Politics And Religion Mix In Presidential Primaries

On Wednesday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry invoked stories of Paul to inspire Liberty University students to speak out against Washington politicians. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann is also open about her religion. The Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody and Religion Dispatches' Sarah Posner discuss when it's fair game to ask candidates tough questions about faith.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, it's time for another shape-up at the Barbershop. The guys will weigh in on the highest paid man in Hollywood and you might be surprised at who that is. That conversation is a little later in the program.

But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. And even though the presidential election is more than a year away, the campaign to choose a Republican nominee to challenge President Obama is already moving into high gear and the faith of some of the candidates is moving into the spotlight along with them.

Earlier this week, for example, Texas Governor Rick Perry, who surged to the front of the pack in many polls, made a pilgrimage to Liberty University and he spoke at length about how his faith informs his life and service. Here's a short clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

G: Paul wrote to Timothy and he said: Do not be ashamed of your youth. You have the right, like every American, to speak your mind, to tell the people in power that you'll not have your inheritance spent or your future mortgaged.

MARTIN: Now, Governor Perry chose to give this speech, but some are asking if the public has a right to demand that candidates describe how their faith informs their approach to public service.

The New York Times columnist, Bill Keller, recently wrote an attention-getting column about this, saying that reporters and the public should be asking the candidates tougher questions. Mr. Keller wasn't available today, so we decided to call two journalists who spend a lot of time thinking about the intersection of faith and policy.

D: Faith, Fraud and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters." They're both back with us in our Washington, DC studios. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

SARAH POSNER: Thanks, Michel.

DAVID BRODY: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Sarah, so why don't I just start with you? What about Bill Keller's proposal? He says that candidates need to be asked tougher questions. They need to explain exactly what they believe, why they believe it and how that intersects with how they plan to govern. What do you think about that?

POSNER: Well, I think it's a very difficult line because we don't have a religious test for the presidency in this country. And, at the same time, there are many candidates who bring their faith into the campaign as a selling point. And when a candidate brings the faith into the campaign and uses it as a way of attracting voters or uses it as a way of explaining their world view in the terminology that Michele Bachmann uses, then I think that reporters and the public have a right to know exactly how that will inform their policies.

MARTIN: So you're saying that the triggering point, the line, is when the candidate brings it up himself or herself?

POSNER: Exactly. Because I think that if we start probing the religion of candidates - where do you go to church? What does your preacher say? Then you're getting into dangerous territory where religious prejudices come into play. You see it in the campaign already, where you see people questioning whether Romney or Huntsman can be president because they're Mormon.

MARTIN: Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman.

POSNER: Right.

MARTIN: OK. All right. Well, let's talk more about that, but let's bring David into the conversation. What do you think? Where do you think the line should be drawn over whether questions should be asked or not? I mean, Bill Keller says that this Republican primary season offers us an important opportunity to confront our scruples about the privacy of faith and public life and to get over it. He says that we're being too squeamish about this and too politically correct.

BRODY: Well, I think that questions about faith should definitely be asked, especially as Sarah was saying, if candidates are bringing faith into the equation, especially in Iowa and South Carolina and other places.

I think it gets muddied and a little difficult when, for example, with Bill Keller. In some of his questions, he started to ask about associations some of these candidates have with other people. And I think, at that point, then it's going down, whether it be a different tact or rabbit trail or whatever you want to call it.

But for example, he mentioned David Barton, who is a constitutional scholar, if you will, from a Christian perspective. But he's come under a lot of criticism from progressives. Bill Keller wants to know Rick Perry's associations with David Barton. You know, where do you draw the line there?

MARTIN: But did conservatives complain when people drew associations about President Obama's relationship with his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright? Did people say - did people from the right say that's not OK?

BRODY: No. And there should have been questions about that. It's a little bit apples and oranges in the sense that David Barton is not Rick Perry's pastor. Jeremiah Wright was to Barack Obama. A little bit apples and oranges.

Having said that, David Barton is not, as far as we know, giving Rick Perry political advice as to how to run his White House, if he were to indeed get there.

MARTIN: What about somebody like Michele Bachmann, who is very open about how important her faith is in many of her life decisions? Let's just play a short clip. And this is from a 2008 interview with Christian World View radio. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MARTIN: We need more biblical world view to let people know what is it that the principles of God stand for. If people understand the principles of ours, it won't be difficult to understand who would best represent those values in the White House and in Congress. And as I encourage people, go to my website. I am happy to have people know exactly where I stand.

MARTIN: So, David, you have had interviews with just about every Republican presidential nominee.

BRODY: Yeah.

MARTIN: I think, all of them.

BRODY: And Michele Bachmann about three or four times.

MARTIN: And Michele Bachmann about three or four times. Sarah Palin several times, although she's not a declared candidate. But where do you draw the line in asking questions? For example, a theological question, fair or unfair, when she says, people deserve to know exactly where I stand. Where do you draw the line?

BRODY: I think it depends on how the theological question is answered. And I'll just give you an example. There is that debate that we remember back a few debates ago, when Michele Bachmann was asked, you know, as president, would you submit to your husband?

Well, what happened - the audience - a lot of them booed. Why? Because it wasn't so much about the submissive part of it, it was the way the question was actually asked. In other words, it felt like a gotcha question and also a question that, from an evangelical perspective, didn't make much sense because evangelicals understand that that's not what it's about.

She can submit to her husband and be president at the same time. They're not mutually exclusive. And that's a whole...

MARTIN: But everybody's not evangelical, as part of the question, just as - you see the question, so...

BRODY: Understood. But...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

BRODY: But my point is, is that when that question was asked, it was asked in a way that didn't really capture what the question should have been to begin with. And the question really should have been, explain what you mean, specifically, when you talk about submitting to your husband.

