Search Results for: Bill Keller Catholic

Is candidate Rick Santorum an “evangelist”?

The first word that a journalist needs to think of when writing about former Sen. Rick Santorum is “conservative” and the second is “Catholic.”

Yes, I am well aware that in 2005 Time magazine named him one of America’s 25 most influential evangelicals, which simply makes no sense at all in terms of doctrine and heritage. Ah, but who cares about religion when you can use “evangelical” as a political label? Thus, Time noted that Santorum “may be a Catholic, but he’s the darling of Protestant Evangelicals.” Conservative, daily Mass Catholics tend to think highly of him, too, but nevermind.

Readers may also recall that former New York Times editor Bill Keller memorably twisted the senator’s faith, as well, in his essay that sort of compared traditional believers with those who embrace space aliens. The correction dutifully noted: “The essay also erroneously includes Rick Santorum among politicians affiliated with evangelical Christianity. Mr. Santorum is Catholic.”

Cable television watchers may have noticed that Santorum continues to seek the GOP presidential nomination and, this time of year, that means courting Iowa evangelicals. Alas, there appear to be no Catholics in Iowa.

‘Tis the pre-primary season. Thus, the DC bureau of the McClatchy Newspapers recently produced this news feature about the candidate, with the headline, “Rick Santorum’s presidential ambition is rooted in his faith.”

One would assume that the words “his faith” in that headline refer to the faith that is practiced by Santorum.

The story opens like this:

WASHINGTON – For former Sen. Rick Santorum, it’s always been about faith.

Deep religious faith fuels Santorum’s conservative politics. It’s what propelled him into becoming one of Congress’ leading opponents of abortion, same-sex marriage and wrongdoing by fellow lawmakers, regardless of party affiliation. Faith is the key ingredient that also powers Santorum’s long-shot drive for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

The story accurately notes that Santorum continues to stress moral and cultural issues in a year in which most Americans are worried about the economy. However, social issues remain crucial in GOP primary season (ask Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney) and Santorum soldiers on.

The top of the report is dominated by politics and then, at last, 10 paragraphs or so down, readers are returned to the main subject:

A devout Catholic and father of seven children, Santorum was elected to the House of Representatives in 1990 at age 32. He was a member of the so-called “Gang of Seven” House GOP freshmen who rankled House leadership in both parties by highlighting check-writing abuses by their fellow lawmakers at the now-defunct House bank. …

In the Senate, Santorum became known for his social conservatism. … Santorum’s stances earned him a solid following among religious conservatives and a spot on Time magazine’s 25 most influential evangelists list in 2005. It also earned him the enmity of many Democrats, women’s groups, abortion rights advocates and gay rights supporters, who disliked what they considered Santorum’s holier-than-thou attitude.

The 25 most influential WHAT?

Oh my, was that word “evangelists?” Would that be “evangelists” as in Christian men and women who evangelize nonbelievers, often in large public rallies?

So the conservative Catholic is an “evangelist” as well as, in political terms, an “evangelical.” One cannot help but flash back to 2004 and that edgy Books & Culture essay by sociologist Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame, the piece entitled “Religiously Ignorant Journalists: In search of Episcopals and evangelists.”

All together now, let’s read aloud this ever memorable passage near the top:

As a scholar of American religion promoted to journalists by my university’s PR department as an alleged expert, I constantly receive inquiries from reporters wanting background, quotes, and contacts for religion stories they are writing. Usually they have one or two days to complete the story. As often as not, the journalist mispronounces the name of the religious group he or she is covering.

“Evangelicals” is one of their favorites to botch. Often in our discussions, journalists refer to ordinary evangelical believers as “evangelists” — as if the roughly 70 million conservative Protestants in America were all traveling preachers like Billy Graham and Luis Palau — or, more to the point, televangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert. Hey, aren’t all evangelicals really pretty much like these last two, or rather as many reporters tend to see them — scandal-prone limelight seekers with ambitions to impose a repressive Christian moral order on all America? Other journalists simply cannot pronounce “evangelicals” at all. They get confused and flustered, and after a few uncomfortable tries at “evangelics” and “evangelicalists” they give up and resort to referring to evangelicals simply as “them.”

So, to the McClatchy bureau, we must say, “Correction please.”

NOTE: In your comments, please discuss the journalism issues in this post, not your opinions of Santorum or his candidacy.

