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Friday, August 26, 2011

Rick, You Are My Bagger Vance

Thanks, Rick, for your post about the Bill Keller column.  Alas, I haven't read his original column, so I can't speak to it.  But I looked at the list of questions for the presidential candidates concerning religion that Keller subsequently supplied, the list you discuss in your post.  Keller begins with a couple of general questions about whether the candidates think these sorts of questions can be asked at all.  I think that is a relevant question, not least because many of these candidates have themselves repeatedly invoked their faith, more or less specifically depending on which audience they've been addressing.  The subsequent questions generally have the potential to say something meaningful about how the candidate would behave in office, so I think they are within bounds.  (Are they the most important questions?  Not necessarily.  One might be better off asking the candidate about specific matters of domestic or foreign policy.  But they are relevant; they're not boxers-or-briefs questions, or even, to paraphrase you, boxers-briefs-or-sacred-garments questions.)  A couple are less immediately relevant.  "Are Mormons Christians, in your view?" does not seem relevant to me, although the next question Keller proposes -- "Should the fact that Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are Mormons influence how we think of them as candidates?" -- does seem relevant.  The question about evolution seems mostly irrelevant to me, as does the question about teacher-led student prayer in public schools, because the President will likely have little influence on those local issues.  They're not outrageous questions, however; they do concern public policy, and for better or worse we ask presidential candidates about local issues, and even national issues they have no authority to address, all the time.  

Rick also suggests that there are different reasons to ask such questions, some of them better than others.  Questions asked in good faith because the voter thinks they are relevant to the performance of the office, whether directly or because the voter thinks they say something about the candidate's character, are quite acceptable, Rick writes; questions asked merely because they could be taken out of context in a damaging way or could be used to make the candidate seem "weird" are questions we could do without.  

Nit-picker that I am, let me add a couple of points to that.  

First, note that Rick's first category -- questions that are acceptable because the voter sincerely thinks that they will say something about the candidate's fitness for office -- is potentially a huge category, because individual voters may, in good faith, harbor very broad views about what religious questions are relevant to a candidate's fitness for office.  If, in classic republican fashion, one believes that the nation ought to be led by genuinely good men and women, then one might conclude that anyone who believes in an untrue set of religious doctrines might be an unfit candidate.  So just about anything could be on the table in that case.  Second, let me add another category.  A question on a religious topic might be relevant not because the voter thinks it is relevant, but because the candidate thinks it is relevant.  That is, if it is the case that Michelle Bachmann genuinely believes in the inerrancy of Scripture and in a highly specific set of religious doctrines that ought to be or effectively are part of American law and governance, then surely it is reasonable for a voter to ask her about them, even if the voter would not otherwise be moved to ask about religion.  The difference between the two may be subtle, or they may amount to the same thing, but I thought it was still worth bringing out this point.  

Third, when Rick says that questions about religious doctrine that are designed to be taken out of context or to make a candidate seem weird are questions that political discourse could do without, I more or less agree.  But I would add that I think that conclusion is true to the extent it is true for non-religious questions.  Political discourse would be better off without questions on any topic that are designed to be taken out of context.  And while we should generally disfavor them, we can't categorically say that questions that make a candidate seem "weird" are necessarily out of bounds, whether they involve religious beliefs or not.  It is basically irrelevant to a president's qualifications for office that he sincerely believes that he was abducted by aliens and subjected to intimate probing.  But many of us would probably want to know that fact about a candidate before casting our vote, and not without reason.  It's true that for various reasons we are less likely to consider a belief weird if it's shared by many people as part of a lasting and hallowed tradition (say, that Christ rose from the dead, or that it is possible for judges not to make the law from the bench).  But what constitutes a "weird" belief of this kind is probably an essentially contested question, so I don't think we can rule such questions totally out of bounds.

Two broader points.  First, I think the difficult issues lie less with the kinds of questions we ask about religion than with how we treat the answers.  Here, my view is that we should approach these answers with a certain care, caution, subtlety, sympathy, and appreciation for nuance.  It is possible, for instance, to believe that gays and lesbians are engaged in sinful conduct, without believing that they should not be appointed to federal office or treated differently by the law.  I cannot blame anyone, LGBT or not, who refuses to vote for such a candidate, anymore than I would think less of a voter for refusing to cast a vote for a politician who is personally racially prejudiced but pledges in good faith not to allow her own prejudices to affect her decisions.  (Character is thus, it seems to me, closely linked to voters' views of candidates -- another reason it is difficult to treat religious questions as out of bounds.)  But it is still possible for a religious candidate to hold, and honor, precisely such a nuanced view, and we need not discount that possibility out of hand.  Second, I should point out that even if we are entitled to put these questions to candidates, as Keller has, the candidates are not obliged to answer them.  The point I made in my Times op-ed, and elsewhere, is that the candidates' choices what to answer and not answer can themselves be relevant -- as in the case of a candidate who appeals to voters on the basis of his Christianity and then refuses to answer questions about particular doctrinal views that might actually affect his policies or fitness for office.  

