NYT takes on aliens, baggage, Trojan horse faith

It gets terribly exhausting trying to convince people that The New York Times publishes some pretty interesting and solid pieces. It consistently gets accused of liberal or anti-religious bias, but it employs some good reporters. Unfortunately, The New York Times Magazine has just published a terribly embarrassing column from its outgoing executive editor Bill Keller that only fuels the anti-Times fire. Keller is determined to ask Republican candidates for president tougher questions about their faith, which is a good idea, if you can agree to hold the same standard to both sides. Unfortunately, you know the column is off to a poor start when it leads with, "If a candidate for president said he believed that space aliens dwell among us, would that affect your willingness to vote for him?" I'm not joking. Please do read the whole thing and then come back for some editing breakdown.

Yet when it comes to the religious beliefs of our would-be presidents, we are a little squeamish about probing too aggressively. Michele Bachmann was asked during the Iowa G.O.P. debate what she meant when she said the Bible obliged her to “be submissive” to her husband, and there was an audible wave of boos -- for the question, not the answer.

Perhaps this is a legitimate question (as I explored earlier), but most people seemed to boo because her submission views have nothing to do with her policies. Presumably one could learn to distinguish between professional and personal decisions while getting a tax-law degree. I'm assuming that the the standard for questions about faith is something like, "How does your faith influence your policies?" Keller seems to want to take it further.

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.”)

If Keller's standard is "how does your faith influence policies," what do these views have to do with their policies? If that's not his standard, what is? Is he implying that we shouldn't support them because they are weird enough to support a "cult?" Why does it matter that other people think someone's views are "just weird?"

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.

Speaking of fact and fiction, Rick Santorum is not an evangelical. He is Roman Catholic in good standing. Besides, where is the basis for these raised concerns?

I honestly don’t care if Mitt Romney wears Mormon undergarments beneath his Gap skinny jeans, 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 (which was disavowed by the church in 1890).

But Keller does care -- otherwise we wouldn't have to read this paragraph.

Every faith has its baggage, and every faith holds beliefs that will seem bizarre to outsiders. I grew up believing that a priest could turn a bread wafer into the actual flesh of Christ.

Did he really just dismiss a belief that most Catholics hold as "baggage" and "bizarre to outsiders"?

It's almost as though he is saying "I don't care," while demonstrating that he does. It's OK, he's not judging them because he was once an idiot, too. He's just enlightened now, or something.

But I do want to know if a candidate places fealty to the Bible, the Book of Mormon (the text, not the Broadway musical) or some other authority higher than the Constitution and laws of this country.

Is there any evidence to suggest these candidates have supported the idea that some other text but the Constitution will be their authority? Whatever you think about her as a candidate, it seems like Michele Bachmann hit this home in her interview with David Gregory.

And 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.

Are we really talking about a Trojan horse? Is there any evidence that Mormons, evangelicals, Catholics, etc. would be Trojan horses? Did we not get past this idea with John F. Kennedy's candidacy?

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.

From Ryan Lizza’s enlightening profile in The New Yorker, I learned that Michele Bachmann’s influences include spiritual and political mentors who preach the literal “inerrancy” of the Bible.

Yes, Bill Keller, perhaps you should pay closer attention to what candidates say about their faith. Without getting partisan about this idea (but acknowledging the glaring difference), you certainly avoided this in 2008 when covering Barack Obama's campaign. We already dealt with Ryan Lizza's profile, but it really isn't terribly unusual that Bachmann might believe in "innerancy" of the Bible.

Neither Bachmann nor Perry has, as far as I know, pledged allegiance to the Dominionists. Possibly they overlooked those passages in the books and sermons of their spiritual comrades. My informed Texan friends tell me Perry’s relationship with the religious fringe is pragmatic, that it is more likely he is riding the movement than it is riding him. But as we have seen with the Tea Party (another political movement Perry hopped aboard in its early days), the support of a constituent group doesn’t come without strings.

Does he really expect them to pledge allegiance to the Dominionists? (Which is what, by the way? Who created and defined that term, since there is no movement by that name?) Keller needs to make the jump from who Perry and Bachmann are courting to what kind of influence they have on the candidates. Is there any proof that these are political constituent groups and not more general, spiritual supporters of a prayer campaign?

And of course issues of faith should not distract attention from issues of economics and war. But it is worth knowing whether a candidate has a mind open to intelligence that does not fit neatly into his preconceptions.

News flash for Keller: many, many people take their personal faith more seriously than the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Are we to assume that someone with strong religious beliefs would not be open to intelligence?

To get things rolling, I sent the aforementioned candidates a little questionnaire. Here’s a sample:

* Do you agree with those religious leaders who say that America is a “Christian nation” or a “Judeo-Christian nation?” and what does that mean in practice?

* Would you have any hesitation about appointing a Muslim to the federal bench? What about an atheist?

* What is your attitude toward the theory of evolution, and do you believe it should be taught in public schools?

Sure, I wouldn't mind knowing the answers to these questions in a nice bullet-point list. But I don't know, this list of questions just strikes me as pretty strange. Some of these candidates have already addressed these questions (Perry on evolution, Bachmann on appointing a Muslim/atheist, for instance).

Why does Keller get to decide which questions voters actually care about? Help us out, dear readers. If you were in Keller's shoes, what are you actually interested in?

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