< Asking Politicians About Religion

Transcript

Friday, September 16, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

Responsibly divining trends is one chronic difficulty for the press in an election year. An even more problematic one is divining divinity. Though the critical issues are war, the economy, social welfare and taxation, more than ever those matters are being framed through the lens of religion.

A few weeks back Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum was pressed by CNN's Piers Morgan about whether he thought homosexuality is a sin. Santorum replied that the question should be asked of a cleric, not a politician.

[CLIP]:

PIERS MORGAN:

And you did invite me to ask you any question I liked.

[OVERTALK]

RICK SANTORUM:

Well - yeah, I – I, I did. And, of course, the, the Catholic Church teaches that homosexuality is a sin. I'm a Catholic and I subscribe to the Catholic Church's teaching.

But that's not relevant from the standpoint of how I – how I view these issues from a public policy of view. And that’s why I answered the question the way I did.

BOB GARFIELD:

Amy Sullivan writes about religion and politics for Time. In a recent essay she declared that journalists repeatedly make spectacles of themselves by asking a theological question when a policy question will do.

AMY SULLIVAN:

There was really no reason to bring religion into this question. The end result that they wanted to get to was what policy would Rick Santorum support in terms of civil unions or allowing gay couples to marry. Whether his views on that were informed by his Catholicism or by completely secular reasons really shouldn't matter to voters.

BOB GARFIELD:

So you believe that in questioning candidates, reporters should just leave the faith part out of it and get right to the policy at issue.

AMY SULLIVAN:

Well, reporters need to be careful that they’re asking relevant questions and not simply trying to use religion as part of the political circus. Take, for example, questions about evolution and creationism. Bringing up evolution highlights “if this person doesn't believe in evolution he's backwards.”

BOB GARFIELD:

When candidates go on the stump speaking of their faith and invoking religious-based values that often are explicitly in conflict with secular law, does it not behoove the press to find out where their faith ends and their commitment to secular law begins?

AMY SULLIVAN:

Certainly, when a candidate raises their faith on the campaign trail, and particularly when they present their faith as part of their political persona, as part of the reason to vote for them, reporters have not just a right but a responsibility to push on that.

But, again, I think the questions have to be relevant. We have to deal with the fact that we have no religious test for office in this country.

BOB GARFIELD:

No official religious test.

[OVERTALK]

AMY SULLIVAN:

No official religious test.

BOB GARFIELD:

In fact, every candidate must have that box checked, Right? I mean, every candidate makes some sort of public profession of faith, has photo ops at church, is shown with their pastor or spiritual advisor and makes sure that it's clear that, you know, God forbid they're not atheists.

AMY SULLIVAN:

This is a really recent development in American politics. People ask me all the time, “Could an atheist be elected president?” And the answer right now is no, absolutely not.

And the only way we're going to get there, I think, is to take religion out of the conversation where it's not relevant and reserve it for those situations in which we really need to press candidates to explain why they're bringing up their religion.

BOB GARFIELD:

I also want to ask you about the out-of-touch, secular journalist. What do we have to do to be more in touch?

AMY SULLIVAN:

Well one of the things I think would help is for journalists to learn the language of some of the religious communities that they end up covering when they cover candidates.

And one of the examples I like to point to is the evangelical habit of referring to being called to do something. George Bush referred to a call, he felt, to run for president. In this cycle, both Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann have talked about being called to run for president.

And this has provided fodder for a lot of our journalistic colleagues.

DAVID GREGORY:

Would God guide your decisions that you would make as president of the United States?

MICHELE BACHMANN:

Well, as president of the United States, I would pray. I would pray and ask the Lord for guidance. That’s what presidents have done throughout history.

[OVERTALK]

George Washington did.

DAVID GREGORY:

But you said that gal – God called me to run.

MICHELE BACHMANN:

Abraham Lincoln did.

DAVID GREGORY:

- for Congress.

AMY SULLIVAN:

In fact that formulation, being called, is just a very common way for evangelicals to talk about a sense that there is something that they feel like they should do. So to see David Gregory on Meet the Press really grilling Michele Bachmann [LAUGHS] about whether God did or did not call her to run for president, to me just revealed that David Gregory doesn't know much about evangelical Christians. And it didn't tell voters much at all about Michele Bachmann.

BOB GARFIELD:

Give the three commandments.

AMY SULLIVAN:

Three commandments that I would give journalists in covering religion are one, no Margaret Mead questions, questions that try to look at religious traditions as kind of exotic undiscovered Amazonian tribes who need to be explained.

Second would be learn the language. This is a way for journalists to know if a candidate is trying to send under-the-radar signals or if they're just simply speaking the natural language of millions of Americans who are people of faith.

And the third is stop calling candidates devout. This is something you read [LAUGHS] whenever there is a piece about particularly a Republican candidate’s religion. They’re described as “a devout Mormon” or “a devout Catholic.” And all it seems to serve to do is to say, “This is a conservative person of faith.”

What journalists really mean by “devout” is they go to church all the time, or this is somebody who keeps the Sabbath, is an Orthodox Jew and who is observant. If that's what they mean, they should say it. I think the phrase “devout” is kind of lazy journalistic shorthand and doesn't tell us a lot about a candidate’s faith or religiosity.               BOB GARFIELD:

All right, Amy. Thank you so much.

AMY SULLIVAN:

Thank you. This was fun.

BOB GARFIELD:

Amy Sullivan writes about religion and politics for Time.

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