It's kind of fascinating, in a carnivalesque sort of way: the notion of religion as a force alien and dangerous to the American polity, hence to be regarded with fear.
Keller, who is in transition to the job of New York Times op-ed columnist, wants to smoke out religious snakes waiting to bite us. Those Mormons, for example -- Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman; Rick Perry, with his ties to controversial evangelicals such as John Hagee; Michelle Bachmann, whose views on wifely "submission" might be of interest. And...and...that's pretty much it. No mention of President Barack Obama, who in 20 years of church membership never heard the Rev. Jeremiah Wright declaim on America's wickedness and/or racism.
Presumably, the religious threat we all know ourselves (well, don't we?) to face in America is from people on the right -- never on the left, where tolerant secularism and "progressive" Christianity exude the spirit of democracy.
Keller's inquisitorial exercise is phony baloney, not least because, well, what's Romney or Huntsman going to say -- "Why, yes, Bill, you might as well know now, my campaign is all about the restoration of polygamy"? We can count on Congresswoman Bachmann, no doubt, to respond to Keller, "I can't wait, Bill, for the chance to wiretap every home in America for evidence of wifely non-submissiveness."
More grossly offensive is the liberal/secularist postulate concealed in Keller's scheme of confronting "our scruples about the privacy of faith in public life." We're invited to assume, with Keller, that belief in God, or a Higher Power, if one would rather put it that way, compromises a candidate.
What Keller is proposing, is a cancellation of the Constitution's ban on religious tests for office-holding. The kind of religious test he has in mind subjects candidates to the ordeal of having secular journalists rake over their religious beliefs, judging them mild enough to pass inspection or wild enough to warrant ouster from the race.
"Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, and Rick Santorum," avers Keller, "are all affiliated with fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity, which has raised concern about their respect for the separation of church and state, not to mention the separation of fact from fiction." Leave aside Keller's accidental merger of the Roman Catholic Church (to which Santorum belongs) with the evangelical underground. Who, to begin with, feels "concern" over the prospect of coupling church and state? Keller feels concern, that's who. If he feels it, the rest of us - apparently -- should feel it, too. What baleful plans the aforementioned candidates may have for us he doesn't quite say. He implies. He nudges. Whatever it is, if it's too religious, it can't be good.
Mercy! Isn't it enough, the continual whining from the left about the awfulness of religion that takes itself seriously? A religion that doesn't take itself seriously -- that's one thing. You can always depend on a certain kind of doctor-of-divinity to back down, apologize and slink away to obscurity.
Ah, but a religion that takes itself seriously; that, more to the point, takes God seriously, is in Keller-ian terms a social menace.
People who believe in truth can't be trusted. What the candidates need to believe, it seems, in order to be counted as good, well-rounded 21st century Americans, is that truth is a fiction: a convenience for talking about wacky ideas. Alternatively, if in consonance with all the great civilizational traditions, they believe truth is real, they ought to keep it to themselves.
Whatever they think, the candidates have duly been warned. Bill Keller is scrutinizing them for signs of unhealthy interest in spiritual matters. And watch that head bowing. Got it, folks?