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Bill Keller's modest proposal

When I read Bill Keller's bizarre piece in the New York Times yesterday morning, where he proposes a loaded religious quiz for potential candidates, I actually gasped. Considering I've been reading dozens of religion stories a day for years, it's hard to surprise me. I'm not saying I haven't heard these types of comments uttered against religious believers, be they Pagan or Mormon or Catholic. And there's even a counter-Jihad movement that says similar things to what Keller has said, only about Muslims. But it's not like Pamela Geller is given space in the New York Times to share her views about creeping Sharia. Far from it. She's attacked for her views -- in the news pages. I couldn't quite process this piece. It just seemed too hard to believe that Bill Keller, whatever his well-known bias against Catholics, would do this.

So here's my theory: I think that Keller didn't do this. I mean, he did, but only to make a point. I'm not entirely sure what that point is, but he's clearly pulling everyone's leg. Hear me out.

The whole piece is about the need to ask more questions of presidential candidates. He has general questions and then specific questions. But he doesn't have any for President Barack Obama. As in, no questions (one writer offers 20, should Keller be having trouble developing them for some odd reason). Certainly the case can't be made that questions for Obama aren't newsworthy. I mean, "people" may have "questions" about the religious views of Michele Bachmann. Sure. But are you really going to pretend that "people" don't have "questions" about the religious views of President Obama? Are you joking? So why the disparity?

Is it because his paper, under his direction, thoroughly vetted the religious views of President Obama? Heh. Um, no. One data point: Back in 2008, it took six months for readers of the paper to even learn of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's infamous "God Damn America!" words by seeing them in a news story. The news broke in March and first appeared in the paper literally six months later.

If the piece isn't satire, why would Keller say that Rick Santorum is part of a "fervid subset of evangelical Christianity"? He's Roman Catholic.

If the piece isn't satire, why would the lede mention space aliens, much less compare belief in an alien invasion to Christianity?

If the piece isn't satire, why would he claim that "many Americans" view Catholicism, Protestant Christianity and Mormonism as "mysterious or suspect"? Does he have any concept of what percentage of Americans fall into one of those three categories? Of course he does. It's clearly satire.

Why would he traffic in the type of crude stereotypes about Mormons that result in condemnation from liberals?

If this weren't satire, why would he mis-state what Catholics believe about Communion? What's more, would he really call that sacrament "baggage" and "bizarre" unless he was trying to make a point about bigotry? I can't imagine he would.

If this weren't satire, would he really say that the Christian relationship to the Bible is one of lord and servant? Would he really pretend that in order to be a good candidate for office you have to believe that the Constitution is a higher authority than the Bible? Would he really pretend that the laws of this country are inerrant?

Would he come up with laugh lines such as this?:

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.

If this weren't satire, would he really confuse inerrancy with literalism?

If this weren't satire, would a respected news man really be pushing the threat of Dominionism? Would he call someone a Dominionist who explained just two weeks ago that she had to literally Google the term to learn what it meant? Someone who explained quite clearly why the slur is inaccurate when used against her? I mean, I know he's biased, but he's not a hack.

If this weren't satire, would he pretend that his loaded gotcha questions were "respectful"? He knows readers aren't stupid.

If this weren't satire, would he believe no one notices that there sure seems to be a lot of emphasis on religion for a race that's largely about an unemployment rate of 9.1%?

If this weren't satire, would he really raise a question about whether the candidates have fealty to something above the Constitution, but then criticize squeamishness about appointing Muslim judges because of questions raised about some Muslims placing Islamic law above the constitution?

If this weren't satire, would he really suggest that it's only problematic if Republicans are endorsed by people Keller doesn't like -- and not mention, I don't know, that Hamas officials endorsed President Obama? No!

There's got to be more to this. There's just no way that Keller would be blowing up his paper's relationship with religious people on his way out from leading the paper. There's no way. Not the man who wrote that famous call for improved, accurate, fair coverage of religious believers.

New York Times religion reporters have enough trouble of their own building up rapport and relationships with religious adherents. I can't help but imagine they've been working hard to restore trust with some of the leaders who have given up even talking to them. That's what reporters do. Something like this would make it so easy for religious people to dismiss the Times in perpetuity. There's no way that an executive editor would do something like that to the pros in his newsroom.

Now, I did fall for the Krugman hoax earlier this week, to my shame, so perhaps I'm overreacting. But I am not going to be had twice.

There must be some deeper meaning here. There's no way that the Times would openly display such bigotry or destroy its credibility so thoroughly. Is this a point about how campaign coverage should focus on the economy or role of government? Is this a point about counter-jihadists? Is this a point about how we should handle bigotry in the public square? What's the point of it? I know it's been done to prove a point, but I'm just not sure what.

And before you say, "Come on, Mollie! Keller's anti-Catholic writing has such a long history from his questioning the Pope's Catholicity to his more recent 'collapsed Catholic' ax-grinding phase," I'll remind you -- yet again -- that he also wrote this.

Perhaps that's our answer. Maybe he's trying to show his reporters the difference between just giving lip service to diversity and actually living it. And maybe even the anti-Catholic stuff was one long piece of performance art. It would certainly make much more sense than the idea that Keller actually believes these things about Protestants, Catholics and Mormons, right? Like all good satire, it works because it's almost believable that the New York Times would promote such thinking in its pages. But it was over-the-top in a way that reveals it's really a brilliant piece of satire by outgoing executive editor Bill Keller. Good work, sir. Good work.

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