed to be questioned for having a bunch of really weird and bizarre views because they weren’t sufficiently traditional Christian.

    Would you be likely to trust it as the newspaper of record?

    It’s not the editorial on its own. It’s the editorial in the absence of any pluralism in the NYTimes. If they could put up an ex-senior editor to write a similar over-the-top negative editorial on Democratic presidential candidates, one might think that a range of views more representative of America are there on the political question. If they could put up an ex-senior editor to write a similar over-the-top negative editorial on strange and bizarre beliefs that disagree with traditional Christian doctrines one could similarly hold that they at least ‘get’ religious views that they disagree with. Then one could trust their reporting as being impartial.

    As it stands, the one-sidedness undercuts their positioning of themselves as impartial reporters of the news.

    The anger wouldn’t be the same if this was published by The New Atheist Society, Americans for a Secular Society, or the like. The anger is similar to the anger that people on the left feel when FoxNews sounds like a mouthpiece for conservative political groups but passes itself off as journalism.

  • http://realclearreligion.og Jeffrey Weiss

    Hector: I’ll defend Mike O’s links as relevant in the one arena that counts here: These are all extra-rational beliefs that can or have had effects on governance and policy. If a candidate consults astrologers, endorses homeopathy or believes whatever that judge believed, I’d think that would be relevant to voters.

    And Mark Baddeley, I’d respectfully suggest that your objections do not all reflect reality.

    If they could put up an ex-senior editor to write a similar over-the-top negative editorial on Democratic presidential candidates, one might think that a range of views more representative of America are there on the political question.

    Leaving aside the claim that Keller’s column was per se negative, which Democratic presidential candidates would those be right about now? Obama’s faith and/or lack has been vetted for about four years. You got a new question or issue to raise? Ditto on your suggestion that a columnist do something similar about non-Christians. I’m not aware of any GOP candidate for which that would be relevant.

    And finally, as a matter of journalism, even in 2011 there are huge differences between columnists and straight news reports. Keller’s column has exactly zero connection to or influence on anything written by, for instance, Laurie Goodstein.

  • Gabriel Austin

    Would Mr. Keller have written in the same vein about [Orthodox] Jews? Reform Jews?
    Would he have asked how strong was their support[or lack of] for Israel?
    Would he have asked Muslims the same kind of questions? Do they believe that Israel should be wiped off the map?

  • MJBubba

    The real reason Keller’s column is so damning is because it is about the journalism related to the 2012 campaign. If it were just about Keller’s opinion that all the Republican candidates that court Tea Party support are so daffy that they must be exposed for their crackpot Christian beliefs, then, well, the opinion pages were made for just such stuff. His position as a senior editor at the NYT, however, links his views to the actual journalism. It seems to be increasingly apparent that the NYT thinks of all Christians who actually believe that there are absolute moral values revealed in the Bible are a bunch of looney-tunes or misguided simpletons who need to be taught better. This indicates that the fight that Professor Mattingly has been carrying on for over two decades in defense of the “American model of journalism” is a gasping effort in a losing cause. The NYT is content to provide slanted coverage for the progressives in their bubble. The rest of the mass media, will follow the NYT’s lead, and the rest of the country will just have to take the leftist spin in the papers, and then go listen to talk radio to hear the rest of the story. A poor way to inform the public, for sure, but that is what we are in for.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Keller’s column has exactly zero connection to or influence on anything written by, for instance, Laurie Goodstein.

    To make sure I understand, Mr. Weiss, you are saying that a reporter is not influenced by a senior manager of her paper. Is that correct? Even a former manager who might have been instrumental in hiring her?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Kevin –

    So I have to wonder if Keller agrees or disagrees with this atheist about the value to societies of holding faith in balancing reason, or if his massive, throbbing, native intellect has risen up and swallowed silly atheism, too.

    I note that the word “faith” is in the commentary text and not in any actual quotes. Gysi’s actual words speak of “the concept of the good” and “something prior to and outside of the [secular] law that can act as a benchmark for it”.

