Articles of Faith: What Journalists Should Be Asking Politicians About Religion

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A few weeks ago, I opened up my Twitter feed early in the morning and immediately wondered if I was being punk’d. Instead of the usual horse race speculation, my colleagues in the political press corps were discussing the writings of evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer and debating the definition of Dominionism. The same week, a conservative journalist had posed a question about submission theology in a GOP debate, and David Gregory had grilled Michele Bachmann about whether God would guide her decision-making if she became President.

The combination of religion and politics is a combustible one. And while I’m thrilled to see journalists taking on these topics, it seemed to me a few guidelines might be helpful in covering religion on the campaign trail:

Ask relevant questions. The New York Times‘ Bill Keller published a column last weekend calling for journalists to ask candidates “tougher questions about faith” and posing a few of his own. The essay was flawed on its own terms. It read like a parody of an out-of-touch, secular, Manhattan journalist–comparing religious believers to people who believe in space aliens, and referring to evangelical Christian churches as “mysterious” and “suspect.” But it also identified the wrong problem. It’s not necessarily tougher questions that are needed but more relevant questions than journalists normally pose. It’s tempting to get into whether a Catholic candidate takes communion or if an evangelical politician actually thinks she speaks to God. But if a candidate brings up his faith on the campaign trail, there are two main questions journalists need to ask: 1) Would your religious beliefs have any bearing on the actions you would take in office? and 2) If so, how?

Keep the focus on policy. Very few candidates who talk about their faith will be willing to say that it would not influence them as President. But they are also not eager to get into specifics. In general, candidates–and especially GOP candidates–talk about faith as a way of connecting with a very specific group of voters. In this pluralistic society, however, in which they represent people of all faiths and no faith, politicians need to be prepared to explain if and how their religious beliefs would translate into policy decisions. And how consistently those beliefs would influence their policy decisions. Would they shape decisions about abortion and birth control but not economic policy and immigration? Why? Asking specific questions makes it more difficult for candidates to dance the theological two-step, insisting that their faith means everything to them while protesting that they shouldn’t have to spell out what that means.

No Margaret Mead questions. Journalists sometimes write about faith communities as if they are exotic tribes, focusing on details that accentuate the “otherness.” This is why we end up reading about Mormon holy undergarments. And how Hillary Clinton ended up on a CNN set in 2008 answering questions about whether she had “ever felt the Holy Spirit.” Again, if the question doesn’t relate to how a candidate would discharge the duties of his of her office, it should remain unasked.

Allow degrees of separation. Candidates shouldn’t have to answer for the theological and political beliefs of every religious leader who supports them or shares a stage. If a candidate publicly endorses the statements or writings of a religious leader, that’s a different story–they should be required to explain what they agree with and why.

Ask about Jeremiah Wrights. When a candidate has been affiliated with a religious leader or community for a long period of time, the rules change. It was legitimate to ask Sarah Palin in 2008 about the Pentecostal church she attended for much of her adult life in Alaska. It is legitimate to question Michele Bachmann about the anti-Catholic views of a church where she was a member for more than a decade. And it was legitimate to question Barack Obama about the radical statements of the man who had been his pastor for 18 years.

Even so, context always matters. Jeremiah Wright made some offensive statements from the pulpit of his church. But he also said some things that were well within the mainstream of African-American theology and preaching. Political observers who were unfamiliar with African-American churches often had a hard time distinguishing between the two, which allowed the story to mushroom and call into question the reputation of the entire church.

Learn the language. At first blush, this may seem to contradict the Margaret Mead rule. But in fact, it’s journalists who are the exotic tribal members who could benefit by learning a few phrases to navigate the religious terrain. For example, it’s now common to poke fun at evangelical candidates who talk about “being called” to run for office. But using the phrase doesn’t mean a politician is a megalomanic who believes God literally spoke to her. Evangelicals commonly talk about trying to discern God’s will for their lives, and refer to “being called” as having a sense that they’re supposed to do something. It is sometimes just another way of saying you have found a vocation; sometimes it’s more than that. But when, like David Gregory, journalists aggressively push Bachmann on whether God actually called her to run, they betray their ignorance.

Know the difference between a dog-whistle and a turn-of-phrase. Just because some words and phrases are unfamiliar to many journalists doesn’t mean that a candidate is communicating in “code” with religious supporters. More often than not, they are simply speaking naturally in the dialect familiar to them. There is value in reporting and explaining this mode of communication for those outside the tradition. But the language itself should not be viewed as secretive. The term “dog-whistle” should be reserved for its actual use, as when George W. Bush referenced the Dred Scott decision in a 2004 debate as a way of signaling his pro-life views without alienating the pro-choice voters who would support him that November.

Stop calling candidates “devout.” At best, the modifier “devout” is used as shorthand to distinguish between people who are  merely culturally-affiliated with a religious tradition and those who are active practitioners. At worst, it’s simply used to indicate that a politician is a conservative person of faith. The judgment of whether an individual is truly devout is not one journalists are in a position to make. If what you mean is that candidate X goes to church or candidate Y does not work on the Sabbath, then say that.

Thou shalt not discriminate. In his recent column, Bill Keller implied that questions about whether John Kennedy would take orders from the Vatican were born from “bigotry” and “paranoia.” But just a few paragraphs earlier, he stated that he wanted to know “if a candidate places fealty to the Bible, the Book of Mormon or some other authority higher than the Constitution and laws of this country.” If questions about a candidate’s loyalty to secular and sacred sources of authority are out-of-bounds for Catholics, then they’re out-of-bounds for everybody. And if they’re fair game for evangelical Christians and Mormons, then they’re fair game for everybody.

Amy Sullivan is contributing writer at TIME, and author of the book The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap (Scribner, 2008). Articles of Faith, her column on the intersection of religion and politics, appears on every Friday.