[Note: Joe Knippenberg beat me to this story , but I couldn’t resist posting about it too.]

I owe Michelle Goldberg an apology. In commenting on her last week article on “dominionism,” I said it was the “dumbest article I’ve read all year.” I realize I was too hasty. Now that Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times , has weighed in on the issue , I realize that Goldberg only wrote the second dumbest column of the year.

When it comes to clueless journalists, Keller is in a class of his own. Over the past six months he has been writing a column for the New York Times that has been almost universally panned. “The columns . . . were often ill-received by the media world as well as the Times ’ own newsroom,” said Emma Bazilian of Adweek . (That’s right: Keller’s own staff thinks his work is shoddy.)

Back in May, Dylan Byers , also from Adweek , asked, “Why does he keep writing these inane columns, despite the withering criticism he gets every time?” Good question. He’s scheduled to quit writing them in September. Keller should have stopped a couple of weeks early, before he wrote the disaster titled, “Asking Candidates Tougher Questions About Faith.”

Before we get to the meat of the column and the translation of what Keller is really saying, let me first point out the correction that had to be added:

An earlier version of this article indicated that Rick Santorum is an evangelical; he is Catholic.

Despite the fact that I have a “Sola Scriptura 4 EVA!” tattoo on my neck and am constantly flashing my evangelical gang signs while wearing my “Jonathan Edwards is my Homeboy” t-shirt, I am often mistaken for being a Catholic. That’s understandable. I’m an obscure figure, so I don’t expect the average reader to know my faith tradition.

Rick Santorum, however, is not an obscure figure—and as a NYT editor, Keller is supposed to be a better than average reader.

Santorum served 12 years as a Senator of a state (Pennsylvania) that borders the state where the New York Times has its office. He formally announced his candidacy for the presidency two months ago. He was not only one of the most famous Catholic Senators of the past 20 years but he is currently the only Catholic candidate in the GOP presidential race. (Update: I had forgotten about Gingrich. Is he still in the race?) How does Keller not know this? Does he not know how to use Google?

But as you will see, there is quite a lot that Keller doesn’t know. It’s rather remarkable.

To help our readers wade through this drivel, I’ve posted what Keller wrote followed by a “translation” of what he I think he really meant:

If a candidate for president said he believed that space aliens dwell among us, would that affect your willingness to vote for him? Personally, I might not disqualify him out of hand; one out of three Americans believe we have had Visitors and, hey, who knows? But I would certainly want to ask a few questions. Like, where does he get his information? Does he talk to the aliens? Do they have an economic plan?

Translation: “Some of my friends in Manhattan believe in aliens so I don’t want to insult them.”
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.

Translation: “I realize that a candidate has to pretend to be a Christian to get elected, but if they actually believe any of that nonsense we have a right to know.”
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.

Translation: “Now that Obama’s faith is no longer an issue, we can talk about it openly.”
We have an unusually large number of candidates, including putative front-runners, who belong to churches that are mysterious or suspect to many Americans.

Translation: “None of these candidates are Episcopalians.”
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.

Translation: “All I know is that I just saw the Broadway play Book of Mormon and from what I can tell, Mormons are weird.”
Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are both affiliated with fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity . . .

Translation: “All evangelicals are fervid.”
Rick Santorum comes out of the most conservative wing of Catholicism.

Translation: “At first I thought Santorum was an evangelical (he’s very fervid) but then I read his Wikipedia page and it seems he believes the same stuff as that Pope Benedict guy.”
which has raised concerns about their respect for the separation of church and state, not to mention the separation of fact and fiction.

Translation: “I really hate to go to the library and find the fiction mixed in with the non-fiction. It drives me nuts.”
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.

Translation: “I don’t want to come say Mormons are weird but can you believe they believe this stuff? Oh, and Catholics are weird too.”
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.

Translation: “If you actually believe any of that crazy religious stuff, if you do not subscribe to practical atheism, then you are unqualified to be President.”

(Note to Mr. Keller: Here’s a good way to know for sure. Watch the Presidential Inauguration and see if the incoming President puts their hand on the Bible and says, “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. So help me God.” If they do—as Obama did—then you can be sure they are a “dominionist.”)

It matters to me whether a president respects serious science and verifiable history . . .

Translation: “I don’t know much about that scienecy stuff but I’m told that it important that the president agrees with whatever the current scientific consensus is on an issue, especially if it involves a carbon tax..”
in short, belongs to what an official in a previous administration once scornfully described as “the reality-based community.”

Translation: “I don’t really understand the original context of that phrase, but I read about it on some liberal blogs.”
I do care if religious doctrine becomes an excuse to exclude my fellow citizens from the rights and protections our country promises.

Addendum to the Translation: “ . . . and to any future rights that the Supreme Court may find in their penumbras.”
And 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.

Translation: “All my friends keep talking about something called “dominionism.” When I was at a cocktail party last week, someone said, ‘You know, Bill, you really need to write about this scary stuff in your column.’ I had no idea what they were talking about so I’m just repeating what I read in a recent piece in the New Yorker .”
So this season I’m paying closer attention to what the candidates say about their faith and what they have said in the past that they may have decided to play down in the quest for mainstream respectability.

Translation: “If the New Yorker happens to write another piece on dominionists, I’ll read that one too.”
From Ryan Lizza’s enlightening profile in The New Yorker, I learned that Michele Bachmann’s influences include spiritual and political mentors who preach the literal “inerrancy” of the Bible, who warn Christians to be suspicious of ideas that come from non-Christians, who believe homosexuality is an “abomination,” who portray the pre-Civil War South as a pretty nice place for slaves and who advocate “Dominionism,” the view that Christians and only Christians should preside over earthly institutions.

