Questioning the presidential candidates

Let’s pretend for a minute that you get to spend 30 minutes with any presidential candidate. What questions would you ask? How would you shape those questions that makes sense for your readership?

If nothing else, Bill Keller’s stunning column for the New York Times last month raised the issue of what kinds of religion questions we should ask candidates. Many reporters fail to break new ground in their questions or sometimes they try to catch the candidates on some theological disconnect. Rarely do we see how the questions end up relating to policy, which is kind of the point, right?

Robert Crosby poses a new set of questions to candidates in a column for Patheos on On Faith’s website. By all means, read the full column, but let’s check out this list of questions.

1. How does your faith inform your public service?
2. In what ways has your faith experience helped you become a better citizen? A better leader?
3. Can America truly be “great” apart from God and a belief in God?
4. What role might your faith play in the event of a national emergency (i.e., terrorist attack, nuclear war, etc.)?
5. Should Mayor Bloomberg have been allowed prayer at the 9/11 Memorial event this month in NYC? How would you have handled this?
6. Has your faith changed you as a person? In what ways?
7. Does your faith experience cause you to be more accepting of other people’s belief systems or less?
8. After 9/11, the song “God Bless America” was often sung at public events (i.e., sporting events, etc.). In what ways do you believe God has “blessed” America? In what ways do you pray God will continue to “bless” America?
9. Do you view your entrance into public office as a means for advancing your particular faith group or denomination?
10. In what ways do your commitments to faith and family help qualify you for public office?

This seems like a fairly good starting point to me, but what do you think? There is no one-size-fits all for each reporter, but it gives at least a general sense of where to begin thinking about the questions. For instance, I’m guessing The Tennessean might ask different questions than the L.A. Times.

Earlier this month, Amy Sullivan tackled this subject for Time magazine, giving a general list of guidelines. I have pulled out her bolded phrases, but she goes more in depth in her column.

Ask relevant questions.
Keep the focus on policy.
No Margaret Mead questions.
Allow degrees of separation.
Ask about Jeremiah Wrights.
Even so, context always matters.
Learn the language.
Know the difference between a dog-whistle and a turn-of-phrase.
Stop calling candidates “devout.”
Thou shalt not discriminate.

Sullivan just did an interview with NPR’s On the Media about these ideas, which I plan to listen to very soon. A friend wrote a note saying, “Bob Garfield seems awfully distressed that there’s an unofficial ‘religious test’ for political candidates.” I’m usually a big fan of “On the Media,” so I’ll be curious how they handle these questions. If you get a chance to listen, let us know what you think about the segment.

Okay, you get one question to ask a candidate: Go.

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  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    My one (multi-part) question?

    Do you think this is a Christian nation? If so (or if not) what roles and rights should adherents to minority faith groups expect in the United States? Do you feel a follower of Wicca should have the same rights and expectations in this country as an evangelical Christian, mainline Protestant, or Catholic?

    If the candidate in question was a friend/supporter/endorsee of conservative Christian historian David Barton, I would ask them for their take on his repeated insistence that non-Christians are not guaranteed the same rights as Christians under the Religion Clauses. For example, Barton wrote the following in an Amicus Brief he filed:

    “The true historic meaning of “religion” excludes paganism and witchcraft, and thus, does not compel a conclusion that McCollum has state taxpayer standing … paganism and witchcraft were never intended to receive the protections of the Religion Clauses. Thus, in the present case there can be no violation of those clauses … Should this Court conclude that McCollum has taxpayer standing … this Court should at least acknowledge that its conclusion is compelled by Supreme Court precedent, not by history or the intent of the Framers.”

    He has said variations on this claim in other instances as well.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Jason, good luck getting that in a press conference, but thanks for the contribution. :)

  • Jerry

    From time-to-time before I retired I was a hiring manager. I asked “fit” questions to find out if the person would be honest and fit in with the group. My fit question often was designed to surprise the interviewee to get them out of their comfort zone: “tell me something weird about yourself (pause for shock to register) weird, unusual or interesting”.

    So my religion question is: “Why do we exist?”. It’s a root question that goes to the foundation of a person’s beliefs because it’s a variant on the meaning and purpose of life question. I would want to follow up the answer to that question with other questions. But, since Jason constructed a multi-part question, mine would be “Why do we exist and how does that relate to your running for office, if at all”?

    It might be that the quick emotional reaction to the question would say more than whatever words the person used to answer. Did the person look scared, reflective, energized, angry, happy or perhaps reflect more than one reaction?

    And if the answer to that question came too easily, I’d ask, if the person believed in God: “how will you act if elected to please God?”.

  • Bennett

    “Can you please provide a few concise, concrete, specific examples of times when your faith in God overrode the temptation to an expedient solution to a political issue? If not, can you explain why?”

  • Ray Ingles

    Can a law based purely on a religious rationale be imposed on people who don’t follow that religion?

    If so, can you provide an example? If not, can you name any existing laws that should be repealed on that basis?

    (For example, it was only this year that Michigan repealed the longstanding law banning alcohol sales on Sunday mornings.)

  • Dave

    “What is your opinion of the notion of separation of church and state?”

    A wide-open question that will elicit either the candidate’s religious convictions or spin ability — both revealing.

  • Patrick

    How do you plan on tackling the issues concerning gay marriage while upholding everyone’s freedom of belief, expression and religion?

    I would be looking for the ability to discuss the topics while guarding the humanity of those that are homosexual, and at the same time not labeling those who oppose homosexuality as bigots.

