Pod people: Taking religion seriously at NYTs

We’re still recovering a little bit from Bill Keller’s startling column last week, where he framed religious belief next to alien belief.

Just to be clear: reporters should ask questions about candidates’ faith and try to break new ground. However, it’s hard to take Keller seriously when he paints religious beliefs as “bizarre.” That said, I wanted to address some comments from RealClearReligion columnist Jeffrey Weiss (who has written on how religion influences policy, which were buried in the long thread from last week).

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.

1) Agreed. Perhaps the New York Times realizes how behind they were in the 2008 election and wants to make up for that, I don’t know.

2) Maybe it’s not an “attack,” but is it wise to call it bizarre if he expects people to take it seriously? Sincere apologies for a Wiki citation for the Catholic Church in the U.S., but “With more than 68.5 registered million members, it is the largest single religious denomination in the United States, comprising about 22 percent of the population.” Some might consider it bizarre, but it would be difficult to argue that it’s a fringe belief.

3) I would agree with this (which I stated here and here and in my points on Keller).

4) We can agree that space is limited yes, but there was a lot of wasted space (Do we need to be reminded of Mitt Romney’s underwear?). But also, hasn’t this question been answered by many of the candidates: “What is your attitude toward the theory of evolution, and do you believe it should be taught in public schools?” It seems like his chosen questions were a bit different from what your average voter might pick (do they care about Dominionism, for instance?).

5) Sure, but the way Keller portrays the GOP candidates, you would think they are hiding their beliefs when actually, they have addressed many of the questions he asks (evolution, appointing a Muslim to the federal court, for instance).

6) Yes, it’s a column, and we don’t usually touch on columns here. But as you said, Keller is the boss of the whole paper who sets the editorial vision and priorities of the paper. When the editor of the NYT asks you to answer questions, you probably want to answer them. But as I said, it probably gives fodder to people who have been saying for a while now that the Times hates religion. As I said, the paper employs reporters who do solid religion reporting.

I wanted to highlight those comments because they seemed to reflect some overall defenses of Keller’s column. When it comes down to it, Jeffrey and I will likely agree to disagree on some points, but I appreciate his calm, engaging thoughts.

This brings me to this week’s thrilling GetReligion podcast, which is available on iTunes and on our site. We also address the missing clergy and formal prayers at the 9/11 ceremony and welcome George to the GetReligion plate. Consider adding it to your relaxing Labor Day weekend playlist.

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  • Daniel

    The New York Times has demonstrated the impossibility of it’s editorial policy being evenhanded, so expecting evenhandedness on their part is a lost cause. We are fortunate that the reporters are as good as they are. Perhaps Keller’s column is a wake-up call. Perhaps Keller is a Christian who belives in space aliens.

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

    Some might consider it bizarre, but it would be difficult to argue that it’s a fringe belief.

    Well, about one third of Americans polled ‘believe in UFOs’, as was noted. Is it a ‘fringe belief’ or not? Does the number of people believing in something determine if a belief is bizarre or not?

    Covering what people profess – and how much it actually impacts their actions – is a big chunk of what this site supports, right? In a column Keller can express that he finds belief in Transubstantiation bizarre.

    Perhaps it wasn’t diplomatic, but that’s a separate issue.

    Maybe you won’t take me seriously, but I find the whole idea of Transubstantiation to be pretty bizarre, too. It’s not likely to have a policy effect… but if it comes up, I at least would find it interesting to know what a politician thinks of the Webster Cook affair. Should he have faced criminal charges or expulsion?

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Thank you! Civil debate is a gift and a blessing.

    Let me back Ray up on this point: Your stat means that 78 percent don’t accept the Catholic doctrine on Transubstantiation. And, trust me on this, a lot of them would say that they consider it to be bizarre. Is the word provocative? Yup. But that’s hardly a sin for a columnist.

    And it is mostly , but not utterly, beside the political point. Romney will have some trouble in parts of the south because some Christians there consider LDS theology a step too bizarre to countenance in a president. Perry might have analogous issues with some voters in the NW and NE. Shouldn’t be so, but there it is.

    That was actually Keller’s point about the Mormon underwear. That it should not matter. In fact that is exactly what he says:

    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 here, I think is a perspective that is a stumbling block for some religious people who read Keller’s column: That he suggests, per se, religious belief can be considered in the same category as a claim that aliens have landed. They find it offensive. Anti-religious. Arrogant.