David Carr’s faith; a duet with Terry Gross

During one of my college newspaper internships, the reporter who sat next to me told me nearly every day to flee journalism to find a more stable profession. He shares plenty of angst with others in the field, many of whom were watching their colleagues drop like flies in newsroom after layoffs and buyouts.

Anyone with a journalism background seems to have an opinion about the future of publishing, one that tends to be overly positive or terribly negative. In a new interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, New York Times media columnist David Carr seems to strike a nice balance between someone who sees the incredible possibilities for reporting but also see the economic realities in newsrooms. Here are some quotes from the transcript:

We are entering a golden age of journalism. I do think there has been horrible frictional costs, but I think when we look back at what has happened, I look at my backpack that is sitting here, and it contains more journalistic firepower than the entire newsroom that I walked into 30 to 40 years ago. It’s connected to the cloud, I can make digital recordings of everything that I do, I can check in real time if someone is telling me the truth, I have a still camera that takes video that I can upload quickly and seamlessly.

…I think that the ability to sit at your desk and check everything against history and narrative, it’s part of how newspapers ended up becoming … daily magazines. All the analytics are baked in because the reporters are able to check stuff as they go. … Now the business model has not kept up with that.

Those interested in the future of media might chuckle at his line about panels being the future of journalism. “The future of journalism is wearing badges and talking on panels, as far as I can tell,” he says.

Carr has been pretty open about his former drug and alcohol addictions, revealing a conversation he had with former executive editor Bill Keller about his memoir. “You know what, we don’t hire nuns. We have no problem with your book,” Keller told him. Gross finds a way to ask him about his faith, though she prefaces it by saying “This question will probably get too personal.” At about minute 28, she asks, “For a lot of people who are giving up an addiction, they’re encouraged to find a higher power … where it’s a religion or something else that will function in that way. Was there such a thing for you?” Carr says he’s in the middle of a struggle with religion.

I’m a churchgoing Catholic, and I do that as a matter of, it’s good to stand with my family. It’s good that I didn’t have to come up with my own creation myth for my children. It’s a wonderful … community. It’s not really where I find God. The accommodation I’ve reached is a very jury-rigged one, which is: All along the way, in [substance abuse] recovery, I’ve been helped without getting into specifics of names, by all of these strangers who get in a room and do a form of group-talk therapy and live by certain rules in their life — and one of the rules is that you help everyone who needs help. And I think to myself: Well, that seems remarkable. Not only is that not a general human impulse, but it’s not an impulse of mine. And yet, I found myself doing that over and over again. Am I, underneath all things, just a really wonderful, giving person? Or is there a force greater than myself that is leading me to act in ways that are altruistic and not self-interested and lead to the greater good? That’s sort of as far as I’ve gotten with the higher power thing. I’m kind of a pirate, kind of a thug. I’ve done terrible things, and yet I’m for the most part able to be a decent person. … I think something else is working on me.

How are you thinking about it, Gross asks. Are you reading things you haven’t read before? How do you figure that out?

One of the things I’m doing is praying, which seems like an uncomfortable, unnatural activity for me. It’s to whom, to what, about what? I have a prayer in my wallet that I’m saying. (chuckling) I feel like a complete fraud while I’m doing it, but it’s the act of acknowledging that there may be something else out there. I haven’t really thought it through, but I think the behavior and the activity will lead to something good. Anything that gets me into a place of something less than self-obsession and gets me into a place of some humility, not even acknowledging a higher power but that other people exist and they’re not here as an extension of my world. Part of the reason I got into journalism is I love the stories of other people.

Gross gently nudges him to get specific, asking him to pull out the prayer he has in his pocket.

Sure, let me look at it. It’s really full of like thees and thous. I think it’s the prayer of St. Francis. What it would be known programmatically, again, no names mentioned, is kind of a third-step prayer. I’m not comfortable reading the whole thing but what it talks about is to offer yourself to God to build with you as God would see fit. The important part to me is to relieve me of the bondage of self, so that I may better do thy will. It goes on to say, take away my difficulties; of course everyone prays for that, we all do. And that victory over them will bear witness to a power greater than yourselves. And it says may I do thy will always. I don’t really know who I’m talking about when I say those words, but it sort of feels good when I do.

Gross: I can understand that.

Carr: Yeah, I think it’s okay to have a superstitious belief of God and not really have thought it through. I think there’s freedom in allowing for the possibility of it. I don’t have a presence, I don’t have some idea in my mind a woman or a man figure or anything like that, but I find the spaces between people whether I’m making a newspaper with them or in recovery or living with them as family or friends I find something really godly in that. I don’t have trouble acknowledging that.

