Do religious conservatives operate far outside the American mainstream and represent a serious threat to our pluralistic democracy?
Bill Keller, outgoing editor of the New York Times, raises that basic challenge in a wildly controversial recent column that appeared under the heading “Asking Candidates Tougher Questions About Faith.”
Actually, his specific questions for GOP contenders don’t seem tough at all, and the fact that Keller considers them so formidable demonstrates his dismissive, condescending attitude toward religious believers of every stripe. After all, he begins his piece by explicitly comparing faith to claims “that space aliens dwell among us.” While allowing that belief in extra terrestrial visitors might not disqualify a “candidate out of hand,” Keller sensibly insists that he “would certainly want to ask a few questions. Like, where does he get his information? Does he talk to the aliens?”
Does the columnist here suggest that praying to God regularly (as more than three-quarters of Americans say they do) seems to him just as suspect and delusional as conversing with imaginary inter-stellar invaders?
In any event, he doesn’t mean to challenge GOP contenders on supernatural communication (since none of them have yet made the claim that God, or angels, or giant reptiles from Alpha Centauri have recently provided campaign advice) but he does want to pin them down with queries that he considers a fiendishly clever trap.
According to the logic of his commentary, Keller assumes that any straightforward answer to his questions would either alienate the candidates’ fervently religious (and presumably knuckle-dragging) core supporters, or else render the contender unacceptable to the well-educated, suburban and secular voters any Republican needs to defeat Barack Obama. The anticipated failure of the candidates themselves to respond to the questionnaire will only encourage the enlightened opinion-shapers of the New York Times to harrumph in supercilious indignation, secure in the notion that simple challenges posed by their august editor count as unanswerable for the simple-minded rubes of the religious right.
Let me therefore resolve this impasse and provide precisely the answers that Keller and Company demand, writing in the (wholly unauthorized) name of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and other candidates who powerfully appeal to “values voters.” I would assume that each of these politicos would feel generally comfortable with the responses provided below.
The three questions posed in Keller’s column demanded to know:
-Do you agree with those religious leaders who say that America is a “Christian nation” or a “Judeo-Christian nation?”
Of course America is a Christian nation- just as Thailand is a Buddhist nation or Italy is a Catholic nation- but our Constitution guarantees that we will always maintain a secular government. When all thirteen of the original colonies were founded by Christians (and most of them fiercely devout Christians, in fact), and when more than 85% of Americans have always described themselves as “Christian” in one denomination or another, denying the shaping significance of this religious heritage makes no more sense than ignoring the influence of British culture and institutions. The plethora of ardently competing denominations made it unthinkable for the new nation to become a Baptist, or Quaker, or Congregationalist country, and the First Amendment denied Congress the power to “establish” any one religion, but few members of the founding generation shied away from describing their society as Christian in the broadest sense. Meanwhile, when I take the oath of office as President of the United States, I will pledge to uphold the Constitution- including the all-important First Amendment prohibition against imposing any one official faith on a pluralistic populace, or using state power to privilege any religious outlook—or any anti-religious outlook, for that matter. Just as we shouldn’t favor one religion over another, we can’t promote doubt above faith.
•Would you have any hesitation about appointing a Muslim to the federal bench? What about an atheist?
I would have no hesitation appointing Muslims or atheists to the federal bench (or to other positions) so long as they demonstrated the same commitment to the Constitution that I would demand of Christian, Jewish or Hindu appointees. Because some radical Muslim sects (which represent only a tiny majority of our loyal Islamic citizens) seek to replace our legal system with Koranic law, I would prove especially vigorous in examining the Constitutional commitments of any members of such groups who might otherwise seem qualified for judicial office.
•What is your attitude toward the theory of evolution, and do you believe it should be taught in public schools?
Of course evolution must be taught in the public schools, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be questioned. A twenty-first century education requires a working understanding of Darwin’s theory but might also include familiarity with some of the recent challenges (based on DNA analysis and other scientific evidence) posed to that theory. Most importantly, state and local school officials should make their own decisions about curricula; as a strong supporter of more local control of schools, I want no federal role in determining how your neighborhood school decides to present the theory of evolution.
In a blog following up on his own column, Keller offers more questions that could be dispatched with similar ease, for instance:
-Is it fair to question candidates about controversial remarks made by their pastors, mentors, close associates or thinkers whose books they recommend?
It’s certainly fair and appropriate to challenge candidates if their spiritual counselors make remarks involving political issues (like Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s claim that the U.S. government sponsored the AIDS virus as part of a genocidal conspiracy) but not if those remarks pertain to only theological or historical questions (like Rev. Wright’s insistence that Jesus was black, and not related to contemporary Jews). As to Keller’s general inquiry –
Is it fair to question presidential candidates about details of their faith? –
It surely makes sense to ask presidential aspirants about any religious specifics that might realistically impact their performance in office, but not to press the candidates simply to make their personal beliefs look weird or illogical.
When Joe Lieberman won nomination for the Vice Presidency in 2000 the press peppered him with questions on how he’d respond if an emergency interfered with his commitment to strict Sabbath observance, and Lieberman respectfully recounts these interchanges in his wonderful new book “The Gift of Rest.” It would cross an important line, however, to demand of Joe Lieberman if he believed God really wanted him to abstain from eating shrimp, or whether his wife Hadassah went monthly to the mikva (ritual bath) during her childbearing years.
In the same context, it would prove insulting and intrusive to demand of Mitt Romney what benefit he derived from wearing Mormon underwear, or to ask Rick Santorum if he felt that he actually consumed blood and flesh when he took communion, or to inquiry of Michele Bachmann whether she agreed with anti-Catholic attitudes of some of her long ago professors at Oral Roberts University.
The candidates themselves should continue to ignore Bill Keller and his interrogation not because the questions are hostile and mean spirited (though they certainly are) or because they are profoundly difficult to answer (which they certainly are not). The problem with the whole line of discussion involves its power to distract from the central concern of all voters, which remains the sorry state of the American economy and the appalling absence of new jobs.
It makes sense for Obama sympathizers to try to change the subject (to discuss attitudes toward evolution and other irrelevant controversies) just as Republican leaders who seek to replace the beleaguered president should concentrate relentlessly on the all-important economic issues and refuse to take the religion-bashing bait.
A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST on August 30, 2011.