What kinds of questions should we be asking presidential candidates who profess a faith?
Last week Bill Keller (executive editor of the New York Times) posed some “tough questions” to presidential candidates. Citing the disapproval of asking the question that was posed two Michelle Bachmann at the Iowa G.O.P. debate (what did she mean when “she said the Bible obliged her to ‘be submissive’ to her husband”), Keller observes, “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.” One needs only to consider the campaign promises of G.O.P. candidates year after year about pro-life legislation to agree with Keller here.
But, the tone of his column reveals less of an actual curiosity about the candidates and more of a disdain for religion in general. (Rather aloofly, Keller says, “I grew up believing that a priest could turn a bread wafer into the actual flesh of Christ.” An erroneous belief, even for a Catholic. The priest doesn’t do any of the turning; he merely presides. And as for the actual flesh, this GYA is a good explanation of the transformation of that wafer.)
Some of his questions are in fact good, the answers to which could be enlightening. The electorate, both Christian and not, deserves to know if candidates believe this country is “Christian” or “Judeo-Christian” what that means in practical terms. Does it mean that the candidate will only appoint Christians to his or her cabinets? Is a candidate going to dismiss all scientific evidence regarding climate control because he came to different conclusions based on faith?
Unfortunately, most of Keller’s questions seem pointed at demonizing candidates specifically for having religious beliefs, rather than what kinds of policies they would support because of their faith. The majority of the questions ask how the candidates arrived at a certain position, rather than how it might play out if they were in the White House. Why engage Bachmann in a theological debate over whether the Bible literally true? I want to know what kind of influence her opinions on the required submissiveness of wives would have on policy that directly affects women, such as equal pay.
And, as some commenters have noted, where are the list of questions to Barack Obama? The absence of such a list again puts religious belief in the conservative Republicans’ corner, despite Obama expressing his own Christian faith.
While the questions and who they’re posed to does reveal a bias against conservative candidates it raises a bigger issue surrounding the discussion of faith and public life, namely, who determines where the divide between church and state falls? Does the prohibition against the establishment of a national religion mean that atheists and agnostics get to define the terms of discussion about faith and politics?