Translation: “See, I told you I read it.”
From reporting in The Texas Observer and The Texas Monthly, I learned about the Dominionist supporters of Rick Perry, including a number of evangelists to whom Perry gave leading roles in his huge public prayer service, called the Response, early this month.

Translation: “I believe whatever liberals in Austin tell me. Also, I think that as governor Rick Perry has control over who comes to prayer events in Texas.”

(Note: Perry didn’t give anyone roles in The Response. Perry was merely invited to pray. I know that the New Yorker no longer employs fact-checkers, but couldn’t the New York Times find at least one that could save their executive editor from making such colossally stupid claims?)

Neither Bachmann nor Perry has, as far as I know, pledged allegiance to the Dominionists. Possibly they overlooked those passages in the books and sermons of their spiritual comrades.

Translation: “Maybe they did and it was in Lizza’s New Yorker article. I didn’t read the whole thing. It was a ridiculously long feature.”
My informed Texan friends tell me Perry’s relationship with the religious fringe is pragmatic, that it is more likely he is riding the movement than it is riding him.

Translation: “Seriously, I believe whatever liberals in Austin tell me.”
But as we have seen with the Tea Party (another political movement Perry hopped aboard in its early days), the support of a constituent group doesn’t come without strings.

Translation: “I read somewhere that politicians sometimes listen to the people who elect them. I’m not saying that I think it’s a good idea, I’m just passing along what I heard.”
In any case, let’s ask. In the last presidential campaign, Candidate Obama was pressed to distance himself from his pastor, who carried racial bitterness to extremes, and Candidate McCain was forced to reject the endorsement of a preacher who offended Catholics and Jews. I don’t see why Perry and Bachmann should be exempt from similar questioning.

Translation: “I didn’t take the time to proofread this article so I didn’t notice that distancing and rejecting are not forms of questioning. I’m the executive editor of the New York Times , for goshsakes. I don’t have time to edit my own work.”
Asking candidates, respectfully, about their faith should not be an excuse for bigotry or paranoia.

Translation: “Asking candidates about their faith is a good way for us East Coast media types to signal to our friends that we share their concerns and are scared of these religious nuts too.”
I still remember, as a Catholic boy, being mystified and hurt by the speculation about John Kennedy’s Catholicism — whether he would be taking orders from the Vatican.

Translation: “I can’t believe they thought my hero—JFK—was going to take orders from the most conservative wing of Catholicism. To think that he could be mistaken for that guy I mistook for an evangelical.”
(Kennedy addressed the issue of his faith and mostly neutralized it, as Romney tried to do in a 2007 speech that emphasized his common ground with mainstream Christian denominations.)

Translation: “Mormons are not a mainstream Christian denomination.”
And of course issues of faith should not distract attention from issues of economics and war.

Translation: “We don’t want to get carried away and start asking Obama about his faith . . . “
But it is worth knowing whether a candidate has a mind open to intelligence that does not fit neatly into his preconceptions.

Translation: “ . . . but these other nutty candidates, who aren’t the intellectual peers of our beloved President, are fair game.”
To get things rolling, I sent the aforementioned candidates a little questionnaire (which you can find on The 6th Floor blog). Here’s a sample:

Translation: “The intern that runs my blog put this together.”
•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?

Translation: “You’re not going to expect to go along with that “love thy neighbor” stuff, are you? Because that’s just creepy. I pay a lot in condo fees so that I don’t have to interact with my neighbors.”
Would you have any hesitation about appointing a Muslim to the federal bench? What about an atheist?

Translation: “I don’t actually know any Muslim myself, but I assume some are lawyers, right?”
What is your attitude toward the theory of evolution, and do you believe it should be taught in public schools?

Translation: “I don’t understand that evolution stuff myself, but Tom Friedman says that if kids aren’t taught that we descended from monkeys then China wins.”
I also asked specific questions of the candidates. I wanted Governor Perry to explain his relationship with David Barton, the founder of the WallBuilders evangelical movement, who preaches that America should have a government “firmly rooted in biblical principles” and that the Bible offers explicit guidance on public policy — for example, tax policy. Since Barton endorsed Perry in the past, it would be interesting to know whether the governor disagrees with him.

Translation: “I really don’t know who this Barton guy is and I haven’t taken the time to read Perry’s campaign website.”
And what about John Hagee, the Texas evangelist who described Catholicism as a “godless theology of hate” and declared that the Holocaust was part of God’s plan to drive the Jews to Palestine? In the 2008 campaign, John McCain disavowed Hagee’s endorsement. This time around, the preacher has reportedly decided to bestow his blessing on Perry’s campaign. I wonder if it will be accepted.

Translation: “Obama had to disown the minister who was like a father to him so it is only fair that Perry reject an endorsement by some minister he probably never met.”
My note to Representative Bachmann asked about the documentary produced last year by a group now known as Truth in Action Ministries, in which she espoused the idea that all money for social welfare should come from charity, not government taxation. Is that a goal she would pursue as president?

Translation: “Charity is when you make a donation to MOMA. Social welfare is the job of government. What are these idiots thinking?”
And I’m curious if she stands by her recommendation of that biography of Robert E. Lee by J. Steven Wilkins, who contends the Civil War was a clash between a Christian South and a godless North. Wilkins writes that in the South, contrary to the notion that slaves were victims, there was a “unity and companionship that existed between the races” because they shared a common faith.

Translation: “I read this in Lizza’s article so I assume it is true.”
We’ll be posting the campaigns’ answers — if any — on nytimes.com. And if they don’t answer, let’s keep on asking. Because these are matters too important to take on faith.

Translation: “My reporters have told me that we actually know most of these questions but I can’t remember the password to my Lexis-Nexis account so there’s no way to know for sure.”

Articles by Joe Carter

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