Asking Politicians About Religion

Friday, September 16, 2011


With another election cycle underway, the topic of faith is a recurring one, especially in the current Republican primary race. Bob spoke with Amy Sullivan, who writes about religion and politics for Time.  She says journalists often miss the mark when discussing candidates' religions.

Comments [27]

Seventh Song

Isn't that refreshing ... Seems he's trying to be honest & true to himself and call the media to do the same ...

Sep. 25 2011 10:12 AM

I thought Ms. Sullivan's "commandments" were short a few. I would add a couple more:
1. Don't assume that all members of a "religion" believe the same way. Just as not all Muslims are wild-eyed radicals, not all Christians hunt down abortionists, supprort the death penalty, join the Tea Party, etc.
2. Treat each religion equally.
3. Do your research. As a journalist, you wouldn't think of printing a story without knowing all the facts. If you don't know what a candidate means about terms like "called", ask them to define it as they understand it.
4. Don't make fun of or put down what you don't understand. That's not journalism, that's bigotry.
5. Leave your own biases at home. It's not your job to make the candidate slip up nor are you supposed to be converting them to your view. Report the facts without injecting your own views.

Just to be clear, I am a Christian (of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod variety) and my faith encourages me to be politically involved. I believe in evolution (to a point), do not like Michelle Bachmann or the Tea Party, want to see the death penalty abolished and care about the environment. I am also pro-life and don't think that we can really reverse climate change nor should we try to. Let's just stop making a mess of the world and do the right thing for everyone's sake.

One final comment: if you want me to respect your view(s), please respect mine. My faith, my views, my opinions were not forced upon me by anyone. They are mine and they are just as valid as yours.

Sep. 23 2011 10:18 AM
reg from harlem, usa

i apologize if my points already been made:

in the interview, ms. sullivan says something to the effect that when a politician says they have a "calling" by their god to run for political office that they are really just stating that they really want to run for political office. she then criticizes reporters for making too much of this claim.

I can't begin to state how much I think she is being either intellectual dishonest or incredibly naive. Not only is the politician stating his desire, but s/he is also strongly implying that their deity is ENDORSING that desire and that fellow believers in that deity, if they want keep in their deity's good graces, should support that politician's efforts to achieve his/her aims. In my view, rather than ignore the claims of a "calling", reporters have a duty examine this claim thoroughly: how did this calling manifest itself, when did it occur, what were it's specific qualities. Maybe religious people feel or have these "callings" all the time, but for those of us to whom religious faith is an exotic "margaret mead-like" phenomenon, these questions deserve thorough explication. Unlike those who live by blind faith, I look for information and cogent analysis.

Sep. 22 2011 11:21 AM
fire blanket from

Allot of the comments paint with a think brush when talking about certain groups :/

Sep. 21 2011 10:06 AM
BC from Denver

Sullivan's comments on religion and journalism wasn't all that good. For example, she says that when politicians say that they were "called", they don't mean that they just had a desire to become a politician. It means they believe God specifically influenced them to run for office to serve some divine purpose. Amy Sullivan talks as if she's an educated outsider who came to an erroneous understanding of what Christian fundamentalists believe. How do I know she's wrong? Because I spent a good section of my life in fundamentalist Christianity. I know what their words mean when they say them. Amy Sullivan does not. She falls into the category of journalist who thinks she knows what she's talking about, but doesn't.

Sep. 20 2011 09:17 PM

Why shouldn't we take seriously the claim that the politician believes that she had a call from god to run when she belongs to a religion that interprets the bible literally? I wouldn't expect her to use figurative language to describe it.

And so many of the socially conservative positions on social issues are described by the politicians themselves as being a result of their Judeo Christian (a phrase at least as sloppy as "devout") so they should be questioned on their religious views in terms of those positions. If gay sex isn't a sin, what could possibly be the reason to be against gay marriage. I would have loved for a journalist to ask Obama why he claims that he is personally opposed to gay marriage for religious reasons yet the United Church of Christ of which he was a member during the 2008 campaign supports gay marriage. Why does he feel that he shouldn’t impose his personal religious beliefs on a woman considering abortion but he should when it is gay marriage. If politicians bring their religion into the public policy arena then they should be questioned vigorously on the source of those beliefs and how independent they will be from the religion if in office.

Bob Garfield's questions showed a much better way to approach the subject of religion than the guest's commandments.

Sep. 20 2011 03:01 PM
Jodi from Oregon

Benoit Balz, I guess you made my point. You made a lot of assumptions about me because I merely said I was a Christian. I never said I didn't believe in evolution. I also didn't identify any political candidate I was supporting. Why do you assume these things because I said I was a Christian?
As a matter of fact, I am a supporter of Pres. Obama, and I am maddened by much of what the Republican candidates have said. However, I do also cringe when I hear blanket statements said about what Christians believe. I get irritated when I hear blanket statements made about any large category of people. It's not fair to just dismiss a whole category of people as 'insane' because you don't agree with them.

