Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

My friends at the invaluable Mirror of Justice blog have noted and commented on New York Times editor Bill Keller’s snarky questions for and  about the religious beliefs of various Republican candidates, but I feel compelled to add my two cents’ worth.

Here’s one of Keller’s questions:

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.

This is a complicated question that can’t be dealt with in the kind of soundbite that Keller wants.  What does it mean, for example, when a President takes his (or her) oath of office on a Bible?  Isn’t the oath-taker thereby grounding his (or her) duty to the Constitution in a higher loyalty to God’s law?  Would it trouble Keller if I said that God called me to be a good citizen, but that my ultimate allegiance was to His city, not the city of man?  Would he be troubled by the fact that I worship God, but not the Constitution and laws of the United States?  And I wonder, in passing, how the author of the Letter from the Birmingham Jail would answer Keller’s question.

Keller concludes this way:

Asking candidates, respectfully, about their faith should not be an excuse for bigotry or paranoia. 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. (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.) And of course issues of faith should not distract attention from issues of economics and war. But it is worth knowing whether a candidate has a mind open to intelligence that does not fit neatly into his preconceptions.

I happen to agree with his last point; it is worth knowing whether candidates have minds open to intelligence that doesn’t fit neatly into their preconceptions.  My difference with Keller is that I don’t think that religious folks have a monopoly on either preconceptions or close-mindedness.  Indeed, there are two things about faith in this connection that I find especially valuable.  First, faith is humbling.  If we’re fallen, finite, and fallible, then perhaps we won’t be convinced that we have all the answers.  (Of course, our fallenness means that there’s more than enough smugness to go around, but, again, people of faith are not alone here.)  Second, as I was reminded today by the contributors to a very interesting little symposium in the current issue of The City , faith in a creator God gives us a powerful incentive to seek the truth, an incentive that “believers” in an accidental universe don’t have.

Now, if you want some really hard questions to ask the candidates, don’t look to Bill Keller, but rather to the much more incisive Darryl Hart .  I’ll leave it at that.



Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles