Less than a year after 9/11, a New York Times columnist stunned the newspaper's remaining conservative readers by suggesting that both the Vatican and Al Qaeda were on the wrong side in the global war against oppression. "The struggle within the church" in recent decades, he argued, is "interesting as part of a larger struggle within the human race, between the forces of tolerance and absolutism. That is a struggle that has given rise to great migrations (including the one that created this country) and great wars (including one we are fighting this moment against a most virulent strain of intolerance)."
After all, he noted: "This is ... the church that gave us the Crusades and the Inquisition."
The symbolism of "Is the Pope Catholic?" increased a year later when the self-proclaimed "collapsed Catholic" who wrote the essay was selected as the new executive editor of the Times.
Now, shortly before stepping down as editor, Bill Keller has ignited another firestorm with a Times column arguing that religious believers -- especially evangelicals and conservative Catholics -- should face stricter scrutiny when seeking higher office.
After all, he noted, if a candidate insists that "space aliens dwell among us," isn't it crucial to know if these beliefs will shape future policies?
Yet Keller also claimed: "I honestly don't care if Mitt Romney wears Mormon undergarments beneath his Gap skinny jeans, or if he believes that the stories of ancient American prophets were engraved on gold tablets and buried in upstate New York, or that Mormonism's founding prophet practiced polygamy (which was disavowed by the church in 1890). Every faith has its baggage. ... I grew up believing that a priest could turn a bread wafer into the actual flesh of Christ."
What gave this manifesto legs online was his decision to draft tough questions for suspicious believers such as Romney, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. After all, he argued, voters need to know "if a candidate is going to be a Trojan horse for a sect that believes it has divine instructions on how we should be governed."
For starters, he said, journalists should ask these candidates if America is a "Christian nation" and what this would mean in practice. And if elected, would they hesitate before naming a Muslim or atheist as a federal judge? Voters also need to know if candidates hold orthodox Darwinian views on evolution.
Journalist Anthony Sacramone, who blogs at the journal First Things, was one of many conservatives who immediately turned Keller's questions inside out. For 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 (.pdf)" -- 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."