Of course there are no easy rules in this area.  The same is true of political dialogue and, indeed, all public discourse, generally.  It is true that religion brings in sensitivities of its own.  But they are not utterly unique sensitivities.  Thinking about the best way to discuss religious issues publicly is ultimately a sub-topic of the general question how to engage any issue publicly in the most responsible and productive fashion.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on August 26, 2011 at 12:25 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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Prof. Horwitz might be interested in Jeff Jacoby's "Anti-religious diatribes come in many forms" column in the Boston Globe yesterday (8/31/11) comparing the NYTimes' Bill Keller to an earlier FL televangelist named Bill Keller. The Times owns the Globe but that didn't stop Jacoby from him assault. Perhaps Jacoby has a new job lined up.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Sep 1, 2011 6:17:26 AM

While individual voters can ask whatever they like, Mr. Keller's proposed questions are especially inappropriate for one in the position from which he writes. If the executive editor of the New York Times is concerned about a candidate's religious beliefs, it would be more productive to devote some of the Times' considerable resources to examining the candidate's record in order to identify any instances in which those beliefs may have shaped or interefered with the candidate's public actions, for good or ill. Mr. Keller could even devote a series to describing how past Presidents' religious beliefs have determined specific actions they have taken -- a very short series, I imagine -- to offer readers context. A foray into real research would be a welcome change from the horse-race stories that now dominate ccoverage of campaigns.

Posted by: jt | Aug 29, 2011 4:24:54 PM

Nice post! Thanks.

Posted by: essay writers | Aug 29, 2011 7:36:11 AM

"Glad you like that, AF. Although I worry now that it seems too snarky toward Christian beliefs. Needless to say, that was not my intention; I was just saying that there are truth-claims that we consider weird in some contexts and not in others."

Likewise, I didn't intend to come out in favor of being snarky toward Christian beliefs. On the contrary, what I enjoyed about the sentence was the juxtaposition of belief in supernatural religious propositions (which I like many people not named Christopher Hitchens consider to be basically benign despite not being be viable topics of rational debate), and belief in strict constructionism (which is beginning to attain similar status, see the Sotomayor hearings). In fact, the aptness of the comparison goes a step further: Like supernatural religious beliefs, the problem with strict constructionism consists not so much in it being rationally indefensible, as being taken too literally and advocated too zealously by some of its proponents.

Posted by: AF | Aug 26, 2011 3:52:17 PM

Mike Dorf on Monday argued that a candidate's belief in creationism (and the same probably would be true for something like support for teacher-led school prayer) would have little direct real-world effect (http://www.dorfonlaw.org/2011/08/what-creationist-president-would-mean.htm). He argues it might tell us something about the candidate's general worldview and politics that is relevant, even if it will not directly result in any actual federal policy (since, as you note, most such issues are local, and, in any event, the President cannot do as much unilaterally as we act during the election). Dorf also argues that a creationist President is no more likely to appoint conservative Judges who would uphold the teaching of Creationism or ID than the standard-issue Republican candidate.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 26, 2011 3:24:50 PM

Paul, I'm a bad golfer, and not as good looking as Will Smith, but I like the title of the post anyway. With respect to your first point, I am happy to agree that a "good faith"-plus-"relevant to character and / or performance of job" requirement is one that will let in a lot of questions about religion. That's fine. I'm not out to drastically reduce the number of such questions, only to encourage people (and, I suppose, especially journalists) to be reflective about why they are doing it (and, as a result, whether they should be, in a particular case).

On Paul's second point, I guess I see such examples (or most of them, anyway) as being covered (at least, I meant for them to be) by my criteria.

On the third, I guess my misgivings still linger. Yes, it's relevant to a candidate's worthiness of my vote that he or she believes he was abducted by aliens. But, the kind of "gotcha . . . you look weird, Senator!" question I have in mind is a bit different; I have in mind questions about religious beliefs or practices that require, if they are to be answered well, more than the kind of answers we tend to allow candidates to give, and that are nevertheless asked because the quick, sound-bite answer can sound, to those who don't know the religious-cultural-traditional context or background, "weird" (even if, in context, they really aren't).

I think your first "broader" point is an important one and, for what it's worth, I think it is unfortunate that so many, it seems, are very reluctant to believe that someone could both (a) believe that it is immoral to do X, or that Y is the truth (Truth?), *and* (b) have no problem treating -- indeed, believe it is obligatory to treat -- those who do X, and those who don't believe Y, entirely fairly, equitably, and respectfully in public and civic life. (I realize, of course, that this reluctance, at least in some cases, is not unsupported by evidence; still, there's evidence running the other way, too.)

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Aug 26, 2011 3:05:17 PM

Glad you like that, AF. Although I worry now that it seems too snarky toward Christian beliefs. Needless to say, that was not my intention; I was just saying that there are truth-claims that we consider weird in some contexts and not in others.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Aug 26, 2011 2:08:27 PM

"It's true that for various reasons we are less likely to consider a belief weird if it's shared by many people as part of a lasting and hallowed tradition (say, that Christ rose from the dead, or that it is possible for judges not to make the law from the bench)."

Love it.

Posted by: AF | Aug 26, 2011 1:52:37 PM

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