Bill Keller vs. the religious aliens

BY TERRY MATTINGLY Published: September 13, 2011
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r example, he thought reporters could ask some candidates: "Do you think that anyone who believes in the supernatural is delusional? If so, do you believe they should be treated medically?" Here's another one: "Do you believe that there is such a thing as life unworthy of life? Explain."

The problem with Keller's essay, argued Amy Sullivan, author of "The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap," is that it settled for aiming tough questions at Republicans, instead of seeking relevant questions sure to probe the beliefs of all candidates.

"If a candidate brings up his faith on the campaign trail," she noted, blogging for Time, "there are two main questions journalists need to ask: (1) Would your religious beliefs have any bearing on the actions you would take in office? And (2) If so, how?"

Another reason Keller's piece created controversy and hostility was that it contained crucial errors, such as grouping Santorum -- an active Catholic -- with GOP candidates "affiliated with fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity." It didn't help, noted Sullivan, that his piece "read like a parody of an out-of-touch, secular, Manhattan journalist," with its references to evangelicals as "mysterious" and "suspect."

It was also easy to contrast the tone of Keller's broadside with the values he preached in a 2005 letter -- entitled "Assuring Our Credibility" -- that tried to address the concerns of his newspaper's critics, including many who frequent religious sanctuaries.

It is especially important, he concluded, for all members of the Times staff to make a "concerted effort ... to stretch beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation. ... This is important to us not because we want to appease believers or pander to conservatives, but because good journalism entails understanding more than just the neighborhood you grew up in."

Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.

(c) 2011 United Feature Syndicate

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