    My response is: He is exactly correct. As I have said for many years: Any religion is crazy, by definition, to a nonbeliever. So Transubstantiation to a non-Catholic, Gabriel whispering in Mohammed’s ear to a non-Muslim, Guru Nanak’s three days in the river with God to a non-Sikh, etc etc etc — all are in a category that, if it wasn’t religion, would be considered crazy if faith does not cause you to believe it. All people of a particular faith need to get over it. Outsiders see you the same way you see them.

    But as a matter of politics, Keller says — and I agree — that the relevant questions have to do with how those beliefs might affect governance.

  • Evanston2

    Regarding Weiss’ observations, point #1 includes how Obama’s “given several significant speeches about how his understanding of his faith informs his ideas about governance.” I just love lovey love love the word “inform.” Because Mr. Weiss then notes how the President revealed his positions through speeches. This should be compared to Mr. Weiss’ closer to point #1 that “The GOP-ers are (mostly) new figures on the national stage and have not faced the scrutiny.” Scrutiny? There’s a difference between being interrogated and being able to make religious references at the time and place and length of your own choosing. I believe the President had the benefit of the latter option, but my memory may be faulty…I just do not recall him being pressed about his own specific beliefs during the 2008 campaign, beyond being pressed to renounce some controversial statements by Rev. Wright. So again, I’m relying on memory but I wouldn’t agree with Mr. Weiss as readily as Sarah does on point #1. Regarding Mr. Weiss’ other points, I believe he is trying to have it both ways: asserting (a) that Keller is right to put out guidance as best he can, while ignoring (b) that Keller really has never done this before — this “column” was unprecedented and newsworthy, right? So, why now, why this campaign? Have there never been (per Mr. Weiss) “new figures on the national stage” before who required “scrutiny?” This may not be an intellectual conclusion, but the Keller column smells.

  • David R

    While I agree that asking candidates questions aqbout the influence of their faith on policy decisions, I am concerned with the thin line of the need-to-know. The outspokenness of many in the current slate of GOP candidates might unintensionally bait a reporter into a line of questioning which resolves one curiosity as much as it provides an even-handed perspective. Particularly less experienced candidates for office need to be coached as to the type of questioning they will receive inproportion to their self-disclosure.

    For example, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann are quite overt in their Christian confession and as is Gov. Rick Perry. So, naturally, questions are due to come which breech the line between need-to-know information and inquiries based on popular intrigue.

    I’m struck by the fact that, besides a very occasional reference to His attending Mass every morning, Sen. Marco Rubio (currently not campaigning) does not take the full opportunity to testimonialize about the background of his every social or fiscal decision I am sure His Catholic background has an influence on the decisions he makes–particularly as a social conservative. Yet, he himself does not draw undue questions from the media about his Catholic faith.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Evanston2, Obama discussed religion in passing in his autobiographies. He was grilled like a side of beef about his connection to Wright. But religion has never been as central to his public/political persona as it is for several of this year’s GOP candidates.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: Your stat means that 78 percent don’t accept the Catholic doctrine on Transubstantiation.

    False. Orthodox and many (most?) Anglicans believe in the same Real Presence doctrine that RCs believe in (though they may not always use the same term for it). Now, in America these churches are both small enough that probably it only alters the percentage a little bit, but you’re still not correct that only Catholics believe in it. I’m not Catholic, but I certainly believe that the bread and wine become, literally and actually, the body and blood of Christ.

    Re: And, trust me on this, a lot of them would say that they consider it to be bizarre.

    Believe it or not, many people are open minded enough that they can _disagree_ with a belief without necessarily considering it crazy or outlandish. I don’t believe that the Dalai Lama is a living Buddha, but I don’t consider that belief ‘bizarre’.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Civil debate is a gift and a blessing.

    Completely agreement here. What I don’t agree to is that Keller’s column was, in any form or fashion, civil.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Jeffrey Weiss said:

    Any religion is crazy, by definition, to a nonbeliever.

    Aren’t there a dozen non-pejorative ways of stating this? Why “crazy”? Once a person bases one of their foundational beliefs on a “crazy” idea, doesn’t that call into question everything else they believe, say, and do?

    As far as “getting over it,” I am completely over the idea that “all religion is crazy” – if you and I are having a casual conversation over drinks. I have a major problem, however, with “all religion is crazy” serving as an operating principle for a major media outlet, especially when the default irreligious perspective of its newsroom is therefore assumed to be “rational.”

