Special Report

The Fury Behind Bill Keller’s Anti-Religious Rant

Certainly there are questions to ask a candidate about his religious beliefs -- non-Inquisitionally.

By and 9.2.11

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"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." -- Bill Keller, New York Times Magazine, August 25, 2011

Most people view the anti-Catholicism faced by John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential campaign as a prejudice they are glad our nation has left behind. Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times, is obviously not one of those people. His recent "Asking Candidates Tougher Questions About Faith," if taken seriously by its readers, would re-instill the fear that any presidential candidate of faith would subsume their decision-making to the religious authority that they embrace.

It's strange that Keller would encourage such questions since he confesses, "I still remember, as a Catholic boy, being mystified and hurt by the speculation about John Kennedy's Catholicism -- whether he would be taking orders from the Vatican." It seems that the good sense of his adolescence has been lost, possibly by his years of worshiping at the altar of secular sophistication.

Keller's particular concerns are the "weird" Mormonism of Romney and Huntsman, the "fervid" evangelicalism of Bachmann and Perry, and the "conservative wing of Catholicism" supposedly represented by Santorum. Regarding Catholicism, the faith in which Keller was raised, he explicitly raises the issue faced by JFK five decades ago -- the separation of Church and State.

The level of furious mis-logic in Keller's article explains much about the decline of the newspaper under his leadership and his upcoming departure to the op-ed page. But, importantly, it represents a powerful segment of the Democratic Party elite that views the continued prevalence of traditional religious beliefs in the U.S. as the chief obstacle to its ideological aims.

Keller has already deflected criticism that he made no critical mention of a Democrat's religious belief and, in particular, of President Obama's 20 years in the congregation of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. "Yes, Dems should be asked about their faith (and influences) too. We were late to Rev. Wright in '08, but we got there, and did it well." Did it well? Hardly. Like the rest of the mainstream media, the New York Times came late and left early, preferring to bury the Rev. Wright story under fluffy coverage of candidate Obama's religious outreach.

At least Keller didn't reach back to the 2004 campaign when the charge of theocracy against Bush resounded throughout the liberal blogosphere. Obama talked more about God and religious faith than any other candidate in the 2008 election, according to Beliefnet.com's "God-o-meter," which recorded every reference to God or personal faith by the presidential candidates. With Obama coming out at the top of the list, even beating out the former minister, Gov. Mike Huckabee, it's hard to level that charge again anytime soon. Thus, Keller is forced to discriminate between what he views as acceptable and unacceptable aspects of religious belief. As it turns out, that distinction is as easy as the difference between Democrats and Republicans.

Keller poses three questions each of the GOP presidential candidates should answer -- on whether public schools should teach evolution; whether the U.S. is a "Christian nation"; and whether Muslims should be appointed to the federal bench. Following Keller's recommendation would only trivialize the political conversation heading toward the 2012 election. But Keller evidently sees an upside in creating a religious sideshow that would alienate moderates, a doubtful assumption, since those same moderates weren't affected by Obama's twenty years at the feet of a pastor like Jeremiah Wright.

Keller's questions not only trivialize politics but religion too -- he ignores the serious questions that traditional religion offers for political consideration. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that any candidate who presents as an earnest, practicing member of a religious denomination is fair game when it comes to being asked questions about their faith. What kind of questions would be germane, both revealing the mind and character of the candidate but also staying within the confines of political discourse? We suggest the following are not only "tougher" than Keller's but more beneficial in providing input to the data pool of voter consideration:

1. Some people consider your positions on abortion and marriage a matter of faith, yet you want those positions inscribed in law and public policy. How do you justify matters of faith being made matters of law and policy for all Americans?

2. Although the United States is a nation where organized religion flourishes compared to most other nations on the globe, there are millions of people who either do not believe in God or are agnostic and do not practice any religion. As a person who considers religion to be the Truth, with a capital T, what do you think of those people who do not share your belief?

3. You are a person of faith, and your faith teaches about many things, including how a person should distinguish between right and wrong and how a person should conduct his or her life. If you were elected President, how would you distinguish between those faith teachings that should inform your political leadership and those that should be keep separate?

Such questions, in our view, are "tougher" than Keller's, but more importantly they are politically relevant and personally revealing. They're not the "I gotcha" questions recommended by Keller, but rather, they probe legitimately those aspects of a candidate's religious convictions important for a voter to know.

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About the Author
Deal W. Hudson was chair of RNC Catholic Outreach and is the author of Onward Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States (Threshold). He is president of Catholic Advocate in Washington, D.C.
About the Author

Matt Smith, vice-president of Catholic Advocate, was Associate Director of Public Liaison responsible for Catholic outreach under President George W. Bush.