    But the “concept of the good” doesn’t require religion. (E.g. here.)

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Hector –

    Astrology and homeopathy aren’t in any way comparable to religious claims. Religious claims are extra-scientific, they’re orthogonal to the laws of nature, because essentially they deal with the miraculous and/or the unobservable, which by definition science doesn’t deal with.

    The ‘unobservable’ is outside of science, sure (though then I have to ask why someone wouldn’t believe in the FSM). But the ‘miraculous’ isn’t. The miraculous by definition involves something interacting with the world to produce effects not normally seen.

    So far, studies of the effectiveness of prayer have not found any compelling evidence that ‘miraculous’ healings are going on, for example. We haven’t found objects that would indicate extradimensional intervention (for example, a seamless sphere of wood with another type of wood inside).

    If deities do miracles (at least, ones that actually affect ‘accidents’) then by that fact they are, at least to that extent, within the purview of science.

  • Jeffrey

    Passing By, the point Weiss is making is that the idea that Keller is influencing Goidstein’s coverage shows a lack of understanding about how a big media operation works. Keller wasn’t micromanaging or even managing coverage to that extent. And even, hypothetically, that he was, it assumes that he couldn’t put aside his alleged “bias” to make objective decisions. The idea that idealogues are running around newsrooms inserting bias into every story makes for good pundit chatter but lacks credibility.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Jeffrey -

    “Influence” apparently has differently meanings to us, then.

    I may instruct my employees to do something, or they may do it (consciously or not) to curry favor with me. Taking a step back, I likely choose those employees, trained or mentored them, and kept them due to some sort coherent professional philosophy.

    I make no claims to know how a news organization works, but I know a bit about how organizations in general work, and behind the exercise of direct authority lies a world of “influence”. It’s the basis of institutional racism, when you find it, and any form of institutional bias.

    Now, there has been some decent religion reporting at the Times over the years, but there has also been a general bias against Christianity, and Catholicism specifically. It is to the “influence” of leadership that one looks for a major source of that bias.

  • Bill Snedden

    Dale:

    Let’s see… all of it.

    Ummm…no. I said “Name one.” “All of it.” does not constitute an elucidation of any strawmen. What I meant, of course, was to point out any specific argument that I made that was a “strawman” and limn a case as to why. Merely saying “strawman” or “all of it” is not an argument. If I’m wrong, please explain why you think that might be. Otherwise, I’m justified in ignoring any assertions to the contrary.

  • http://aleksandreia.wordpress.com Hector

    Re: If deities do miracles (at least, ones that actually affect ‘accidents’) then by that fact they are, at least to that extent, within the purview of science

    No, they would be in the purview of science if they happened in any sort of repeatable, predictable way, which they don’t.

    Of course God (and I would think the angels too) perform miracles, but they don’t happen in a repeatable and/or predictable way, which makes it impossible to study them. Miraculous healings happen all the time, for the record (it’s one of the requirement for canonization in the RC church, for example).

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Hector –

    No, they would be in the purview of science if they happened in any sort of repeatable, predictable way, which they don’t.

    Quantum effects are decidedly random and quite unpredictable. If our theories are correct, there is no way at all to tell when a particular atom will spontaneously split. Yet, we can tell about how many atoms will split over a period of time. There’s a pattern.

    If a deity is intervening in a way that’s undetectable by science, that means it’s intervening in a way indistinguishable from random, with no pattern at all. That’s certainly a possibility… but it doesn’t sound much like any actual religion I’m familiar with.

  • http://crossexaminedblog.com/ Bob Seidensticker

    The Constitution makes clear that “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust.” Isn’t it then bizarre then that religious questions seem to float to the top of so many people’s lists?

    Questions about values, policies, and so on are terrific. But I’d prefer that questions about candidates religious beliefs be as personal and irrelevant as “Boxers or briefs?”

    Cross Examined: Clear thinking about Christianity


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