Bill Keller, the outgoing editor of the New York Times, pens a column in the NYT magazine this week seeking answers to questions about the religious beliefs of GOP presidential candidates, and how those beliefs might impact their governance. He snidely suggests that if a candidate claimed belief in aliens, voters would want to know how those aliens impacted their views, and then suggests that religious beliefs deserve similar scrutiny. He writes:
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 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.
I honestly don’t care if Mitt Romney wears Mormon undergarments beneath his Gap skinny jeans, or if he believes that the stories of ancient American prophets were engraved on gold tablets and buried in upstate New York, or that Mormonism’s founding prophet practiced polygamy (which was disavowed by the church in 1890). 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.
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.
Putting aside his snarky tone, do Keller's question have merit? While a religious test is both unsavory and unconstitutional, should religious beliefs be more formally and closely examined in political campaigns? Do the extreme beliefs of several GOP candidates in this cycle call for closer questioning?
Michael J. O'Loughlin