August 29th, 2011
10:19 PM ET

NY Times editor's column on candidates' religious faith sparks online firestorm

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.”

Here’s Keller:

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. … 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.

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:

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. … I care a lot if a candidate is going to be a Trojan horse for a sect that believes it has divine instructions on how we should be governed.

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:

Yes, Dems should be asked about their faith (and influences) too. We were late to Rev. Wright in '08, but we got there, and did it well.

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?

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Politics

soundoff (355 Responses)
  1. Mentiel

    Before being eligible for any public office any person should remove themselves from any and all membership organizations... be it church, a bingo club, a book club, what ever it may be all cut off.
    If the person running for office brings up their religion in debate, advertising or any other form to garner votes then it should be open game for questioning... just like it works in a court room.

    These people are not you average joe on the street, they are the people we are electing to run our country. They do not get the same levity that the common man gets. Their opinions and responses are going to be used to judge every American, not just themselves. So yes they do need to be questioned most thoroughly to insure they are capable of doing the elected duty properly.

    It is not bigotry or discrimination of any form to question a candidate completely on the religion they espouse to draw in voters. It makes perfectly logical sense to question them on what they shout/say to encourage people to follow them. Why should we follow them if we do not fully understand their point of view, be it faith, science, economics, etc..

    September 22, 2011 at 11:58 pm |
  2. isis

    Faith & religion should NEVER!!!! come into question when it comes to politics. There's SUPPOSED to be 'separation of church & State' (thank God!!!). Not all Americans are Christians, and unfortunately, it seems that Christians think that they rule the USA (look at what they were taught by the Roman Catholic Church for centuries) and if you're not Christian then you're a second class citizen or 'you need to go back to your own country". Politics and religion don't mix and shouldn't mix. Judge the candidates on their policies and NOT on some stupid religious view. Please keep religion out of politics!!!!!!!

    September 20, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  3. Someone Using Their Mind

    Oh man. This argument about whether Christianity is true or not is kind of annoying. Here is my thought on the article.
    It is one sided to attack the republicans. In Bill Keller’s Colum he states somethings that we should be worried about. For example is anyone who has a deep religious background going to be controlled by the leaders of their religion? That is something we should consider. But I really don't think anyone in their right mind who chooses to run for president would even consider letting a religious leader make or even influence their thinking and decision making. Another thing that we would be smart to see is what Bill Keller is saying in this "Yet when it comes to the religious beliefs of our would-be presidents, we are a little squeamish about probing too aggressively. Michele Bachmann was asked during the Iowa G.O.P. debate what she meant when she said the Bible obliged her to “be submissive” to her husband, and there was an audible wave of boos — for the question, not the answer. There is a sense, encouraged by the candidates, that what goes on between a candidate and his or her God is a sensitive, even privileged domain, except when it is useful for mobilizing the religious base and prying open their wallets." (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/28/magazine/asking-candidates-tougher-questions-about-faith.html?_r=1&ref=billkeller) If this is really how a president candidate is gaining support then i think us as Americans should be using our minds a little more. Sure religious congregations can be used as political machine, but that just means we as Americans are too dumb to use our GOD GIVEN GIFT to think for ourselves. In the end for me anyways no matter what religion the person i vote for president is I will decide not on whether or not they are Mormon, Muslim, Buddhist, Christen, or Atheist. It will be on what values and ideas they have that will help change the United Stated of America for the better

    September 1, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
  4. CrystalRiver

    Americans who have become sick immoral cannot stand a good and noble thing like Christianity. Bad kids who got spoiled and addicted to toxic stuff hurt their innocent family members including their own good parents. The same thing is happening in USA. If the Church did anything wrong, she spoiled the villains in the land too much.

    September 1, 2011 at 1:42 am |
    • Reality

      CrystalRiver, the red-neck lady of many names, lost in a sea of inanity !!!

      September 1, 2011 at 7:38 am |
    • V01D

      Proud "villain" right here.

      September 4, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
  5. JTesh

    Let's suppose you are a small religious cult in what is now Israel/Palestine 2,000 years ago. Your supposed messiah has just been executed, and you have to come up with a reason why – bearing in mind that the messiah you have been waiting on was meant to be some kind of Solomon/David figure who would throw off the yoke of Roman rule. What do you do?

    Do you accept that he was not the messiah you thought or do you come up with a rationale as to why it was all part of his grand plan and that, one day he'll be back? The answer they invented – Jesus intentionally dying on the cross to save us from original sin – was consistent with the morality and knowledge of history they possessed at the time.

    We just know today it is silly and impossible.

    August 31, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
  6. Walnut

    Lets be honest. A number of the Republican candidates are religious wack jobs. Have you ever heard the rants of a number of Rick Perry supporters? Bizarre! And scarry! I for one do not want to be required to pray under a tent with a bunch of people fainting all around me because the Lord has touched them.

