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A question is bubbling amid conservative-leaning websites, asking whether the New York Times’ executive editor Bill Keller is guilty of committing bad satire or simple bigotry. In a feature for the magazine, Keller suggested that presidential candidates, specifically Republican presidential candidates, should face “tougher questions” about the role faith plays in their lives.

Beginning his essay by making a sly”actually downright passive-aggressive”correlation between religious faith and belief in “space aliens” Keller (who apparently lives so deeply insulated among his own kind as to be unaware that over 90 percent of his countrymen believe in God and over 50 percent even support a national “Day of Prayer”) expressed concern about “putative front-runners, who belong to churches that are mysterious or suspect to many Americans. 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, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum are all affiliated with fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity, which has raised concerns about their respect for the separation of church and state, not to mention the separation of fact and fiction.”

I would have said Keller was exhibiting narrow-minded bigotry in his piece, but charity tempts me to call him a bad satirist. His paper has since printed a correction, acknowledging that Rick Santorum’s “fervid subset of evangelical Christianity” is plain-old, faulty-but-hardly-fervid Catholicism, with a stated preference for the Latin mass. As Kathleen Parker might say, “oogedy-boogedy.”

A second correction covered Keller’s assertion that “a majority” of Americans believe in extraterrestrials; only one-in-three Americans”Keller’s own columnist, Paul Krugman apparently among them”make that claim.

Others have ably pointed out that Keller’s own paper
conveniently displayed minimal interest in the religious beliefs of the candidate Barack Obama or those of his rather fervid pastor and spiritual mentor, Jeremiah Wright. Democrats are understood to have tamed their religion into obedient torpor”to governance give the glory! Keller’s noble-if-distorted concern for the separation of church and state, meanwhile, is so specious and tiresome that it seems pointless to address.

What I can’t help wondering, though, is why Bill Keller wants to weaken the nation’s diplomatic hand. The Times is a longtime champion of the nuanced efficacy of diplomacy”especially the soft-powered “smart” diplomacy that is the supposed specialty of Democratic administrations”and the greatest diplomatic challenge of the age involves engaging with leaders and governments for which issues of faith are very much to the fore. Determined to embrace all of the social, secular and economic policies that are not working in Europe”even as Europe is beginning to re-think them, themselves”Keller and his enlightened friends are too anxious to play the “crazy-science-hating-fanatics” card on the GOP field of nominees. They should reconsider this, especially in light of the narcissism of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the instability of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and the possibility of theocracies emerging from newly formed Middle Eastern governments.

After the heinous 2008 terror attack on Mumbai, I said the following:

“It is with the language of faith that Islamic terrorism must be engaged and defeated, and therein lies the disconnect for the diplomatic West. Having reasoned itself out of faith, its incomplete arsenal is fit for battle, but not for victory. The West can speak only of borders, boundaries, markets, and measurement. Faith exists beyond boundaries and borders; it defies markets and measurement. The negotiables of the West are worldly and “the world” means nothing in the face of paradise.

Islam, like all faith, is not of this world but of the world to come. Islam’s extremists, like all extremists, would like to speed their agenda along . . . If one side’s ideas are mayhem in service to transcendence and the other side is thinking about meetings and signed papers, then secular Western diplomacy is boxing with one glove.”

Obviously, I was writing specifically about jihad, but I think the argument could be made that the pronounced disdain for religion, which is increasingly hoisted as a standard for Western intellectualism, real or faux, exposes a potential fault-line in understanding, language and mindset that”if not overcome”could eventually set the very earth to trembling.

Last week, in these pages, Rusty Reno asked if the Tea Party had “a religion problem.” Another question might also be asked: shouldn’t voters consider whether decidedly irreligious (or expediently religious) political leaders are deficient in comprehension where it is most crucially needed in the twenty-first century? An American president who is able to speak the language of the believer”not mere words of casual observation or covert condescension, but the actual vocabulary of supernaturalism”may quite possibly be able cultivate a meeting of the minds within the Middle East, through the planting of seeds a secularist would not know to sow.

Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress . Her previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here .


Keller in NYTimes

Kathleen Parker; Giving Up on God

Paul Krugman Space Alien Economy

Obama, Wright and the Times

War on Terror, Language of Faith

Reno; Tea Party a Religion Problem?

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