New York Times executive editor Bill Keller's recent column calling for pointed questions about religious belief to be directed at each Republican candidate wasn't so much offensive as it was a stunning display of spiritual illiteracy and constitutional ignorance.
The column, published last week, has been hotly debated ever since. It did contain a fair bit of crude and dismissive language toward religion. ("Mormon undergarments," "gold tablets" and polygamy were listed among things Keller said he doesn't care about — but insists on mentioning none the less — because "Every faith has its baggage.") But its main thrust was that religious beliefs might influence the way a person governs, therefore the public needs to know how a candidate truly feels about every odd or peculiar aspect of his or her professed religion. This ranges from whether Michele Bachmann believes in the literal "inerrancy" of the Bible and in the principle of Dominionism, in which only Christians should preside over earthly institutions, to whether "a candidate places fealty to the Bible, the Book of Mormon ... or some other authority higher than the Constitution and laws of this country."
That last one is a breathtaking display of historical ignorance. The Founders themselves drafted the Constitution based on a belief that rights, freedom and liberty derive from a higher power. The Declaration of Independence specifies that men are "endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights ..." The Constitution was written as a framework for establishing a government that protects those divine rights, not as a document that transcends them.
Keller might just as well want to ask a non-believing candidate what he or she believes is the basis for such rights, or how the idea that mortals do not face any ultimate accountability for actions might inform his or her decisions. But then, there is no serious candidate in either party who professes to be non-believer, nor has the United States ever had a president who professes as much.
The Constitution also says, "...no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." That is as definitive a statement as any about how the Founders felt about questioning candidates concerning their most sacred beliefs.
Of the 44 men who have been president, only four were religiously unaffiliated, which is not the same as professing no belief. A few have openly displayed their devotion to God, while others have kept their beliefs quiet. Keller might gain important perspective by examining how Biblical beliefs or faith in things that are unseen informed those presidents. What he would find is that faith has been a powerful motivator for protecting rights and defending the nation's unique role in the world, as well as for preserving hope in dire circumstances. He also would find there are plenty of protections against presidents who might try to use religion to destroy the rights of Americans, from citizens at the ballot box, to checks and balances among the three governing branches, to raw politics.
Certainly, no respectful question should be out of bounds when considering a candidate. We are confident, however, that most Americans would rather hear answers concerning how to fix the economy or deal with terrorism than how to interpret verses of scripture.