Friday, August 26, 2011

Leaps of Faith

by Libby Sternberg

Over at a New York Times blog, Bill Keller has decided to write about faith.

Scratch that, not faith in general. He's interested in what role religious faith plays in the lives of the presidential candidates.

Nope, scratch that again. He's interested in faith's role in the lives of Republican presidential candidates.

As numerous commentators have pointed out elsewhere (including in the comments section of the blog post itself), Mr. Keller and many in the media were not at all interested in exploring faith's role -- in particular, the role of the candidate's church -- when Senator Barack Obama was seeking the presidency. They only seem interested in it when they're not too keen on the party of the candidates.

Bill Keller believes in...?
Nonetheless, are Mr. Keller's questions out of line? No, not at all! I've come to the conclusion that the more we know about a president's past, including his or her beliefs and how they might have evolved over time, the better able we are to predict what a candidate will be like as a leader. 

Forget listening to candidates' promises. I know it will shock you, but candidates often, well, fudge the truth to get people to like them and vote for them. Yes, I know -- it's disappointing. But it happens.

Candidates also have no crystal balls that will show them precisely what challenges they'll confront in office, challenges that might cause them to rethink a previously stated position or promise. Didn't FDR promise, after all, to keep the country out of foreign wars?

No, the best way to vet candidates, I've decided, is to dig into their characters and what they've said and done in the past. Looking at their religious beliefs is part of that.

The problem with religious belief, though, is that it is intensely personal and often complex. Even for the outwardly ardently religious,  internal debates probably rage about God's mercy and justice, especially when sorrow afflicts one's life.

Listen to any minister's Sunday sermon in any church in America on any weekend in the year, and you hear those complicated issues discussed -- by people who make a living in the church, by people whose faith, one would assume, is secure.  Yet many of them might be hard-pressed to give simple answers to some of the snarky --yes, snarky -- questions Mr. Keller poses.

But wouldn't it be wonderful to have a real and thorough discussion on issues such as faith/Constitution conflicts or the legal ramifications of the Establishment versus the Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment, or whether the search for the "missing link" in evolution theory means the theory is flawed, or whether "Dominionism" as a tenet of any faith (not just Christian faith) is a threat to religious freedom?

Let's put it all on the table. Let's have a real rumble over these issues -- including all candidates, the incumbent among them.

But you know what? I'm guessing that Mr. Keller isn't really all that interested in that discussion. I'm guessing that Mr. Keller wants the candidates' thoughts -- wait, the Republican candidates' thoughts -- on his questions not so much because he's really curious about the answers as he's anticipating writing his response to the answers. My guess is that his response will begin with a strongly implied "Aha!" followed by a "now we know so-and-so is...." (insert synonyms for knuckle-dragging cretin here).

The media's role, say some wags, is to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." I actually like to think of their role as afflicting the powerful -- no matter who the powerful are, what party they belong to, what business or nonprofit they run.

Mr. Keller's questions indicate he's only interested in afflicting Republicans. As to those whose political views align with his -- including those at the peak of power --he's willing to make a leap of faith.

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