Pod people: Taking religion seriously at NYTs

We're still recovering a little bit from Bill Keller's startling column last week, where he framed religious belief next to alien belief. Just to be clear: reporters should ask questions about candidates' faith and try to break new ground. However, it's hard to take Keller seriously when he paints religious beliefs as "bizarre." That said, I wanted to address some comments from RealClearReligion columnist Jeffrey Weiss (who has written on how religion influences policy, which were buried in the long thread from last week).

As a matter of journalism (which is what we’re about here, yes?):

1) Obama’s religious background was vetted to a fare-thee-well four years ago. Heck, I was part of that. And since then, he’s given several significant speeches about how his understanding of his faith informs his ideas about governance. (Lots of Social Gospel stuff. Ask Mr. Google.)The GOP-ers are (mostly) new figures on the national stage and have not faced the scrutiny.

2) Keller’s flat-out statement that beliefs based totally on faith (ie. Transubstantiation) are bizarre to nonbelievers is not an attack on religion. It’s a fact, Jack. Get over it.

3)The question about submission (which Bachmann ducked, btw) was not about doctrine but about how/if Bachmann draws lines between public and private in her application of her religion. Fair game.

4) To criticize Keller for not listing *all* the possible questions seems odd. Space limits, after all. Me, I’d put other questions higher. But it’s not my column. My reading was that he was, in fact, trying for “How does your faith influence your policies?”

5) Faith-related questions are particularly relevant for candidates who have made their faith a topline part of their public and political persona. The GOP candidate list has several for whom that is particularly true. Back when and Orthodox Jew was running for the Dems, such questions were particularly appropriate for Lieberman (who generally failed to provide good answers, IMNSHO).

6) Finally, it’s a column, not a news story. And Keller was the boss of the whole freakin’ paper, not a line editor. Yes, leadership matters. But as a practical matter the influence of the executive editor of a paper that size on day-to-day coverage decisions is likely smaller than you think.

1) Agreed. Perhaps the New York Times realizes how behind they were in the 2008 election and wants to make up for that, I don't know.

2) Maybe it's not an "attack," but is it wise to call it bizarre if he expects people to take it seriously? Sincere apologies for a Wiki citation for the Catholic Church in the U.S., but "With more than 68.5 registered million members, it is the largest single religious denomination in the United States, comprising about 22 percent of the population." Some might consider it bizarre, but it would be difficult to argue that it's a fringe belief.

3) I would agree with this (which I stated here and here and in my points on Keller).

4) We can agree that space is limited yes, but there was a lot of wasted space (Do we need to be reminded of Mitt Romney's underwear?). But also, hasn't this question been answered by many of the candidates: "What is your attitude toward the theory of evolution, and do you believe it should be taught in public schools?" It seems like his chosen questions were a bit different from what your average voter might pick (do they care about Dominionism, for instance?).

5) Sure, but the way Keller portrays the GOP candidates, you would think they are hiding their beliefs when actually, they have addressed many of the questions he asks (evolution, appointing a Muslim to the federal court, for instance).

6) Yes, it's a column, and we don't usually touch on columns here. But as you said, Keller is the boss of the whole paper who sets the editorial vision and priorities of the paper. When the editor of the NYT asks you to answer questions, you probably want to answer them. But as I said, it probably gives fodder to people who have been saying for a while now that the Times hates religion. As I said, the paper employs reporters who do solid religion reporting.

I wanted to highlight those comments because they seemed to reflect some overall defenses of Keller's column. When it comes down to it, Jeffrey and I will likely agree to disagree on some points, but I appreciate his calm, engaging thoughts.

This brings me to this week’s thrilling GetReligion podcast, which is available on iTunes and on our site. We also address the missing clergy and formal prayers at the 9/11 ceremony and welcome George to the GetReligion plate. Consider adding it to your relaxing Labor Day weekend playlist.

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