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"Religion, Politics, the Presidency: Commentary by a Mormon, an Evangelical, and an Orthodox Christian"

United States Constitution — Article VI:

"No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

NYTimes’ Bill Keller – Journalist or Political Operative?

Posted by: John Schroeder at 11:31 am, August 27th 2011     —    6 Comments »

While my aforementioned vacation has brought me late to this party, it has also given me some perspective on Bill Keller’s  proposal to ask candidates — well, GOP candidates, at least — tougher question about religion.  This has drawn so much reaction.  Hugh Hewitt’s invocation of Monty Python made me laugh out loud.   Hugh later rounded up some of the better responses, a favorite of mine being Joe Carter’s piece which contained the appropriate level of smirk.  But it was when I saw Stanly Kurtz’ table-turning questionnaire for Obama that my read on the whole episode really came into focus.

There is no journalism involved here – this is purely a political ploy on Keller’s part to try to resurrect Obama’s already virtually dead campaign.  Please recall it has already leaked from Obama sources that they are going to go negative in the campaign and use dog whistles to do so religiously.  Keller knows a hint when it is thrown his way, so he has taken up the ball and tried to set the table for the campaign.  It would be smart were it not so blatantly transparent.

The lack of research or rigor applied by Keller is a clear sign that Keller is not interested in facts, but is instead interested, almost purely, in scoring political points.  Let me give you just a few examples:

  • Keller’s opening analogy – the belief by a candidate that “space aliens dwell among us” – completely ignores the fact that religious belief of various sorts has been vetted by society throughout human history.  There simply is no comparison between a faith in a supernatural that has been practiced in different forms by mankind since we became mankind and the a faith in stuff that makes the cover of the National Enquirer.  One is a major force in the development and civility of the human race and the other is science fiction.  One may not choose to believe in the supernatural as I do, but to dismiss it altogether by throwing it out with the pop culture trash is to deny virtually all of human history.
  • In his piece Keller uses the term “fealty” when referring to a candidate’s attitude towards the scripture of his/her particular religion, though citing only the Bible and The Book of Mormon.  His lack of citation of the Quran, or the Bhagavad Gītā or other holy documents further indicate his desire to score political points on GOP candidates as opposed to make a genuine inquiry into the intersection of religion and politics.  But his use of the term “fealty” is entirely misleading.  Fealty is a political pledge to a lord – one would pledge fealty to duke or baron or king.  This term is simply unused in religious terms, at least in America.  This is an attempt to set up a straw dog to create fear where there should be none.
  • Keller also invokes the term “dominionist.”  Make no mistake, we are seeing a meme in the making with this one – a red herring designed to send the media down a path where there is nothing, but along which much fear can be induced.  Jeremy Peirce has noted, “Dominionismism begins, as far as I can tell, with a sociology Ph.D. dissertation at the University of California at Berkeley, by a woman named Sara Diamond.”  In other words, the apparent movement is a creation of the left.  Frankly I know of no religious conservative that would self-identify in such a fashion.

So now let’s turn our gaze on Keller’s questionnaire.  When I read through the thing I had one thought over and over and over again: “Asked and answered, your honor.”  This was particularly true with the questions aimed at Romney, who, having already taken one lap in the race, has been asked virtually everything imaginable and unimaginable about his faith.  But it is really true of all the candidates, even if they have not been specifically asked the questions.  All the candidates have been in government for some time and have a record to stand on.  Some certainly more than others, but they all have a record and that record says more about how their religion will affect their performance in office than a dozen interviews by a dozen Bill Kellers.

But of course Keller could not be bothered to research things to that level because he is not interested in the answers, he is interested in scoring political points.  The archives of this blog would allow us, were we willing, to go through and provide Keller with all the answers he purports to want.  We are not, however, so willing.  To do so would be to give Keller precisely what he genuinely wants – to define the terms of the debate.

Gaining Altitude

And so with that, I want to leave the ground game for just a minute and start to look at things from a few thousand feet.  For starters, Keller’s invocation of all that went on last time with regards to Obama and Jeremiah Wright, when combined with the ugliness in the tone of Keller’s writings, indicates that he is not only trying to score political points, but also to vent his anger about the Wright dust-up last cycle, and further, that much of what we are witnessing here is little more than what Keller perceives to be tit-for-tat.

There are some significant differences.  Jeremiah Wright was prone to long and almost purely political discourse from his pulpit.  Much of the source material that Keller attempts to draw upon is almost purely religious in nature.  It is a political statement for Jeremiah Wright to say “God Damn America.”  For religious leaders to examine their beliefs and scriptures for guidance on specific issues is a religious exercise.  But that notwithstanding, this blog was one of the few conservative voices to rise, distasteful though it was, to Obama’s defense when it came to where he chose to worship.  Frankly, in that sense we conservatives asked for this.

Yes, Obama sat in Wright’s church for 20 years, but to therefore infer that Obama would also utter “God Damn America,” is to make Obama guilty by association.  Virtually all of Ryan Lizza’s hit piece on Michelle Bachmann, and much of Keller’s attack here are similar “guilt by association” inferences.  This is something we can ill afford.  I know of no religion that is without its fringe elements – often destructive fringe elements.  Such guilt by association tactics will serve only to completely delegitimize the religious voice in politics.  If we are going to rightfully get upset when such tactics are used against us, we have to be mindful of our own deployment of same.

Keller’s piece is yet another bit of evidence regarding one of the assertions this blog has been making since 2006.  If attacks on Romney for his faith in 2008 were allowed to stand, we would see similar attacks leveled at candidates on any religion this cycle.  Keller’s piece is precisely that in spades.  Frankly, the piece would be entirely unsurprising and almost unworthy of comment were it aimed solely at Romney.  In that regard it is nothing we have not seen countless times before – often much more well done that in this instance.  But it is the broad brush with which Keller paints religion generally that makes this notable, even if it was entirely predictable.

Keller makes almost  no effort to acknowledge the distinctions between Mormonism and mainline Christianity that we all cherish so and write about so endlessly.  In fact the few instances where he brings it up are a clear effort to paint us all as silly in-fighters more interested in our squabbles than the good of the nation.

At this point in time, a person serious about their faith and politics and governance in this nation has little choice but to set aside our internal squabbles and fight the good fight for any candidate of any faith that agrees with us.  Anything less will serve only to make Keller’s point for him.

Finally, I must note that Keller’s view of religion implies a religious, even hyper-religious, level of devotion to secularism.  Keller’s questions bristle with accusations that only “science” holds the “answers.”  No scientist worthy that title holds their own work in such a high regard.  It should not be forgotten that I am trained academically as a scientist.  The first lecture of my first chemistry class in college drove home a single point:  No matter how much we think we know, no matter how much the data support our conclusions, no matter how well our models may work, something can and often does come along that will upset the whole applecart.  It is not bigotry to make inquiry, but it is bigotry when one is so certain of one’s own view that the point of the inquiry is not to learn what the other thinks, or to follow the data where it leads but merely to discredit all other points of view.

The accusations of bigotry tossed Keller’s way are well-deserved.  It is nearly impossible to argue with a bigot.  Hence I chose not to do so here and instead merely demonstrate the fact of Keller’s anti-religious bigotry.  Those of us of faith do now have a higher bar to clear; however.  Keller’s bigotry, as well as that of so many that agree with him, gives us no choice.

In this piece I have pointed to a couple of places where we “asked for this.”  We have to get smarter, we have to get better, or we will lose – bigotry notwithstanding.

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