Gross: You found something godly but there isn’t a theology that you’re following.

Carr: Yeah, I’ve been watching this debate over Mormonism … people making fun of their theology. I think, I’m a practicing Catholic. We suggest in churches all over the world that there’s a metamorphoses of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ which we proceed eat and drink, which when you take a step back is sort of creepy, but that’s who I’m running with. Whether it’s the underwear people wear, the hats they wear on their head or turbins, again I make no judgment. I find comfort in those traditions.

After listening to the interview, it was amusing to see parallel comments on NPR’s website:

Adrianne Wadewitz (wadewitz) wrote:
I turned this off once the focus turned to religion. Carr’s views on this topic are of no particular interest and I was unsure why the interview went in this direction. It was disappointing, as there was substantial time left that Gross could have used to talk about the changing face of media in the US and Britain.

Mark Nowak (marknowak) wrote:
Excellent interview, Terry. And I enjoyed the church stuff!

If you’re only looking information, for Carr to predict the future of media over his crystal ball, the part about his faith might seem a bit off topic. But if you’re looking to understand more about Carr as a human being, how he processes his faith and beliefs is fascinating, and Gross does a nice job of pulling that out of him.

Newspapers image via Shutterstock.

Separation of church and real debates

I know that there are plenty of GetReligion readers who do not believe me when I say this, but I will say it again: The New York Times remains a great newspaper.

The problem, of course, is that the Times has become a very complicated newspaper.

It’s easy to find stories in the Times that are solid, accurate, balanced examples of old-fashioned American journalism. You know, the kind of journalism in which partisans and stakeholders on both sides of divisive issues can read a story and say, “That was tough and fair, but my side’s views were accurately and fairly reported.”

Then again, it’s also easy to find examples of Times stories that would fit neatly into the pages of any good European or advocacy-model publication. This is the kind of reporting that it perfectly shaped to fit the newsroom’s point of view and preferred audience. It’s like the newspaper’s public editor — Daniel Okrent, at the time — wrote back in 2004, in his famous essay, “Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?”

His answer was in the lede: “Of course it is.”

On the critical issue of his newspaper’s approach to balance and fairness, he wrote:

… (My) concern is the flammable stuff. … These are the social issues: gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others. And if you think The Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you’ve been reading the paper with your eyes closed.

But if you’re examining the paper’s coverage of these subjects from a perspective that is neither urban nor Northeastern nor culturally seen-it-all; if you are among the groups The Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans); if your value system wouldn’t wear well on a composite New York Times journalist, then a walk through this paper can make you feel you’re traveling in a strange and forbidding world.

The problem, of course, is that many readers have become so jaded that they scream “Bias!” every time that they see something in the Times that upsets them. It’s easy for this to turn into the “Times basher who cried wolf” syndrome, or something like that. It’s important to think about that whenever the world’s most powerful newspaper veers into full-tilt advocacy mode (which, alas, happens a great deal on topics linked to religion, as former editor Bill Keller has admitted in print).

So how do you know when the Times is producing advocacy journalism and when it is simply making a mistake? We live in an age in which the former is, after all, more common than the later.

What we have here before us is a crucial test case. Here’s the top of the story:

This weekend, hundreds of pastors, including some of the nation’s evangelical leaders, will climb into their pulpits to preach about American politics, flouting a decades-old law that prohibits tax-exempt churches and other charities from campaigning on election issues.

The sermons, on what is called Pulpit Freedom Sunday, essentially represent a form of biblical bait, an effort by some churches to goad the Internal Revenue Service into court battles over the divide between religion and politics.

A few lines later, readers learn:

“There should be no government intrusion in the pulpit,” said the Rev. James Garlow, senior pastor at Skyline Church in La Mesa, Calif., who led preachers in the battle to pass California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. “The freedom of speech and the freedom of religion promised under the First Amendment means pastors have full authority to say what they want to say.”

Mr. Garlow said he planned to inveigh against same-sex marriage, abortion and other touchstone issues that social conservatives oppose, and some ministers may be ready to encourage parishioners to vote only for those candidates who adhere to the same views or values.

Wait, there’s more:

Participating ministers plan to send tapes of their sermons to the I.R.S., effectively providing the agency with evidence it could use to take them to court. But if history is any indication, the I.R.S. may continue to steer clear of the taunts.

The problem? This team behind this story has botched its most crucial element. Clearly, the law does not forbid ministers from advocating the teachings of their traditions from the pulpit, even when these teachings directly relate to political issues.

