New York Times executive editor Bill Keller is a curious cat. His renowned curiosity has most recently been piqued by the religious views and affiliations of the various Republicans running for president. As he implies in his column today, the current field may be crowded with a distressing combination of religious zealots, people associated with religious zealots, and adherents to strange, unfamiliar faiths. Be very afraid, America:
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.”) 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.
...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. 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.
For purposes of clarity and full disclosure, Rick Santorum's creepy, virtually-unheard-of "fervid subset of evangelical Christianity" is called "Catholicism." Run for the hills! Keller goes on to pose a list of questions, and urges each candidate to offer responses to him directly. Inexplicably, "are you a secret Trojan Horse Christianist nutbag?" isn't among them, although it's fairly obvious what he's driving at. Here's an example of an important query Keller crafted for Rick Perry:
I wanted Governor Perry to explain his relationship with David Barton, the founder of the WallBuilders evangelical movement, who preaches that America should have a government “firmly rooted in biblical principles” and that the Bible offers explicit guidance on public policy — for example, tax policy. Since Barton endorsed Perry in the past, it would be interesting to know whether the governor disagrees with him.
Ah, now endorsements are on the table? Fair enough. As a point of reference, a top Hamas official publicly endorsed candidate Barack Obama on a New York radio show in April of 2008. Obama's campaign pronounced itself "flattered" by Ahmed Yousef's kind words. I'm sure you'll recall the memorable column Keller penned shortly thereafter, pointedly inquiring if Barack Obama shared the religious/political worldview of Hamas -- an official terrorist organization, according to the US government. What's that -- you don't? As it happens, neither do I.
Keller also expresses interest in the GOP candidates' personal associations, books they've read, and potentially controversial past statements. Indeed, who can quibble with this exhibition of journalistic fair play, given the extensive coverage* his newspaper devoted to Stanley Kurtz's thorough, contemporary investigative reporting about Barack Obama's seemingly endless roster of radical, extreme, and anti-American associates (Ayers, Davis, Khalidi, Wright, etc.) in 2008? *Correction: "Extensive coverage" should have read, "total blackout." Townhall regrets the error.
I'll readily concede that not all of Keller's questions are illegitimate, and some surely will be posed to the candidates at some point. It's just remarkable to witness a prominent leftist discover his newfound conviction that a candidate's background, church, friends, and even endorsers are totally fair game for a political campaign -- and not the vindictive, irrelevant, "distracting" (and quite possibly racist) "smears" they were treated as during the last cycle. Byron York reminds us that the most infamous sentence ever uttered by Barack Obama's self-described spiritual mentor and pastor of 20 years ("God damn America!") didn't appear in the news pages of Mr. Keller's "paper of record" for nearly six months after the fateful comments became public.
No matter. Now is the moment, we're told, for the nation to abandon our "scruples" about aggressively probing candidates' religious views and possible radical associations. Which brings me to a burning question of my own: Is Mr. Keller merely impressively self-unaware, or is his devotion to a "mysterious or suspect" catechism (liberalism) overwhelming any sense of shame he may harbor?