Yet when it comes to the religious beliefs of our would-be presidents, we are a little squeamish about probing too aggressively. Michele Bachmann was asked during the Iowa G.O.P. debate what she meant when she said the Bible obliged her to “be submissive” to her husband, and there was an audible wave of boos — for the question, not the answer. There is a sense, encouraged by the candidates, that what goes on between a candidate and his or her God is a sensitive, even privileged domain, except when it is useful for mobilizing the religious base and prying open their wallets.
This year’s Republican primary season offers us an important opportunity to confront our scruples about the privacy of faith in public life — and to get over them. We have an unusually large number of candidates, including putative front-runners, who belong to churches that are mysterious or suspect to many Americans. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are Mormons, a faith that many conservative Christians have been taught is a “cult” and that many others think is just weird. (Huntsman says he is not “overly religious.”) Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are both affiliated with fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity — and Rick Santorum comes out of the most conservative wing of Catholicism* — which has raised concerns about their respect for the separation of church and state, not to mention the separation of fact and fiction.
— Bill Keller, former editor of the New York Times, “Asking Candidates Tougher Questions About Faith,” August 25, 2011.
Some political insiders say that it’s long been thus and that things aren’t significantly worse now. “How many millions of hours have been spent by folks in Washington, D.C., managing Bob Woodward?” asked Jim Jordan, the initial manager of John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, noting that Woodward’s exposés go back more than three decades.**
Jordan also said that perhaps the current rat-tat-tat of so many breathless revelations meant that none stuck around long or needed to be sweated all that much. “And maybe voters are so cynical they’re not shocked by anything,” he said.
But I’m not sure that’s strong consolation for someone understandably hesitant about having almost every aspect of his or her family’s lives declared fair game from the outset and splashed, however fleetingly and meaninglessly, across magazine covers and computer and TV screens. That must give many reasonable leaders pause, as must the farcical pageantry of the present-day campaign, including the sound-bite vacuity of even a ritual as supposedly substantive as a debate. The Republican one on Thursday night was a bonanza of well-rehearsed one-liners and cynical, selective attacks. It was spirited, but it wasn’t pretty.
We in the news media are in a difficult position. We can’t know what information voters at a given time feel entitled to. And we often can’t guess what’s going to be relevant until the digging and the damage have been done. I read “Game Change” and thought: Elizabeth Edwards shouldn’t have been mortified like this. I also thought: John Edwards should have been mortified sooner.***
Even so, we can adopt tactics more dignified and trustworthy and a tone less voyeuristic. And we should. If we persist in treating politics as a three-ring circus, we just might find ourselves with nothing but clowns.
— Frank Bruni, “The Price of Political Gossip,” the New York Times, September 24th, 2011.
* Note that Keller has subtly touched up this line in his article, which originally included Santorum amongst the candidates “affiliated with fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity” — in Santorum’s case, the same Catholicism that Keller himself was raised in as well. Get back to me when Keller’s paper asks President Obama “tougher questions about faith.”
** Gee, what could have been going on in Kerry’s past “three decades ago,” for one of his handlers to have been so concerned in 2004?
*** He could have been, but the guys at a similarly named paper in Woody Allen’s least-favorite city kept rockin’, rather than investigating him.