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Musings on politicians and their religious beliefs

By Ben L. Kaufman · October 12th, 2011 · On Second Thought
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To paraphrase Joseph Welch, “Have we no sense of decency?”

Nope. Not when candidates’ answers or evasions suggest how they might act in office.

At our best, reporters are intrusive so that Americans have the information we need to debate and decide public policies. Reporters should have no reticence when candidates display their families as symbols of virtue/virility/fecundity.

Or play up their beliefs, piety and practices to win votes.

Or suggest they are physically sound and, possibly, their opponent is not.

Some of these issues are surfacing among GOP presidential aspirants. We should be grateful. Their self-inflicted wounds are distracting the news media from sillier stuff of politics, like Iowa and Florida Republican straw polls that only mean something to journalists who must write about something.

Foremost among GOP issues de jour is whether a president who is not a Fundamentalist or evangelical Christian is fit to occupy the Oval Office. The corollary asks if these conservative Protestants accept non-Christians as full citizens with rights to share in America’s governance.

None of us knows what candidates believe. We only know what they say and do in the name of those beliefs. That’s why it’s fair to ask how policies they and their allies advocate square with Article 6, paragraph III of the U.S. Constitution: “ . . . no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

And when candidates asserts “This is a Christian nation,” we should ask what they would do to create such a mythical being.

A low rumble among GOP faithful erupted last week when Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith was thrown in his face. Robert Jeffress, an influential Southern Baptist, said Romney “is not a Christian” and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the LDS, is a “cult.” Jeffress is pastor of 10,000-member First Baptist Church of Dallas. The accusations repeated Jeffress’ 2008 attack when Romney first sought the Republican nomination. On the other hand, Rick Perry is a “genuine follower of Jesus Christ,” Jeffress said of his fellow evangelical and Texan. If that is Jeffress’ litmus test and Perry agrees, a lot of us would be unfit to govern if he were elected.

Given the decades of infighting among Southern Baptists, this need to exclude others — faux Christians and non-Christians alike — should come as no surprise. For generations, Catholics frightened many conservative American Protestants. Now, it’s the LDS as Romney and fellow Mormon John Huntsman aspire to the presidency.

Inadvertently, Jeffress may have created Mitt’s “JFK moment.” Maybe Mitt will follow JFK’s example and wrangle an invitation to appear before Jeffress and other leading Fundamentalist and evangelical clergy.

Given his chance, Mitt could respond to their doubts and fears. Huntington would have to confront those same suspicions if he were a stronger candidate for the GOP nomination.

An irony: Christians who deny that Mormons are real Christians array themselves against this most American church. Of all major religions, it alone was revealed in the United States and in less than 200 years, its members are self-confident enough to run for president.

A further irony: when Mitt’s dad, George, ran for the 1968 GOP nomination, few fussed publicly over his Mormon faith (or Mexican birth). Republicans have changed. The “solid South” today enriches the GOP with hatreds that soiled the Democratic Party for a century.

Jeffress’ antipathy recalls a First Baptist predecessor’s damnation of JFK during the 1960 election. Then-Pastor W. A. Criswell drew on historic Protestant anti-Catholicism to charge that JFK would open American government to undue Vatican influence. To the end, Criswell and like-minded Protestants opposed Kennedy’s election.

An anti-Catholic joke from that election had Jackie calling JFK to the phone, saying “It’s your father.” To which JFK responds, “Home or Rome.” ‘Nuff said.

As with that 1960 bigotry, Jeffress’ attack was a clear notice to like-minded Christians that being Mormon makes Romney unfit to govern. However, Jeffress isn’t Criswell. If Romney’s the GOP alternative to President Obama’s reelection, The New York Times reported, Jeffress conceded, “I’m going to instruct, I’m going to advise people that it is much better to vote for a non-Christian who embraces biblical values than to vote for a professing Christian like Barack Obama who embraces un-biblical values.”

Journalists should have asked what those values are.

When reporters asked about Jeffress’s remarks and whether the LDS is a “cult,” Perry said, “No.”

In 2008, religion took a lingering back seat to Birthers’ doubts about Obama’s birthplace and news media attention to Palin’s children. Pregnant Bristol and her mother’s infant son, Trig, were fair game after their mom showed them off as family and anti-abortion electoral credentials.

Few outside her true believers missed the irony that Sarah Palin, carrying a fetus with Down Syndrome, and her unmarried and pregnant teenage daughter could legally have chosen to abort because of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that Palin would reverse.

Barack Obama’s religious affiliation was not an issue until his enemies - not opponents, enemies - pressed the question online and on cable rants. The clamor forced the the news media to look into the possibility that his Indonesian elementary school was a radical Islamist madrasa. It wasn’t, they reported. Anti-Muslim bigotry and Birther mania heightened this, as did objections to sermons by his black United Church of Christ minister in Chicago. Too few reporters have explored the phenomenon of Obama-haters saying he is a closet-Muslim and radical white-hating Christian.