    Huge topic for Christians in America. I think it might be the topic of the generation.

  • J.W. Cox

    Maybe it’s because I’m old, but I found the first set of questions…presumptuous. At my age, I’m not sure I can tell you how my faith informs my paltry public service, or how it has changed me as a person, or whether it “causes” me to be more or less accepting of other religious views.

    Besides, how does anyone expect a politician to answer these? “My faith cause me to be less accepting of other religions.” “It really doesn’t influence my public service, because I’m just public spirited.” “Yes, I’m running for president because I want to advance my denomination.”

    I might ask…

    1. How does your religion define the idea of “public justice?”
    2. What does your faith teach about the nature of politics?
    3. What do you think ought to be the role of religion in the public life of the country?
    4. Do you pray, and if so how?

  • J.W. Cox

    I might also add….

    What does the First Amendment mean with its opening clause “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof?”

  • Ann

    President Obama answered Patrick’s question:

    Legal rights for gays are conferred by state, not by church
    Q: You have said in previous debates that it is up to individual religious denominations to decide whether or not to recognize same-sex marriage. What place does the church have in government-sanctioned civil marriages?

    A: It is my strong belief that the government has to treat all citizens equally. I don’t think that the church should be making these determinations when it comes to legal rights conferred by the state. I do think that individual denominations have the right to make their own decisions as to whether they recognize same sex couples. My denomination, United Church of Christ, does. Other denominations may make a decision, and obviously, part of keeping a separation of churches and state is also to make sure that churches have the right to exercise their freedom of religion.
    Source: 2007 HRC/LOGO debate on gay issues Aug 9, 2007

  • Steve

    People like Bob Garfield could exercise their craft and actually perform a public service by explaining that the “religious test” he is so exercised about is a constitutional limitation on the state, not on the citizenry. It forbids the federal government from making a religious requirement for office, such as existed in England and other places at the time.

    It does not and cannot tell the voters what questions they may ask and what issues they may use to make their voting decisions. The state, Mr Garfield, not us.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    “Imposing your religion” is often used to squelch debate, as though anyone developed their values apart from some prior belief system. Everyone believes something and claims a higher power (God, science, “reason”, whatever) for their belief system.

    All of which is to say that I’m rather queasy about this whole issue of questioning politicians about their faith system. Amy Sullivan’s article seems generally reasonable, but can we really trust reporters to follow those guidelines? As it happens, I’m old enough to remember the adults (Baptists, practicing and non-) talking about whether a Catholic (JFK) could be president, or would he kow-tow to the pope? What I don’t remember is whether that was a real concern of theirs, or something ginned up by the press.

    Steve (#12) is correct that the Constitution precludes a legal test for office, but is it us raising the questions, or the press constructing a de facto religious test, which could, of course, work from the left or the right?

  • Ray Ingles

    Passing By – ‘Reason’ is a “power”?

    But in any case… am I to understand that there is no way for a law to have a secular rationale, that all laws are religiously-based?

  • http://!)! Passing By

    By “higher power”, I meant authority of some kind. Reason, of course, is not a “thing”, but a series of logical operations enacted upon presuppositions. Still, how often have we heard an appeal to “reason”? Most often it’s either an appeal to my presuppositions or what I think is “reasonable” (as though my idea of reasonable isn’t based on subjective notions of reasonableness).

    Law is mostly based on some moral understanding or another. For example, the civil rights laws are based upon the moral premise that it’s wrong to treat people differently because of their race.

    By the way, restrictions on liquor sales in my state (Texas) are local option and usually an argument between commercial interests and concerns about crime/public safety. Lots of religious people fall on both side of those arguments.

  • Bern

    IMHO: Amy Sullivan gets it all right and her parameters for composing questions to ask candidates about their faith should be twittered to every journalist in America.
    Bill Keller’s list fails on every count; Bob Crosby’s list is somewhat better, but several of the questions as JW points out are the kind of questions that are easy for a candidate to supply answers to. Plus, I’m not a fan of yes or no questions, or even questions that include the word “should”, so I would suggest some amendments:

    3. What makes America great? (almost too broad for a religious question) How does faith or lack of faith affect a country’s greatness?

    5. If you had been mayor of New York, how would you have handled the 10th anniversary memorial? (unnoticed in most of the controversy is that the level of involvement of clergy and religion was pretty much unchanged from previous years)

    8. What is the relationship between God and a person? A community? A country? The world?

    9. What effect or meaning will your nomination/election have on the conception or practice of religion in America?

  • Ray Ingles

    Passing By – Wanna continue at the coffehouse? Many points to bring up – e.g. the ban in Michigan was Sunday mornings and Christmas. What do you think of this vid, for example?

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Vid’s ok, more or less what I am saying.

    Honestly, I don’t follow the Coffeehouse. My experience suggests that disagreement is most productive when there is some sort of underlying congruence. Journalism, on the other hand, is quite interesting because it is supposed to operate independently of underlying presuppositions or process. What’s interesting is that no one can operate that independently. :-)

  • Ray Ingles

    Vid’s ok, more or less what I am saying.

    I think we’d draw very different lines between what counts as ‘morals’ and what counts as ‘religion’. There’s an old maxim – Roman, in fact – “Deorum injuria diis curae.” (“Offenses against the gods are the gods’ business.”) On a lot of the hot-button issues of today, it sure seems like a fair number of people are trying to protect their God(s) via law.