A New Religious Test?

“If a candidate for president said he believed that space aliens dwell among us, would that affect your willingness to vote for him? Personally, I might not disqualify him out of hand; one out of three Americans believe we have had Visitors and, hey, who knows? But I would certainly want to ask a few questions. Like, where does he get his information? Does he talk to the aliens? Do they have an economic plan?”

So reads the opening paragraph of a recent piece by New York Times executive editor Bill Keller entitled “Asking Candidates Tougher Questions About Faith.” If, as a Christian, you find this opening a bit unsettling, you should. After all, Keller has not so subtly compared religious faith with believing that aliens live in our midst.

Unfortunately, things don’t improve a great deal from there. To be sure, Keller raises legitimate points and asks a few important questions. For example, he suggests, “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.” I don’t have a problem with that. The relegation of faith to “private” life has always been artificial. But then again, I’d want the freedom to ask how any candidate’s larger worldview influenced his or her policy positions, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or secular humanist. (To illustrate the point, see this from Marvin Olasky.)

Beyond this, however, there’s a healthy dose of thinly veiled insults apparently designed to cast particular religious adherents as crazy. Two examples:

Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are both affiliated with fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity—and Rick Santorum comes out of the most conservative wing of Catholicism—which has raised concerns about their respect for the separation of church and state, not to mention the separation of fact and fiction.


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.

From this, it’s apparently obvious that we should cast doubt on the ability of certain (“fervid”) evangelicals and doctrinally conservative Catholics to draw a proper line not just on the contested and complex question of how we should separate church and state, but also their ability to grasp basic reality. Similarly, Keller makes clear in so many words that any Catholic who actually believes Catholic doctrine (!) regarding a sacrament of the church is deserving of dismissal. No, I don’t subscribe to my Catholic friends’ doctrine of transubstantiation either, but do we really need to belittle a group that boasts of such a rich history of intellectual and cultural achievement?

Then there’s this paragraph:

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. It matters to me whether a president respects serious science and verifiable history — in short, belongs to what an official in a previous administration once scornfully described as “the reality-based community.” I do care if religious doctrine becomes an excuse to exclude my fellow citizens from the rights and protections our country promises.

Again, this begins by touching on a legitimate issue. But one wonders if Keller is troubled by those who once argued, on the grounds of a higher authority no less, that it was wrong for the Constitution to legitimize the institution of slavery. And what is “serious science” and “verifiable history”? More importantly, who gets to decide what fits into these categories? Who belongs to the “reality-based community”? What are the “rights and protections” Keller mentions? In what are they grounded? One gets the impression from Keller’s presentation that he thinks the answers to these questions are self-evident for any right thinking individual. At best this is naïve. In reality (pun intended), these are a few of the very questions that are so highly contested in our current society. Bill Keller is certainly welcome to offer and defend his own answers, but assuming the place of final arbiter of such issues is something else entirely.

Understand that none of this is meant to endorse or defend the political positions of any of the particular candidates Keller mentions. It is, however, to question whether a man who writes things like “asking candidates, respectfully, about their faith should not be an excuse for bigotry or paranoia” and “it is worth knowing whether a candidate has a mind open to intelligence that does not fit neatly into his preconceptions” is a physician capable of taking his own medicine.

See also:

Mollie Hemmingway on Bill Keller’s Modest Proposal

Anthony Sacramone on The New York Times/Bill Keller Irreligious Litmus Test

Ross Douthat on journalists writing about beliefs they don’t share

Douthat critiques Ryan Lizza’s characterization of Francis Schaeffer in The New Yorker

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