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Where we all should mind our own business

by Colbert I. King

The Washington Post

One of the more regressive proposals in this still-young U.S. presidential election season comes not from a candidate but, rather, from a journalist, specifically Bill Keller, the departing executive editor of the New York Times. In a recent column, Keller asserted that candidates should be subjected to questions about their religious faith.

“I do want to know,” Keller wrote, “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.”

Keller followed that column with a blog post that contained a general questionnaire that he sent to all the candidates, as well as a list of specifically tailored questions that he sent to Rep. Michele Bachmann, Gov. Rick Perry, former governors Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, and former senator Rick Santorum based mainly on their public statements.

The first question in Keller’s questionnaire — “Is it fair to question presidential candidates about details of their faith?” — provides my opening.

The answer is no.

I don’t have a right to know what a candidate thinks about the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Decalogue or the Second Coming. I do, however, need to know about a candidate’s fealty to the Constitution and laws of the land.

And, in reaching a judgment about a candidate’s fitness for office, I will want to know where that person stands on a host of issues, including the social safety net, defense, climate change, teaching evolution, and his or her willingness and ability to defend the rights and protection of the law promised to all citizens. But learning about a candidate’s views on public matters ought to be enough.

Whether those views are informed by religion or by nonbelief is not my chief concern.

Nor do I believe that candidates should be held accountable for everything that their bishops, priests, pastors, rabbis or imams may preach or teach.

Of course, the ground rules change if, for example, candidates elect to parade their religious bona fides, suggesting somehow that their faith is superior to another or that it somehow trumps the law. Rick Perry is a case in point.

Christianity appears to drive his response to problems besieging the country.

“As a nation,” Perry stated on the website of the Response, a Houston prayer rally he recently sponsored, “we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy.” (The site has since been taken down.)

Let us pause.

What, pray tell, about the millions of Americans who, for reasons of their own, don’t “call upon Jesus” and have no intention of doing so? Should a president elected to represent all of the American people publicly align himself and the country with one religious faith, touting it to the world?

In this case, however, it is Perry, not the media, who raises the questions.

Short of that, presidential candidates have a right to privacy, including when it involves their theological views.

This isn’t, by the way, the first time that I’ve found myself on a different track from the New York Times on this issue. Four years ago, then-senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was quizzed by a Times reporter on what was described as “that more personal side” of her faith. I wrote critically at the time about that intrusion. For 30 minutes, the Times peppered Clinton with questions such as:

• “Do you read the Bible regularly, do you pray?”

• “Do you believe in this personal relationship with God that some people talk about?”

• “Do you believe that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened, that it actually historically did happen?”

• “And, do you believe — and this is controversial too — that belief in Christ is needed for going to heaven?”

“Go to …” is what Clinton should have said. Instead, she put up with it.

As I wrote then, if you want to know where a candidate stands on same-sex marriage or domestic partnerships, fire away. But skip seeking a candidate’s interpretation of the Scriptures on homosexuality.

Likewise, go ahead and seek a candidate’s views on abortion, stem-cell research, assisted suicide, etc. Make up your mind based on the answers.

However, the extent to which those views are influenced by religion is the candidate’s business, not yours.

Is it appropriate for candidates who are people of faith to express their convictions in the political realm? Sure, if they want. But journalists shouldn’t be in the business of forcing candidates to jump through hoops either to prove their religiosity or to trim their convictions. That’s manipulating religion for distinctly irreligious purposes.

Journalism can nose around in candidates’ lives; nothing new there. But when it comes to their spiritual lives — or lack thereof — let’s just mind our own business.

Colbert I. “Colby” King is a weekly columnist for The Post, specializing in urban and national affairs.