August 29th, 2011
10:19 PM ET
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
A New York Times column by outgoing Executive Editor Bill Keller has unleashed a hailstorm of online criticism among religious bloggers and conservative activists. The fact that the column compares religious believers to folks who think that space aliens are residing on Earth is just the beginning.
Keller’s column, “Asking Candidates Tougher Questions About Faith,” argues that the crop of candidates competing for the White House next year should be grilled on their religious beliefs and on how those beliefs inform their political views.
That’s especially true, Keller reasons, because many of this year’s GOP contenders hail from “churches that are mysterious or suspect to many Americans.”
One of the Timesman’s key concerns is that these candidates will put their religious faith first - above the national interest and the laws of the land:
To that end, Keller announces that he has sent customized questionnaires to handful of Republican presidential candidates, with questions like, “Do you agree with those religious leaders who say that America is a “Christian nation” or a “Judeo-Christian nation?” and what does that mean in practice?”
Criticism of the column revolves around a few grievances.
The first alleges that Keller, in maligning various faith traditions, is encouraging one of the cardinal sins of American life: religious discrimination.
“When I read Bill Keller’s bizarre piece in the New York Times yesterday morning, where he proposes a loaded religious quiz for potential candidates, I actually gasped,” writes Mollie Ziegler, a blogger at the respected religion-in-the-news site Get Religion.
“There must be some deeper meaning here,” she goes on. “There’s no way that the Times would openly display such bigotry or destroy its credibility so thoroughly.
Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt writes that “Keller's naked appeal to prejudice is startling to me. Can he not know - really not know - how his lines of inquiry play out and how they have always preceded the worst sort of religious intolerance?”
The second, related complaint about Keller's column is that the editor appears to be advocating a loyalty oath from religious candidates, asking them to publicly pledge allegiance to their country over their church.
Though Keller, who was raised Catholic, writes that he was “hurt” and “mystified” when John F. Kennedy faced questions about whether he’d take orders from the Vatican while running for president in 1960, critics say Keller is raising the same sorts of questions about the current Republican presidential field.
The other big gripe is that Keller’s questions are reserved for the Republican candidates; he doesn’t offer a single query for President Barack Obama, even though the electorate remains confused about Obama’s religious faith (most Americans can’t correctly identify the president as a Christian).
Those raising this line of criticism charge that such liberal bias explains why The Times was late to covering the controversy over Obama’s longtime preacher, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, in 2008. At one point, the controversy about Wright almost sank Obama’s candidacy.
Keller acknowledged such complaints in a tweet on Friday, when his column went up online:
Would be interested in your thoughts on this one. Is Keller raising legitimate questions that much of the news media have neglected, or is his column over the line?
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.