    August 31, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • Anti Christian Taliban Schizophrenics

      Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that makes it difficult to tell the difference between real and unreal experiences, to think logically, to have normal emotional responses, and to behave normally in social situations.
      As the illness continues, psychotic symptoms develop:
      • False beliefs or thoughts that are not based in reality (delusions)
      • Hearing, seeing, or feeling things that are not there (hallucinations)

      August 31, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
  7. William Bradley

    Bill Keller is a typical left wing idealogue who sees the Obama administartions failures and is trying to sweep them under the rug so that legitimate candidates for the Presidency, who actually love their country and want to fix the problems that the Obama administration have caused, are demonized in a deseparate attempt to re-elect a Man that we know little or nothing about other than the fact that he has damaged our country far beyond our greatest fears. Why doesn't Bill Keller ask the same question to President Obama? Probably because the truth is something to horrible to face. We need leaders who are people of Faith, who recognize that the Judeo-Christian principles that this nation were founded on are the only hope for people to enjoy true liberty and freedom!!

    August 31, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • Anti Christian Taliban Schizophrenics

      William Bradley

      Bill Keller is a typical left wing idealogue who sees the Obama administartions failures and is trying to sweep them under the rug so that legitimate candidates for the Presidency, who actually love their country and want to fix the problems that the Obama administration have caused, are demonized in a deseparate attempt to re-elect a Man that we know little or nothing about other than the fact that he has damaged our country far beyond our greatest fears. Why doesn't Bill Keller ask the same question to President Obama? Probably because the truth is something to horrible to face. We need leaders who are people of Faith, who recognize that the Judeo-Christian principles that this nation were founded on are the only hope for people to enjoy true liberty and freedom!!

      I am not a fan of Obama but it is sad that the best the GOP can offer is religious zealots. GOP needs to clean house with these religo nuts.

      August 31, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • Anti Christian Taliban Schizophrenics

      Here is a novel idea for the GOP, less government in every aspect. Lose the "I want to pass laws to imnpose upon freedoms" people.

      August 31, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Matt

      So the only way for America to have freedom and liberty is to pass laws based on antiquated Judeo-Christian ethics that exist to restrict freedom and liberty? You know the Bible prohibits long hair and many other ridiculous things?

      August 31, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • JohnQuest

      William Bradley, I have no great love for our Presidents policies either but please tell me where he is ruining our country any more than the last President did. Seems to me they have the same policies on just about every issue. What do you see different?

      August 31, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • Shanna

      For the last time, this country WAS NOT founded on Christian principles!

      "Too horrible" to believe? What, that Obama might be Muslim (he isn't, by the way). But to you people, if he really was anythign but Christian it would be the most horrible thing in the world. Seriously, it does not matter what religion you are, you can still be President of this nation and a good one. What Keller is saying is that one when one is completely led by that religion you have problems...as evidenced by people like you.

      September 24, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  8. Iceman

    "Just because we can not see something does not mean that it does not exist." -Commander John Koening
    Space 1999 season 1 episode 8

    August 31, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  9. atomD21

    I don't get in to the whole media liberal bias argument, because it's a waste of energy and time. Personally, as a Christian, I am more than a little unnerved by the current crop of the religious right. They are personifying the worst traits of the modern pharisees that we've largely become. Unmitigated bigotry, attempts to legislate religious beliefs, etc. I stopped being a Republican a long time ago because of all that. We are not a "Christian Nation" as they would have you believe, but a country founded on the idea that tyranny of any kind is bad. Now we have religious power players trying to essentially create a Theocracy. Ask the Middle East how Theocratic government is...

    August 31, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • packerfan

      Read the early findings of the US Supreme Court and see if they didn't describe us as a Christian nation. To try and degrade Christianity and disprove the Bible as God's Word has dangerous consequences. You all are free to believe as you wany but it doesn't change the fact that God created us, His Son is Jesus Christ, and His Word is true. In Him alone is salvation. Do with it what you wish, it's your choice. But I need to add one more thing: God's Word says something else: "Be not deceived, God will not be mocked."

      September 21, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  10. Scott B

    This discussion began as a discussion about the propriety of questioning presidential candidates about their religious beliefs, but quickly became an argument about whether atheism, theism (and, if theism, then which version of "God") was best.

    Plainly, the issue of belief is NOT widely seen as a private and personal matter. It is obviously widely seen as a basis upon which to judge one another.

    Why then should political candidates be immunized from the same sort of inquiry and judgment? In other words, we always seek information about the organizations that politicians voluntarily join and participate in, and use that information to make judgments. We would want to know whether political candidates belong to segregated country clubs, or to the John Birch Society, or the KKK, or GreenPeace, or the ACLU, or any organization that espouses a philosophy that bears on policy. And after all, why shouldn't we?