If the Times story is accurate, then Respect Life Sunday in thousands of Catholic parishes is illegal.

If the Times story is accurate, liberal pastors could not have preached sermons against wars in Vietnam, Iraq and elsewhere and the politicians who advocated those wars.

If the Times story is accurate, then President Barack Obama was clearly out of line in 2009 when he asked a flock of rabbis to prepare sermons on the moral and theological necessity of his health-care reform efforts.

Yes, there is a thin line between pastors — left and right — advocating specific religious doctrines and, thus, opposing the religious and political efforts of those on the other side. This can come frightfully close to the endorsement of specific candidates. Just ask any candidate who had to run against Mike Huckabee in, oh, South Carolina or against Obama on the south side of Chicago.

What is clearly illegal is the open endorsement of candidates, by name, by religious groups and other nonpartisan non-profit organizations. This story in the Times claims that the law goes way, way beyond that.

But what, you say, about these sneaky, wink wink, de facto endorsements, when religious leaders say it is wrong to support those who oppose God’s will on issues ranging from war to abortion, from the environment to marriage, from health care to (insert your religious tradition’s key public-square issue here)?

That’s the big question, the one that politicians on the left and right are scared to see carved into legal stone.

The Times story aimed at that target and missed — by a mile. It’s time for a correction.

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.

Hardliners and skeptics on the Godbeat

A week or so ago, Archbishop Charles Chaput gave a speech at a special World Youth Day session for young pilgrims on the theme of religious freedom. Part of the discussion was about media coverage of issues about which the church has a say. Chaput, recently moved from Denver to Philadelphia, is a media-friendly archbishop who isn’t afraid to call out what he considers poor journalistic performances.

Now with the media largely focused on either the cost of World Youth Day or the protests in Spain during the event, it is perhaps not surprising that the U.S. media didn’t take much notice of the speech. If you’re interested, you can read it over at First Things, but here’s a snippet:

The so-called “Arab Spring” that happened this year has received a good deal of media coverage. But very little of that coverage has mentioned that the turmoil in Muslim countries has also created a very dangerous situation for Christians and other religious minorities across North Africa and the Middle East. In Egypt, angry mobs have attacked Christian churches and monasteries, burning them to the ground and murdering the people inside. Christians have fled in large numbers from anti-Christian violence in Iraq, Syria, and Tunisia. In Saudi Arabia, it’s illegal to own a Bible or wear a crucifix. In Pakistan, Christians face frequent discrimination, slander, beatings, and even murder.

Here’s another:

We make a very serious mistake if we rely on media like the New York Times, Newsweek, CNN, or MSNBC for reliable news about religion. These news media simply don’t provide trustworthy information about religious faith—and sometimes they can’t provide it, either because of limited resources or because of their own editorial prejudices. These are secular operations focused on making a profit. They have very little sympathy for the Catholic faith, and quite a lot of aggressive skepticism toward any religious community that claims to preach and teach God’s truth.

And to think he wrote that before Bill Keller’s little declaration against conservative Christians!

What I thought was interesting, though, was that the Washington Post didn’t cover Chaput’s words except to respond to them. It’s interesting to note how they responded, which might be summed up as “You’re darn right, Chaput, we will crush you.” I’m only slightly kidding. Chaput’s words were discussed in a new media criticism blog by Erik Wemple:

Hard-liner Archbishop Charles Chaput has never been shy about his views on American mass media. He has a long-standing gripe, for instance, with the New York Times, which he blames for twisting his words in a 2004 story about Catholic bishops working against the presidential candidacy of John Kerry.

I find it hilarious that the Post offers one word to describe Chaput and it’s “hard-liner.” It’s just interesting to note that fidelity to church teachings here is given a negative word.

He critiques some of what Chaput wrote, saying it was overly broad and unspecific and unsupported. Of course, Wemple claims up at the top that he’s familiar with Chaput’s lengthy discussions of specific problems with various media coverage, so he’s just saying this particular speech could have been more specific. Sure, that’s a fine criticism. Although one might say the same about calling someone a hard-liner, etc.

He quotes the part where Chaput says that the American media are focused on profits, have very little sympathy for the Catholic faith, and a lot of aggressive skepticism toward any religious community that claims to preach and teach God’s truth and responds:

Check, check and check. Chaput’s description is something that editors at the New York Times, Newsweek, CNN and MSNBC would support, if not frame and post as a mission statement. News organizations should have little sympathy for any entity as powerful as the Catholic Church. And are you really going to pound the media for practicing aggressive skepticism?

