PEG Answers Bill Keller On Religion

Retiring New York Times editor Bill Keller has a column out arguing that candidates should be asked “tougher” questions about their religion.

Tim Carney mocked the column for labeling the Catholic Rick Santorum an Evangelical Christian, and indeed it’s easy to mock the secular Times as seeing all Christians as the same. And sure, though he never comes out and says it, it seems that there’s a bit of a “let’s pin those crazy theocrats” undercurrent to Mr Keller’s column. But I do think the column’s central point — that religion in general, and Presidential candidates’ in particular, matters, and thus should be treated seriously — is quite right.

If “hard secularists” and religiously-motivated political actors have one thing in common, it’s that they think religion is important, and that’s as good a starting point for discussion as any.

In a blog post attendant to the column, Mr Keller lays out a few questions he’d like presidential candidates to answer. Although I haven’t officially formed my exploratory committee, allow me to say how I would answer if I was a presidential candidate. (And also how I would like a Christian presidential candidate to answer.)

1. Is it fair to question presidential candidates about details of their faith?

It’s absolutely fair to question presidential candidates about anything that could affect what kind of president they will be.

2. Is it fair to question candidates about controversial remarks made by their pastors, mentors, close associates or thinkers whose books they recommend?


3. (a) Do you agree with those religious leaders who say that America is a “Christian nation” or “Judeo-Christian nation?” (b) What does that mean in practice?

I’m not sure what I can say about the words of unnamed “religious leaders.”

I can tell you what I think.

I think that the principles on which America was founded draw on a number of intellectual traditions, including ideas that are common to the Judeo-Christian faiths. I think that the ideals of self-determination and individualism, and indeed of the separation of church and state, have many roots, but one of the main roots is the Bible. It was Jesus who said his kingdom is not of this world, and who said we should give back to Cesar what belongs to Cesar, and implicit in the New Testament is the idea that a person’s choices determine their fate, not their station at birth.

I think that many people came to America specifically to practice their religion in peace and freedom, and that therefore our history and collective imagination is weaved through with religious fervor in a way that is unique among nations, and that this is good. I think that religion plays a positive role in American society and culture in getting people to care for their fellow Americans, their communities, and yes, sometimes to work towards policies that they believe are best for the common good.

I think that America should and does welcome everyone, regardless of religious belief or ethnicity. I think that the fact that many of our principles come from the Judeo-Christian tradition does not mean that they’re not universal; indeed, the opposite.

4. If you encounter a conflict between your faith and the Constitution and laws of the United States, how would you resolve it? Has that happened, in your experience?

Here’s the oath of office of the president: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” That’s the job I aspire to.

I also aspire to promote policies that, to my mind, are the best policies for the common good of the American people. I hope to make the case for these policies on grounds that all Americans can understand. And I hope that’s how Americans will judge me.

5. (a) Would you have any hesitation about appointing a Muslim to the federal bench? (b) What about an atheist?

Here are my criteria for nominating judges: whether I agree with their philosophy of legal interpretation; whether I think they are outstanding Americans of great integrity.

6. Are Mormons Christians, in your view? Should the fact that Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are Mormons influence how we think of them as candidates?

I honestly don’t care.

7. What do you think of the evangelical Christian movement known as Dominionism and the idea that Christians, and only Christians, should hold dominion over the secular institutions of the earth?

I think that Dominionism exists largely in the minds of a few agitated cooks and of a lot of media editors based on the coasts of the United States.

And for the record, no, I don’t think Christians, and only Christians, should be able to hold political office. That would be unconstitutional, un-American. And also very stupid.

8. (a) What is your attitude toward the theory of evolution? (b) Do you believe it should be taught in public schools?

a) My attitude toward the theory of evolution is that as far as I can tell it’s settled science, and so I accept it as such. For the record, this is also the stance of the Catholic Church to which I belong. But that’s not why I accept evolution as settled science.

b) I think public schools should teach all kinds of sciences.

9. Do you believe it is proper for teachers to lead students in prayer in public schools?

The federal government’s deficit last year was over a trillion dollars. The national debt is almost fifteen trillion dollars. The unemployment rate is 9.1%. I can’t even keep track of the number of foreign wars we’re in (do drone strikes over Yemen count?).

All of which is to say: I really, really don’t care.