- The Washington Times - Friday, September 2, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

We’re getting close to the beginning of the new presidential election cycle, so we must get back to Sunday school. The pundits are parsing religion again. Somebody has to pose the liberals’ religious test for public office.

Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, thinks the nation is in peril because several Republican candidates - and the incumbent president as well - are men and women of religious faith. Mr. Keller likens religious faith to claims “that space aliens dwell among us” and says presidential candidates should be put to a faith test to determine whether they’re fit to hold public office. A belief that extraterrestrial creatures have visited Earth doesn’t necessarily disqualify a candidate “out of hand,” he says, but a careful voter “would certainly want to ask a few questions.”

It’s not easy for liberals like Mr. Keller to live in a corrupt, rotten society like ours, where every four years right-thinking citizens who read the New York Times, vacation on Martha’s Vineyard and eat their organic peas have to take a primer on what the crazy church folk, with whom they’re doomed to share the planet, believe is important. This year it’s Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry who populate the worst nightmares of good and worthy folk. Four years ago it was President Obama and whether he shared the kooky racist beliefs of his Chicago pastor. He said he didn’t, and he gave a Christian testimony that would satisfy a fundamentalist test of faith. Eight years ago, Joe Lieberman had to demonstrate that his Orthodox Judaism wouldn’t prevent his getting the lights turned on at the White House on a Saturday. Before that it was Jimmy Carter’s born-again faith, a straightforward description of spiritual conversion that the chattering class never could quite get straight (though it did sympathize with the lust Mr. Jimmy said he held in his heart).

Religion just doesn’t frighten Americans who live south and west of the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Three of 4 Americans tell pollsters they pray, a majority attend religious services at least occasionally, and many are there every time the church doors swing open. We’ve got two dozen kinds of Baptists, millions of Roman Catholics, nine kinds of Methodists and Presbyterians, seven brands of Mennonites, five flavors of Quakers, a dozen denominations of Orthodox Christians from the East (some not necessarily very orthodox), 10 Lutheran bodies, four organized varieties of Jews, enough Muslims, an assortment of two dozen kinds of Pentecostals, and there’s even Bill Keller Ministries Inc., which advertises itself as “the world’s Online Church.” You can find it on the Internet. There’s no indication whether this is another Bill Keller or whether Bill the Pundit is moonlighting from his day job at the newspaper. That’s just the list of flavors from the World Almanac; there are others. God talk doesn’t frighten most folks because it’s the basis of the moral codes that still guide most of us.

Americans have a right to ask a presidential candidate about anything, and there are no dumb questions. Only dumb answers. A lot of ex-candidates who gave dumb answers could tell you that through scalding tears of bitter remembrance. Mr. Keller thinks he sets traps for Messrs. Perry and Romney and Mzz Bachman with devilishly clever questions, such as: Do you think America is a “Christian nation” or a “Judeo-Christian” nation? Would you appoint a Muslim to the federal bench? Should the theory of evolution be taught in the public schools? Is it fair to hold offensive remarks by a candidate’s pastor against the candidate?

These are perfectly legitimate political questions, easily answered by legitimate political candidates. The culture, the zeitgeist of America, is obviously Christian, both Judeo and otherwise. That’s exactly what infuriates Mr. Keller and his like-minded unbelievers. A Muslim is as qualified as a Methodist to be a federal judge if he is qualified in the law and holds only to the Constitution and shuns Islamic law. Evolution should of course be taught in the schools as a scientific theory, but not as a quasi-religious doctrine. We’re all responsible for the reputations we make, and if we hang out with crackpot pastors and unrepentant killers, we have to take the consequences.

But some of the people who imagine they’re honest skeptics only pretend their questions are about politics, when they’re really about mocking religious belief. John F. Kennedy put such questions to rest, and the rest is history. Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann have a solid precedent.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.