In 2007, a prominent Florida televangelist named Bill Keller condemned Mitt Romney's religion in a "daily devotional" to his 2.4 million e-mail subscribers.
If you vote for Mitt Romney, you are voting for Satan!" Keller raged. "There is no excuse, no justification for supporting and voting for a man who will be used by Satan to lead the souls of millions into the eternal flames of hell!".
That was ugly, offensive, and intolerant. So was another diatribe about religion, published by a different Bill Keller last week.
"I honestly don't care if Mitt Romney wears Mormon undergarments beneath his Gap skinny jeans," the executive editor of The New York Times wrote in a smug essay for the Sunday magazine, "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. . . . Every faith has its baggage, and every faith holds beliefs that will seem bizarre to outsiders."
Keller the televangelist abominates Mormonism on explicitly theological grounds. His language in 2007 was far harsher than most of us would ever think of using when discussing the religion of other Americans.
Yet demeaning someone else's faith can take forms other than calling it satanic. Keller the Times editor argues that presidential hopefuls should be asked "tougher questions about faith," since their religious views may be relevant to how they would perform in office. Yet from his mocking opening line -- "If a candidate for president said he believed that space aliens dwell among us, would that affect your willingness to vote for him?" -- to his sniggering reference to "Mormon undergarments," Keller suggests that he is less interested in seriously understanding how religion influences the candidates' political views than in caricaturing and sneering at the faith of the conservatives in the 2012 field.
It is time to stop being so "squeamish" about "aggressively" digging into politicians' religious convictions, Keller writes. He advises journalists to "get over" any "scruples" they may have "about the privacy of faith in public life." Republican public life, that is -- specifically the "large number" of GOP candidates who belong to churches that many Americans find "mysterious or suspect."