Sep. 19 2011 05:28 PM
Secularist from No particular diocese

Ms. Sullivan's charge that journalists should "learn the language of religion" rings hollow in the example she uses.
If a candidate used a legal term or phrase that didn't jibe with the public's general understanding of the term, or if s/he used a scientific reference that's foreign to most of the body politic, journalists would castigate him/her for not speaking in the language of the Common Man. (This has happened, as when Dukakis pointed out that a proposed law was unconstitutional--he was criticized for being "legalistic.")
So why does the Language of Evangelism get special treatment with her? Why shouldn't religious candidates be expected to speak language that's understood by the voters they're courting?

Sep. 19 2011 04:55 PM

Ms. Sullivan's suggestions about avoiding religion when interviewing politicians reminds me of the suggestion that we should be "color-blind" when it comes to race. Too often, that means pretending that racism no longer exists, leaving it unexamined and forgotten. Journalists who have "religious-blind" interviews would be pretending that politicians all leave their religion out of their policy decisions. That needs more examination right now, not less.

Sep. 19 2011 11:47 AM


"I think journalists have an obligation to expose exactly what that means."

Right. Just like when Al Gore professed himself to be an environmentalist, they scrutinized the size of his houses, his carbon footprint, his electric bill...

@Greg Slater:

"Whether it's an evangelical or just your garden variety disingenuous hypocrite, or even a full-blown psychotic, when someone says that a supernatural, omnipotent, omniscient alien told him to do something, that comment is worthy of scrutiny."

Wow. Ad hominem attacks. A sure sign of irrationality and desperation.


"No Presidents were ministers, though Garfield was a lay preacher, and John Adams and Madison studied theology and at one time considered the profession. Arthur, Cleveland, and Wilson were sons of clergymen, and Hoover's mother was a Quaker lay minister."

Some of our greatest presidents apparently grew up or formed their adult minds in an environment of psychosis... who knew?

Sep. 19 2011 02:21 AM

Ms. Sullivan is trying to build the point that religious life has no place in the public eye. This is contrary to the history of our country.

The Constitutional Convention started and ended each session with a prayer, for instance.

Many state houses have the Ten Commandments inscribed on their walls.

This piece is a thinly veiled attempt to marginalize people of faith in public office.

I would rather have a President who believes that--even when he's alone in the Oval Office, or when he makes decisions behind closed doors and signs Executive Findings or Orders--that knows he will be called to judgment for all of his deeds, even those that never enter the public eye or won't be declassified until years after his Administration has ended.

Sep. 19 2011 02:08 AM
Quinton from Missoula, MT

It would appear Ms. Sullivan completely failed to understand the value in framing questions of policy in the religious professions of a candidate. Simply stated, if one is a "true believer" and the issue in question broaches an impenetrable faith-based view, then it's useful to know that this individual is unlikely to be pragmatic, rational, flexible, willing to compromise, etc. If the issue is claimed to be a "moral" issue, then there is likely no chance for a reasoned discourse (which is exactly what we're witnessing with the tea partiers who are framing deficits and budgetary concerns as "moral" issues, i.e. absolute right and absolute wrong).

And without question, if you deny evolution in place of magic, you are rejecting every scientific discipline whose evidence supports this scientific theory and you are just as backwards as if you denied the theory of gravity, atomic theory or the germ theory of disease.

Sep. 18 2011 09:09 PM
Christine Visick from Los Angeles

Amy Sullivan's comment at the end of the interview was that it was "fun." She had just described use of the term "devout" to describe a politician who "goes to church all the time" as "lazy journalism." I'd say her use of the word "fun" in this context is also "lazy journalism" and these days, a rather hackneyed, meaningless term.

Sep. 18 2011 07:26 PM
Fr. Fred Ball from Little Rock, Arkansas

I have to wonder about Ms. Sullivan's understanding of evangelical language, even as she attempts to guide reporters in understanding it. As one who was a pastor in a major evangelical denomination for 20 years, I can assure you that when people used the phrase "God called me to ___," they believed exactly that. The phrase may be used with some frequency by some evangelicals, but it is not used lightly. In fact, I had many, many conversations with people who were trying to discern whether, in fact, God was calling them to do this or that.

Some of the others leaving comments here should understand that the phrase does NOT imply that the person heard an audible voice, however. The "calling" is discerned in other ways, such as the coalescing of ones interests and abilities with particular opportunities at a given time.

Perhaps this was Ms. Sullivan's point — that these evangelicals aren't claiming to have heard God speak out loud. However, her explanation in the OTM interview made it sound as if she was saying that "God called me" is simply a phrase without serious meaning behind it. If that is the case, she was simply wrong. I am no longer part of Protestant evangelical Christianity, but I am still quite fluent in the language.