John McCain invited questions about his religious sensibilities with remarks about Islam and Obama’s religious affiliation. When offered opportunities to say there is nothing wrong with Islam or being a Muslim, he was silent.

When a supporter said Obama is an Arab, McCain infamously replied, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent, family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with.” My bet is that this supporter meant Muslim, since few Americans worry about Christian Arabs. Just ask any Christian Arab in the Middle East. McCain’s age, wartime injuries and post-Vietnam cancers also were legitimate subjects for reporters. McCain confronted those queries headlong and they weren’t significant issues in the election.

In this context, the death of Apple’s Steve Jobs prompted NPR to interview New York Times columnist Joe Nocera about the confluence of candor and public interest. Nocera made a point too often missed by deferential reporters and editors: The health of a pivotal business (or political) figure is news the public needs. Jobs was seriously ill longer than he let on. Given his central role in Apple’s resurgence and success, the state of his health was information to which stockholders were entitled. Intrusive as that might be, it’s a legitimate thread reporters should have followed more assertively for years.

That deference also is shown too often to elected officials. We don’t have to go back to the decades when news media — print and newsreels at the movies — didn’t show FDR in his wheelchair or leaning on crutches. More troubling, Americans reelected FDR to an unprecedented fourth term in 1944 without the news media telling voters how ill the president was. He died the next year.

Two years ago, The Los Angeles Times looked at a new study of JFK’s chronic illnesses. The Times said that “hard though it is to believe these days — when a celebrity's smallest sneeze is analyzed — Kennedy's family and advisors were able to keep his medical history virtually secret. Kennedy, at 43 the youngest president ever elected, was portrayed as healthy and vibrant. In reality, he suffered various problems controlled by a daily regimen of steroids and other drugs. During the 1960 campaign, Kennedy's opponents said he had Addison's. His physicians released a cleverly worded statement saying that he did not have Addison's disease caused by tuberculosis, and the matter was dropped.”

But back to the future.

Michelle Bachmann wants to be president in 2012. She is trying to explain her repeated and faith-based assertions that Christian Scripture admonishes wives to be submissive to their husbands. So, if she’s in the White House, reporters have tried to learn, who’ll be in charge? Then there is her husband’s Christianity-based clinic which claims to help gays defeat their “demons” and become heterosexuals. She hasn’t distanced herself from that controversial theological or psychological practice.

And should Bachmann go unchallenged when she says, ''There are hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel Prizes, who believe in intelligent design'' or "I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?'”

As far as I can learn, Bachmann hasn’t named any anti-evolution Nobel Laureates and reporters apparently dropped the subject even though our public response to climate is among the nation’s most pressing policy decisions.

When reporters pressed Bachmann about her assertions that earthquakes and hurricanes are God’s judgment on insufficiently pious and conservative Americans, she and her staff said, in essence, “Can’t you guys take a joke?’ Nope, not when she’s among modern fundamentalists and evangelicals who blame disasters and even the 9/11 terrorist attacks on a sinful nation’s stiff-necked deafness to God’s word as they define it.

An example of that thinking came two days after 9/11. Jerry Falwell appeared on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club TV show. (Keep in mind these guys were major figures in the Religious Right.) Falwell said, "What we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be minuscule if, in fact, God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve . . . The ACLU has got to take a lot of blame for this. And I know I'll hear from them for this, but throwing God — successfully with the help of the federal court system — throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools, the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this, because God will not be mocked and when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say you helped this happen."

Robertson, once a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, said, "I totally concur, and the problem is we've adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government, and so we're responsible as a free society for what the top people do, and the top people, of course, is the court system."

Falwell added, "Pat, did you notice yesterday that the ACLU and all the Christ-haters, the People for the American Way, NOW, etc., were totally disregarded by the Democrats and the Republicans in both houses of Congress, as they went out on the steps and and called out to God in prayer and sang “God Bless America” and said, let the ACLU be hanged. In other words, when the nation is on its knees, the only normal and natural and spiritual thing to do is what we ought to be doing all the time, calling on God."

Again, reporters should press until we get evidence or a refusal to offer it. Then that’s the story. Decency isn’t involved here.

Meanwhile, Rick Perry says he doesn’t believe in human contributions to global warming and he defends the teaching of creationism in schools because evolution "has some gaps to it."

It’s fair to ask pro-Israel Christian candidates if they support the Jewish state for religious or strategic reasons. We can argue about strategy in the Middle East but it’s fair to ask whether that support suggests that Judaism is a valid religion or the Jewish state is a vital ingredient in a Holy Land in-gathering that is vital to some Christian visions of salvation and the End of Days.

If thrice-married Newt Gingrich tries to take the moral high ground or preach on family values, it would be fair to ask him about his divorces and, possibly, how this factors into his religious conversion.

And while it’s fair to debate how best to reduce the human role in climate change, any candidate who doubts the scientific consensus that climate is changing or that humans have a role should be asked for evidence to support their contrarian belief. If it’s a religious qualm, how would the candidate treat tensions between faith and science in the White House.