    I lived in Vancouver several years ago, when a religious dispute at the local Sikh temple created a significant disturbance in the community. Should journalists have taken the attitude, “Ha, ha, those crazy Sikhs” in writing about the conflict? Or – as I remember them doing at the time – should they have taken the time to actually understand the religious dispute and explain it for their non-Sikh readers? It’s a bit hard to do that well if your starting point is “all religion is crazy.”

  • Evanston2

    Mr. Weiss, thank you for your response. I mentioned the Wright matter and agree totally with your characterization — clicked “Like” on your comment.
    As you also state, “Obama discussed religion in passing in his autobiographies” and this makes sense, after all, because the whole ‘Audacity of Hope’ phrase (if not its entire meaning) was credited to Rev. Wright. But beyond distancing himself from Wright, Obama’s “passing” religious thoughts did not seem to spur more questions. Or as you call it, “scrutiny.”
    He had zero executive experience, a limited legislative record, and was running on vague concepts such as “hope” and “change.” Yet the media’s curiosity regarding how his religious beliefs ‘informed’ his potential actions as President was…limited. So to reiterate my point, now Mr. Keller decides that a column regarding religious questions is needed when none was needed in 2008.
    Me, I’m just against all this need for intellectual cover. The job is to sell papers (or get listeners for radio, viewers for TV, etc.). I have no problem whatsoever with the NYT targeting a certain demographic with its “news” coverage, nor providing an outline of what is deemed acceptable to maintain that readership (as well as future access to politicians, other government officials and private potentates). It’s well nigh impossible to write anything worth reading without taking a “side.” I just find the notion that this year’s GOP candidates are blank slates or otherwise require more “scrutiny” regarding their religion to be disingenuous. If their policy positions were acceptable then I doubt they would be ‘scrutinized’ this way by the NYT. Further, (unlike others here?) I have no problem with anyone in the media describing candidates as religious nuts — not only in opinion columns, but even in “straight news” as the AP is wont to do. As you well know, it’s a new millennium and the fight for market share is fierce. Again, I just object to all the quasi-intellectual posing by Keller, etc. As Michael Corleone says to Carlo in The Godfather, “Only don’t tell me that you’re innocent. Because it insults my intelligence…”

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    @Mike Hickerson: I’m really not trying to be perjoritive. And please read the entire sentence. I’m not saying that your religion is crazy to you or your co-believers. I am saying that those aspects of your religion that depend on faith — that Jesus was God’s son, that the Host Transubstantiates, that Gabriel talked to Mohammed, that God inscribed the Laws of the Universe on stone tablets, etc etc — are the sorts of things that, in any other context would be considered literally crazy.

    So to someone who does not share your faith, a nonbeliever in your particular religion, those aspects of your religion that depend on faith are perceived as, in fact, crazy. Or would you prefer “irrational?” That’s not an attack on your religion or on religion per se. It is, simply, a fact.

    If you do not share my particular religious beliefs I am sure sure that there are aspects of it that you would consider crazy. Which would not offend me.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    @Jeffrey Weiss,
    I know that you aren’t trying to be pejorative, but thank you for making that clear anyway.

    Let me come at this from another angle, because I still think that – even using the word “irrational” instead of crazy – this line of thinking (“all religion is crazy”) is unhelpful to anyone trying to write about religion. It has to do with this phrase:

    those aspects of your religion that depend on faith

    “Faith” is commonly perceived by secularists as the opposite of reason. When Harvard was considering adding a course on world religion called “Faith and Reason,” Stephen Pinker objected because the title, in his view, implied that “faith” and “reason” were equivalent. But this is a mistaken view of faith which ignores how people’s faith actually works.

    Let’s take transubstantiation as an example. It might indeed be an article of “blind faith” for some, but the concept derives from a long series of theological debates rooted, ultimately, in Aristotelian philosophy, while trying to make sense of some apparently-simple words of Jesus (“This is my body”). The theologians who came up with the concept might have been wrong, but they were as far from “irrational” as you could get. (BTW, I do think they were wrong – I’m not defending one of my own beliefs in this example.)

    So, to bring it back to journalism, when a journalist encounters a religious belief that he doesn’t share, maybe doesn’t even understand, should he simply write it off as “irrational” and move on? Or should he ask some follow-up questions to find out why this otherwise-seemingly-rational person does hold this belief? If “all religion is crazy,” then why would a journalist bother to ask follow-up questions or do further investigation? Wouldn’t that be as pointless as asking follow-up questions about the Alabama leprechaun?

    How about this as a guideline: don’t bracket off religion as something separate from the rest of human experience.