    Why then should we not inquire about a politician's religious beliefs, if those beliefs, too, may bear on the philosophies that form a politician's decisions?

    Why does religion, alone, demand (and frequently get) a pass that allows it to escape inquiry?

    August 31, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • atomD21

      Couldn't agree more. The religious beliefs of our elected officials and candidates for office are just as important as any other belief they may have. Every religion based comment thread devloves into a spitting match between the ultra religious and the ultra non religious, so that's no shock...

      August 31, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  11. eric calderone

    Keller is over the line, over the top, way, way out, a true space cadet. Unfortunately, among hardline secularists, atheists and/or agnostics, he has plenty of company. All too frequently, those in the media who criticize people of faith are woefully ignorant of faith of any kind. They lack familiarity with theological concepts, its terminology, the bible, Church liturgy, and make comments that are quite naive or ignorant.

    One would hope that a sense of professionalism would prompt commentators to at least investigate the subject matter before drawing inferences and commenting. But this does not seem to be the case. Being clueless and uninformed does nothing to facilitate an interchange of ideas, and actually hurts the body politic.

    August 31, 2011 at 9:09 am |
  12. nelbert

    "We were late to Rev. Wright in '08, but we got there, and did it well."

    Really? You really think you deserve a pat on the back for your coverage? I first heard about Wright on conservative talk radio. I thought it must be overblown or somehow in error. Despite all the criticism of that venue for information, they sure scooped you guys and have, in my opinion, exposed you as pawns of the current administration.

    August 31, 2011 at 3:21 am |
  13. CrystalRiver

    A real quick sociology for Americans:
    Americans know Christianity is right. They are just unwilling to give up all their sinful lifestyles and godless autonomy. They joke and poke to see how far they can go and still get away. Some have given up altogether and decided to hate God and His people. Tragedy and decline await such nations. Americans even know their end but still cling to the money for a few more decades. ...This phenomenon is nothing new.

    August 30, 2011 at 11:59 pm |
    • Reality

      CrystalRiver's inanity goes on and on !!!

      August 31, 2011 at 7:21 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      You seem to spew your ugliness a lot about a country you don't even reside in. You honestly have no clue. I'll make you a deal, when you stop attacking anyone who does not follow your delusions, we'll stop attacking you...until that time enjoy the reality check.
      We know Christianity is wrong because history has proven it to be that way. There is no sense in it and it takes away from the value of the one life you are guaranteed of.

      August 31, 2011 at 7:35 am |
    • CrystalRiver

      Summary of history – Christianity liberated the world from tyranny and created USA and Canada and Australia.

      August 31, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • Reality

      Summarizing Christian history:

      Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations (or “mythicizing” from P, M, M, L and J) and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a ma-mzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). An-alyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Ludemann, Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, ) via the NT and related doc-uments have concluded that only about 30% of Jesus' sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan sects.

      The 30% of the NT that is "authentic Jesus" like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus' case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hitt-ites, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics.


      For added "pizzazz", Catholic theologians divided god the singularity into three persons and invented atonement as an added guilt trip for the "pew people" to go along with this trinity of overseers. By doing so, they made god the padre into god the "filicider".

      Current RCC problems:

      Pedophiliac priests, an all-male, mostly white hierarchy, atonement theology and original sin!!!!

      Luther, Calvin, Joe Smith, Henry VIII, Wesley, Roger Williams, the Great “Babs” et al, founders of Christian-based religions or combination religions also suffered from the belief in/hallucinations of "pretty wingie thingie" visits and "prophecies" for profits analogous to the myths of Catholicism (resurrections, apparitions, ascensions and immacu-late co-nceptions).

      Current problems:
      Adulterous preachers, pedophiliac clerics, "propheteering/ profiteering" evangelicals and atonement theology,

      August 31, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Jacob

      CrystalRiver, thanks for providing a prime example of why we are leery of religious people. They typically feel the same way as you. Remember...its only bad if its against us. We on the other hand could and should discriminate because god loves us, not them. Mind you, Jesus was middle eastern and liberal, and we are not, but he is one of us?

      August 31, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • thinking

      @ Reality
      It was not Catholics that first thought up the Trinity.....this came from false pagan worship. False Christinaity incorporated these pagan beliefs into THEIR doctrines. This was not a teaching form the Bible.

      August 31, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • CrystalRiver

      Reality's info are all false. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is unique to Christianity. Uneducated Westerners have misunderstanding about the concept because they are not educated properly.

      September 1, 2011 at 1:38 am |
  14. bjgeibel

    I think he asks important questions. Many of the republican candidates espouse belief of church over state and the exclusion of groups they don't like from the political process.

    August 30, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
  15. Muslim is Peace Maker

    The proof that prophet mohammed is Co-creator of Koran.


    August 30, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.