The same questions could be asked of candidates who associate themselves with theologies that say Christians must aspire to govern all of our institutions. That includes Perry and Bachmann, given their links to Dominionism and Christian Reconstructionism, which tell Christians that they have a God-given right or obligation to rule.

In the same way, it’s fair to probe candidates’ invocation of what they say are their God’s words or who rely on coded religious language to guide to public policy and civil authority.

Reporters who question candidates about ways their religious beliefs and practices implicate public policy, however, should avoid comparing the best of one faith to the worst of another. That is the sin that my professor, Chanan Brichto, characterized as “my religion and your superstition.”

Curmudgeon notes:

• The gods were merciful to Enquirer editors: Steve Jobs and Fred Shuttlesworth died the same day but Jobs wasn’t a Cincinnatian and news services provided his obit. In the conventional wisdom, Jobs went to the top of the page 1. But Shuttlesworth’s obit and image dominated that same page 1. There was no mistaking whom The Enquirer thought was more important here. This goes beyond parochialism. Shuttlesworth was a major, heroic figure nationally and, after moving to Cincinnati from Alabama, locally in the civil rights movement. Reporter Barry Horstman’s obit on Shuttlesworth had the polish of having been prepared in advance.

• Amanda Knox is home. We can all relax. How does the killing of a young Brit in Italy become an international cause celebre? Sure, it was a juicy story for the Italian tabloids: Sex, drugs, slit throat, black African men, young, attractive white victim and accused killer. Other than murder, that’s not news to Italians. Perugia’s university caters to young foreigners. They play hard. I know. I spent some weekends there years ago when I lived in Italy. Some foreign students get into trouble. Some study. Why not? They do the same things at home.

Next up: Foxy Knoxy, the movie and the as-told-to book. The New York Times says that once Knox’s family realized how serious her predicament was in the Italian criminal justice system, they hired a crisis communications specialist and wisely followed his direction in dealing with the news media. That didn’t help much with the London tabloids that feasted on details about its British victim. Those papers can manufacture outrage without breaking a sweat.

• Pop Quiz: Name the young British student whom Knox was accused of killing? In Britain, her name was foremost in non-stop reporting. In America, Knox was. Nationalism is always an element in news judgment. So is the combination of youth, gender and attractiveness. How often do cable TV or the tabloids dwell obsessively on plain fifty-somethings who aren’t already celebrities?

• Knox was in and out of court for four years and it’s not over. Italian prosecutors can appeal the dismissal of her conviction and authorities mumble about prosecuting Knox’s parents for saying rude things about the Italian criminal justice system.

That Italian police were accused of inept evidence collection and investigation into Meredith Kercher’s murder in the flat she shared with Knox is no surprise. A measure of Italian contempt is the joke long told about the elite national police, the Carabinieri: They always patrol in pairs because one can read and one can write. After that, the jokes and slanders go downhill.

Local police rarely fare better in public esteem. This is more than a hangover from the Fascist era; investigations, arrests, prosecutions and trials seemingly go on forever and the rich and powerful rarely lose.

This is how bad it was in Knox’s case, according to author Ian Leslie in the London Guardian: “In the days and weeks following the discovery of Meredith Kercher's body, Italian police found no physical evidence linking Amanda Knox to the murder. But then, they didn't need it: They could tell Knox was guilty just by looking at her. ‘We were able to establish guilt,’ said Edgardo Giobbi, the lead investigator, ‘by closely observing the suspect's psychological and behavioural reaction during the interrogation. We don't need to rely on other kinds of investigation.’ Giobbi said that his suspicions were first raised just hours after the murder, at the crime scene, when he watched Knox execute a provocative swivel of her hips as she put on a pair of shoe covers.

“Little about Knox's behaviour during that time matched how the investigators imagined a wrongfully accused woman should conduct herself. She appeared too cool and calm, they said – and yet also, it seems, oddly libidinous. One policeman said she ‘smelled of sex,’ and investigators were particularly disturbed by a video that first appeared on YouTube, shortly after the investigation began, which showed Knox and Raffaele Sollecito in each other's arms outside the cottage in which Kercher was murdered, as the investigation proceeded inside.

“(T)he video is anything but sexy. Knox, looking wan and dazed, exchanges chaste kisses with Sollecito, who rubs her arm consolingly. But the police professed shock. ‘Knox and Sollecito would make faces, kiss each other, while there was the body of a friend in those conditions,’ tutted Monica Napoleoni, head of Perugia's murder squad. A detective said he complained to Knox when she sat on Sollecito's lap, describing her behaviour as ‘inappropriate’. Knox later explained to Rolling Stone magazine, via an intermediary, that she had been pacing up and down when Sollecito pulled her on to his knees to comfort her.”

Exceptions to the Italian criminal justice system in recent years have been Mafiosi who ran afoul of heroic (and sometimes murdered) investigating magistrates and officers.

 
 
 
 

 

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