Commentary Magazine


Bill Keller, Just Asking Questions

New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, who never expressed much curiosity about the religion of Democratic presidential candidates, is suddenly burning to find out more about the Republican field’s religious beliefs:

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.

It will be interesting to see how the left responds. When Obama’s spiritual adviser Jeremiah Wright and his father’s Muslim religion came under fire in 2008, the immediate response was to condemn it as similar to the anti-Catholic paranoia JFK dealt with in the 1960 election.

Of course, none of the current Republican candidates claim to rely on a vehemently anti-American pastor for spiritual guidance. Still, says Keller, there should be more scrutiny of Romney’s Mormonism, which “many others think is just weird,” and questions about whether Bachmann believes in the outrageous fundamentalist idea that “social welfare should come from charity, not government taxation.”

Keller opens his column with the question, “If a candidate for president said he believed that space aliens dwell among us, would that affect your willingness to vote for him?” Being the open-minded guy he is, the Times editor concedes he “might not disqualify” this wacko immediately, but “would certainly want to ask a few questions.” Which leads him to the argument that we should also “ask a few questions” to the Republican candidates who ascribe to outlandish fringe philosophies like evangelical Christianity.

I have a feeling most Americans are far less concerned about the threat of mainstream Christianity (or Mormonism, for that matter) than Keller and his Times colleagues. The editor throws in some scary details and a lot of guilt-by-association (Perry invited leaders from a fringe southern church he doesn’t belong to to attend his prayer rally! He once accepted an endorsement from a preacher who believes government should be rooted in faith!), but these aren’t likely to alarm anyone other than the Times’ readership base. Most Americans have a pretty good understanding of what the major denominations of Christianity ascribe to, and what they don’t.

Not that there’s anything wrong with questioning a candidate’s religion. Byron York did it well when he gave Bachmann a chance to explain whether being “submissive” in marriage meant she would defer to her husband if she became president. But in his column, Keller seems more interested in mocking and smearing the candidates than asking legitimate questions.

“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,” writes Keller, as if this is actually a realistic threat we should all be worried about.

I’m sure Keller would also “care a lot” if Obama was a secret Muslim intent on destroying America and replacing it with a socialist empire/American caliphate. But he wouldn’t innocently write about this unfounded concern in a column. Why? Because there’s no evidence of it. Just like there’s not a shred to suggest that Romney, Perry or Bachmann are Trojan horses for some bizarre Christian theocratic conspiracy.