Sep. 18 2011 06:48 PM
Greg Slater

Amy Sullivan said that when an evangelical Christian says 'God told me to run for President' they just mean 'I just got a wild hair up my wazoo to run for President.' That's insane. Whether it's an evangelical or just your garden variety disingenuous hypocrite, or even a full-blown psychotic, when someone says that a supernatural, omnipotent, omniscient alien told him to do something, that comment is worthy of scrutiny.

Sep. 18 2011 05:26 PM
noen from Minneapolis

Michelle Bachmann doesn't just believe she has a "feeling" that she is called to public service and uses the quaint term "called" common among evangelicals. You really don't know about her beliefs if you think that.

Bachmann is strongly influenced by Christian Reconstructionism (dominionism as such does not exist) and it would be nice if the media did a little more reporting on the beliefs of Francis Schaffer and R. J. Rushdoony to see what a possible president of the US actually believes. Then maybe you could look into the religious leaders who support Rick Perry and their bizarre beliefs.

Sep. 18 2011 05:24 PM

I get Amy's point that one cannot assume that
1) a candidate adheres to every tenet of their professed religion or
2) that even if they adhere to it, it would influence their policy decisions.

After all, the Catholic Church is opposed to contraception, but most studies show that Catholics use contraception just as much as anybody else.

On the other hand, when a candidate such as Perry or Bauchman makes religion a central "plank" in their campaign, when they use tenents of their faith to raise money and recruit voters, I think journalists have an obligation to expose exactly what that means.

Sep. 18 2011 02:58 PM
raul from san francisco

I think this person got almost all of the religion/media thingy wrong.

When the GOP (and is mostly the GOP) not only run on their "faith" but use that relationship with god as a central political wedge issue against everything from poverty, gay rights, and women's reproductive rights. The media ought to cover the hell out of that faith. In fact, it seems that the media seems to go out of it's way to respect religion belief.

The GOP and their use of god has done enough damage and they should be called on being "called" to serve as President as much and as often as possible.

As my grandmother used to say, some people were called to serve, most of the other just went.

Sep. 18 2011 01:58 PM
Toby from metro Atlanta (in the bad belt)

The lady in the piece is trying to cover up for the ethical short comings of religions. She acted offended at the criticism of Christianity & so urged us to stop thinking about how stupid it is to believe in mythology.

Sep. 18 2011 11:18 AM
Benoit Balz from Brooklyn, NY

Sorry Gary and Jodi, but your "faith" should stay out of the public square. And if you (and your favorite candidate) don't believe in evolution, I'm not sure backward is the right word. Misguided, clueless or insane might be better. Do you believe in tooth fairies, heaven, hell and the" virgin birth"? I mean, really. Think about it. These people (Bachmann, Perry and more) are so wild with their supernatural beliefs they almost make Dubya look reasonable. It's a joke!

Sep. 18 2011 10:26 AM
mercedes carlin from westhcester

I DON'T believe that someone who does not believe in evolution is "backwards". I DO believe that their world view is not big enough (and all they have to do is state that they DO have an open mind) to govern and lead a country as big and diverse as the USA. Nor do they support the Constitution. I DO believe that they should take the word "God" out of our national documents. Freedom of religion should absolutely stay, but the original intent focused on "freedom". Someone who cannot even acknowledge another belief may not allow or may legislate against tha freedom. Now that scares me.

Sep. 18 2011 10:23 AM

"If this person doesn't believe in evolution, he's backwards." Exactly.

Sep. 18 2011 07:28 AM
Jodi from Oregon

Bravo Amy! I especially liked the Margaret Mead rule. As a Christian, I am sometimes mystified by descriptions I read in the news about my faith. When I hear, "Christians believe this....Christians believe that....." I scratch me head. I do? I didn't know I believed that. Or the whole hoopla over dominionism. There is not a Christian of my acquaintance that subscribes to the idea of dominionism as I have seen it described in various opinion pieces.

Sep. 18 2011 12:47 AM

Religious views inform political decisions so it is important to know how resistant to social change a candidate is.

Sep. 18 2011 12:20 AM
Benoit Balz from Brooklyn, NY

Sullivan is 100% wrong about tiptoeing around a candidate's "faith". There's no specific religion test for public office, and there's no specific sanity test, either. Asking these candidates about their wacky beliefs in fire, brimstone and tooth fairies is absolutely necessary when ferreting out information about who among our would-be leaders is sane.

Sep. 17 2011 04:50 PM


Are you referring to the christian ministers who have stated that the science of genetics can no longer be denied, and has proven beyond doubt that the idea of an Adam and Eve for all humanity is either a fairy tale or, at least, metaphorical?

Sep. 17 2011 10:29 AM
clopha deshotel from Bridgeport CT

NPR did a story about Adam and Eve recently, and a front page story in a Gannett Newspaper, The Tennessean in July also was about Adam and Eve. I wonder if Amy Sullivan, or OTM, will feel "called" to do a story on The Tomb of Eve in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia - seen it on Wikipedia? Amy had some very good guidelines.

Sep. 17 2011 06:22 AM

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