Suppose Chaput were a government official. Here’s how his remarks would read:

“We make a very serious mistake if we rely on media like the New York Times, Newsweek, CNN or MSNBC for reliable news about politics….These are secular operations focused on making a profit. They have very little sympathy for the U.S. government and quite a lot of aggressive skepticism toward officials on both sides of the aisle.”


Interesting. Did you see how he didn’t accurately read what Chaput said? Chaput talked about the “Catholic faith.” Wemple responds by saying Chaput is correct that the media are aggressively skeptical against the powerful Catholic Church! Do you think Wemple even understands the distinction there?

And about the government example, my own view is that the most powerful bias in the media is toward greater government action. Or at least that’s what a casual read of any newspaper on any day might indicate. Now, is there a lot of aggressive skepticism toward politicians? Not as much as I’d like to see. But having said that, I think it’s also true the media have quite a bit of sympathy for politics and for government. They seem to completely embrace the idea that politics is a good thing and they very easily see how local, state and federal government might play a role in most any story. They seem to embrace democracy, even if they don’t (officially) take sides in a given political contest.

I wish that Wemple, rather than react defensively to Chaput, had thought a bit more about the comparison and whether there’s anything to learn from Chaput’s words.

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?

The Times grinds Its ax

We don’t typically spend too much time looking at mainstream movie or book reviews, but I thought the cover of the New York Times Sunday Book Review was worth looking at. For one, it’s written by Bill Keller, executive editor of The Times. For another, the Review has this curious note from “the editors”:

Through the years, The New York Times‘s coverage of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican has received sharp criticism from practicing Catholics — including the past eight years that Bill Keller has been the paper’s executive editor. Yet Keller, who wrote this week’s cover review of “Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy,” by John Julius Norwich, was raised within the fold.

“My parents took their faith very seriously — especially my mother, who had the fervor of a convert (from Episcopalian),” Keller recalled in an e-mail. “My brothers and I had nuns and priests as our teachers through high school, and I look back on that education with real gratitude. I’m now what my friend Dan Barry calls a ‘collapsed Catholic’ — beyond lapsed — but you never really extricate yourself from your upbringing.”

I love that “Yet” in the first paragraph. Why “yet”? I mean, the next paragraph explains that he’s “beyond lapsed” to “collapsed.” If being raised in the faith is supposed to mean something about how the coverage can’t be unfair, what is collapsing from it supposed to mean?

And then we read the first paragraph of the review:

John Julius Norwich makes a point of saying in the introduction to his history of the popes that he is “no scholar” and that he is “an agnostic Protestant.” The first point means that while he will be scrupulous with his copious research, he feels no obligation to unearth new revelations or concoct revisionist theories. The second means that he has “no ax to grind.” In short, his only agenda is to tell us the story.

Since when does being “an agnostic Protestant” mean that ipso facto one wouldn’t have an ax to grind against the Roman Catholic Church or the papacy? But also, how does this relate to the editors note? Are we to presume that Keller does have an ax to grind since he’s a “collapsed” Catholic? I know he’s acted contrary to the faith in which he was raised (he and his wife aborted a son, for instance). Is that playing a role in The Times‘ coverage of the Catholic Church? And then, there’s this famous Keller column — “Is the Pope Catholic?

Here’s the thing: This review is not up to snuff. Many folks across the Catholic spectrum are talking about problems with the review and its uncritical look at the book in question. For instance, the book author gives quite a bit of time to a fictional incident of a female pope — a full chapter. Keller gives another couple hundred words in his short review over to discussion of this fictional character.

The review is stunningly uncritical. I actually laughed out loud at Keller’s kicker — simply a quote from the book:

“It is now well over half a century since progressive Catholics have longed to see their church bring itself into the modern age,” he writes. “With the accession of every succeeding pontiff they have raised their hopes that some progress might be made on the leading issues of the day — on homosexuality, on contraception, on the ordination of women priests. And each time they have been disappointed.”

Wow. It’s almost like the author has the same lack of an ax to grind as The Times, doesn’t it? Brilliant reviewer choice there, editors.

Raymond A. Schroth at America (the Catholic weekly) writes that he’s a huge fan of The New York Times. And I think he’s telling the truth because he even has kind words to say about Maureen Dowd.