In other words, there are ways to ask candidates questions that shed light on topics and what is the motive behind the questions? Is it a gotcha game? Let's face it, evangelical Christians make for good Newsweek covers. In other words, they make for good headlines. They make for good business because some of the things that they say don't necessarily comport with a world view of others, especially those running Newsweek and Time magazine and others. And so it's going to feel a little different.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're speaking with Sarah Posner of the online magazine, Religion Dispatches, and David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network. We're talking about when is a candidate's faith fair game for tough questions. David?

BRODY: I would just say this. Once again, where do you draw the line? If we're going to ask about David Barton and Rick Perry's associations and we're going to ask about Michele Bachmann's associations with whoever, you know, what about Mitt Romney's associations with maybe the Marriott family? That has some of the Mormon connections there. And I don't mention that to say that I have anything to display here today.

My point simply is, you know, even on the Democratic side, I mean, where exactly - what level of influence does each person have and how do we determine that exactly in their sphere?

MARTIN: Well, what about Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, who are both Mormons, which are, you know, an important, you know, faith group, but more present in some parts of the country than others? And many people aren't familiar with the tenants of their faith. What questions do you think are fair to ask of them?

BRODY: Well, first of all, in 2007, I interviewed Mitt Romney when he was running for president in 2008. And I asked him all of the, quote, "Mormon" questions and I say, a lot of them. You know, Mormonism, by many in the evangelical community, is seen as a cult. Can you explain your reaction to that and how do you basically satisfy evangelicals in that sense?

MARTIN: That was OK to ask or fair to ask?

BRODY: Because he was courting the evangelical vote, because he was making a part of his campaign in 2008. He was in Iowa and he was playing heavily.

Now, different ballgame. A, not doing it. And B, this is the second time around. It's not as new for people, especially for evangelicals. Now, having said that, if Mitt Romney becomes the candidate, the actual GOP nominee in 2012, you can be sure that the Mormonism stories are going to unfold quite a bit.

MARTIN: Sarah, what about the double standard question? I know that many evangelicals feel - is it fair for me to say this, David? That I think many evangelicals feel that they're subjected to a double standard and scrutiny about their faith practices and commitments...

BRODY: Yes.

MARTIN: ...in contrast to, you know, mainstream or progressive Christians who they feel are not asked these questions in the course of a public campaign? You know, what about that? Do you think there's a double standard?

POSNER: I don't because I do think that evangelicals have made a point of bringing their faith into presidential campaigns. And since Reagan addressed the group of evangelical leaders in 1979 or '80 when he was campaigning and said, I know you can't endorse me, but I endorse you, I mean, it's been very much a part of presidential campaigns.

Now, going back to the submission question that David was talking about, Michele Bachmann was asked that question at the Fox News debate in Iowa by a conservative journalist, Byron York, and the reason he asked the question, I think - there was video of her when she was first running for congress in 2006 where she made a campaign stop in a church and described how she submitted to her husband's guidance on whether to go to William and Mary and get an LLM in tax.

So I think that was not an example of the liberal media questioning an evangelical unfairly. This was a conservative journalist who took a campaign speech that she gave and asked her a question about it.

BRODY: Well, good point. Part of the problem with that is just because you're a conservative journalist doesn't mean you understand the evangelical world. And I think that's a big part of this and here's my point on that, simply, is that there are a lot of folks that, because they don't understand the evangelical world, resort to a two and a half minute television piece or something along those lines on this type of thing.

In other words, I think there needs to be due diligence and not to be intellectually lazy and the media has a responsibility to do both. Have due diligence, not be intellectually lazy, really understand the issue before writing about something that really is much more complex.

MARTIN: But why don't these candidates have a responsibility in a religiously diverse country to explain how their faith commitments inform their governance when they are going to be in a position of governing over people who may or may not share their religious point of view? Why isn't it on them as opposed to on the media?

BRODY: It's on both. I mean, the candidates definitely need to explain that and I think we said here that candidates do need to answer questions about their faith and especially if they're going to offer it.

MARTIN: So finally, before we let you go, what is the one question you would pose to the GOP candidates at this time? And Sarah, I'll ask you first and then, David, I'll give you the last word. We're actually just trying to steal your good ideas.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But Sarah, what's the one question you think is fair to ask?

POSNER: Well, I think it's fair to ask, like I said, do you believe that the separation of church and state is amiss? I think that's a fair question. A fair question is how you say, Michele Bachmann, that you have a biblical worldview and that it informs how you think about the world. How does it inform how you would think about environmental policy, teaching creationism in schools, not that the president gets to decide that, but that's a window into her thinking, and other pressing public policy issues.

This has a lot to do with how politics is going to address global warming, for example, so these are important questions to ask since she has brought into the campaign that she sees everything from how she defines a biblical worldview.

MARTIN: OK. David?

BRODY: I would say that, if you see the world through a biblical world view, if you have a biblical lens, if you will, I would ask, what bible verses do you see out there that support that view? I personally think our audience would be interested in that.

Here's the problem and this is why they really don't want to go there. Because they believe - I'm saying they - I'm attributing it to they being the faith candidates out there, the Perrys and the Bachmanns. They know that it will get twisted around. That in a game of telephone, that the answer to me and the transcriptions to me in that interview will then be analyzed and scrutinized and taken different ways and half the quote will be used and that will get transferred down and totally end up on a Newsweek cover. And they don't want to have a wrong headline because they know the bible, to some people, is toxic.

MARTIN: David Brody is the chief political correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network. Sarah Posner is the senior editor for the online magazine, Religion Dispatches. She's also the author of "God's Profits: Faith, Fraud and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters." They were both kind enough to join us at our NPR studios in Washington, DC.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

POSNER: Thank you, Michel.

BRODY: Thanks, Michel.

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