During last election season, Republican presidential candidates, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (L), former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (C), and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), listened to Jon Huntsman (R), speak during the Fox News/Google GOP Debate at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida.
Bill Keller’s column in the New York Times, Asking Candidates Tougher Questions About Faith, exhibits more anxiety than journalistic curiosity. Keller writes of his fear that one of the Republican hopefuls may be “a Trojan horse for a sect that believes it has divine instructions on how we should be governed.” Would not a less reactionary dose of simple journalistic interest be a better place to begin the dialogue? If readership and ratings are the goal, I suppose not.
Too often the questions asked of presidential candidates in public forums about their religious beliefs are laced with suspicion and cynicism. Instead of considering the upside of faith commitments in the lives of leaders, the moderators imagine the worst. They too frequently seem poised to expose the perceived “threats” of people they deem just a bit “too committed” to their beliefs. In a nation where at least 86 percent of us believe in God (according to a Pew Forum Survey), ironically questions on faith are more often interrogation than honest searches for information.
It would do the inquisitors good to revisit the National Union of Journalist Code of Conduct, which says: “A journalist shall strive to ensure that the information he/she disseminates is fair and accurate.” While it’s fine and good to call on the candidates to be transparent about their faiths and to clarify areas of concern, it’s also right to expect that journalists be “fair and accurate” and avoid “distortion, selection,” and “misrepresentation.” The Society of Professional Journalists, a peer organization, insists reputable journalists“avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status” and that they should “distinguish between advocacy and news reporting.”
We have a long tradition in this country of presidents who have practiced their faith. It is by no means unusual. Indeed, thus far the American presidency has included 44 men who have all identified at varying levels with Christianity, including Episcopalians (10), Presbyterians (8), Unitarians (4), Baptists (4), Methodists (3), Dutch Reformed (2), Disciples of Christ (2), Quakers (2), one Congregationalist and one Roman Catholic. Six were unaffiliated with any denomination, including President Obama (a professing Christian), although most attended church services. John Adams at one time considered going into the ministry and, although his path led to government, he nonetheless unabashedly described himself as “a church-going animal.”
A candidate’s religious conviction should not inspire suspicion in us but rather a sense of security. Arguably, maintaining a consistent faith amidst the challenges of life requires commitment, character and perseverance, all qualities much needed in the soul that would occupy the Oval Office.
One of the qualifications of church leaders, for instance, according to the New Testament (1 Tim 3:2-5), is that they first are good family leaders: “Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, … He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)” The rationale is that the small circles of influence ready us for the larger ones; if you cannot effectively lead a smaller familial organization, how could you be expected to do so in a larger faith organization? King David’s faithful tending of his small “flock” as an adolescent helped ready him for a showdown with Goliath and ultimately the oversight of an entire people.
So, in the spirit of journalistic “fairness,” here is a suggested (albeit incomplete) list of 10 questions worth asking about a candidate’s faith:
1. How does your faith inform your public service?
2. In what ways has your faith experience helped you become a better citizen? A better leader?
3. Can America truly be “great” apart from God and a belief in God?
4. What role might your faith play in the event of a national emergency (i.e., terrorist attack, nuclear war, etc.)?
5. Should Mayor Bloomberg have been allowed prayer at the 9/11 Memorial event this month in NYC? How would you have handled this?
6. Has your faith changed you as a person? In what ways?
7. Does your faith experience cause you to be more accepting of other people’s belief systems or less?
8. After 9/11, the song “God Bless America” was often sung at public events (i.e., sporting events, etc.). In what ways do you believe God has “blessed” America? In what ways do you pray God will continue to “bless” America?
9. Do you view your entrance into public office as a means for advancing your particular faith group or denomination?
10. In what ways do your commitments to faith and family help qualify you for public office?
If Keller is truly concerned about the faith of the current slate of presidential contenders, this list is a better place for a journalist to begin. The questions we ask have a way of revealing a tone of either our “advocacy or news reporting.” Before we fear what faith might do, let’s first explore what it can do. I, for one, am not as concerned about the presence of faith in our candidates as I am by its absence.
On Faith asks: What religious questions would you add to Crosby’s list?
Image by Kevin Dooley