He praises the newspaper for its tough coverage of the church. And then he asks “By what standards of journalism excellence, of book-review ethics, of scholarly common sense, did the New York Times Book Review editor select Bill Keller to review John Julius Norwich’s Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy?”:

From my experience as book review editor of Commonweal in the 1970s, my several reviews on religious topics for the Times Book Review (under Harvey Shapiro), and 30 years writing for the National Catholic Reporter and other publications, I recall that the reviewer should be well informed on the book’s topic, preferably should have published on it already and, at least in some way, have a perspective that enables him to know more than the author. He should also be reasonably free of bias–or confess that bias in a way that lets him keep his credibility.

Since Keller has claimed the mantle of “collapsed Catholic” (albeit failing to explain why or whether he has been secretly studying church history), the review suffers, Schroth writes. Then he notes that Keller must not know many modern Catholics since he thinks they’re ignorant of the mixed bag history of the papacy. He lists a few good books of recent vintage on the topic and names several reviewers who would do a much better review than Keller. Finally:

Why Keller was chosen remains a mystery. Maybe he volunteered and, who says no to the top editor? Maybe the book editor thought it would be fun? And if you consider an uninterrupted list of Papal sins fun, it’s fun. Meanwhile Keller has not hurt the church. He’s hurt the Times.

Note the way other reviewers handled the book. Eamon Duffy (Irish Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Cambridge) in the Times U.K.:

The Popes is an entertaining book which tells some good stories and embraces a large historical sweep. But its overall effect is curiously trivializing. The papacy depicted here is in the end unintelligible.

John Cornwell, controversial author of “Hitler’s Pope” is even critical in Financial Times:

Norwich tells us that because he is an “agnostic Protestant” he brings “objectivity” to his subject. That’s like Tony Benn penning an “objective” history of the Tory party. And he has steered, he goes on, “well clear of theology”, which sounds like military history with no mention of a war. His interest is political and cultural, he maintains. Hence he fails to address the overarching significance of ecclesiology – the theological study of the spiritual role of “Vicar of Christ” as the ultimate foundation of Catholic unity and authority.

And Michael Pye, a general historian but one who has spent his career in journalism, has a lengthy review. From The Scotsman:

As entertainment, as a book of cues to find out more, The Popes is sharp, fun and wonderfully energetic through its many, many pages. The history, though, is in the archives still.

Keller does not come off well by comparison. So again, why was he chosen for this review? It was a rather odd unforced error. This cover story for the Book Review could have been brilliant. Instead it was rather embarrassing and only served to give easy fodder to Catholic critics of The Times.

Blindness at the Times

DevilishBill2In reviewing Bill Maher’s new film, Religulous, Stephen Holden of The New York Times has achieved an unusual thing: A written reflection that is even less informed than the film it discusses.

Holden’s chief blunders follow.

There is no arguing with faith.

Somebody please notify Christopher Hitchens and Chris Hedges so they will stop wasting their time, as in this encounter on YouTube.

The majority of Americans, however, embrace some form of blind faith. But because that faith by its very nature requires a leap into irrationality, it is almost impossible to explain or to defend in rational terms.

This would be news to Hadley Arkes, the Dalai Lama or Tim Keller, who oversees a humble flock at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.

Mr. Maher has already established his position as an agnostic in his HBO comedy series, “Real Time With Bill Maher.” A recent clash on the program with his frequent guest the blogger and author Andrew Sullivan, who is a Roman Catholic, illustrated how believers and those who doubt might as well be from different planets. They can argue with each other in fairly reasonable voices about politics, but not about faith.

Yet the fire-breathing Richard Dawkins and Alister McGrath somehow are rational and even friendly in this discussion on Google Video.

In a small journalistic coup Mr. Maher interviews a Roman Catholic priest in front of the Vatican, who laughingly agrees with him that the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church are nonsense that are not to be taken literally. Mr. Maher, unfortunately, doesn’t press him on why he wears priestly vestments and presumes to exert religious authority.

Yes, if anything critical can be said of Maher, it’s that he’s not aggressive enough — as a journalist, no less.

When “Religulous” turns from evangelical Christianity to Judaism and Islam, its tone becomes uncertain and its rhythm choppy. An attitude of glib condescension is inadequate to address clashing religions that have turned the Middle East into an ideological cauldron. Jihadism and Orthodox Judaism are red-hot topics that Mr. Maher addresses too sketchily to convey the same authority he brings to Christianity.

I couldn’t agree more that an “attitude of glib condescension is inadequate” — not just in understanding the Middle East, but in understanding any faith at all.

Image: Bill Maher at Hollywood Hellhouse, September 2004, photographed by Nora Murphy.