10/04/2012 04:10 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2012

Journalists Debate Media's Role In Religion Coverage During Presidential Election


WASHINGTON -– Saying that the media has historically been “squeamish” about covering the religious views of presidential candidates, a former New York Times executive editor said Thursday that journalists should aggressively question the religious beliefs of politicians.

“I don't think religious views should disqualify anyone from running for office ... But I do think we are entitled to ask what religious perspectives a candidate believes,” said Bill Keller, who spoke to dozens of reporters at the Religion Newswriters' Association annual conference.

Keller, who is now a columnist for the newspaper, spoke on a panel with religion reporters and academics about how far journalists should go in covering the faiths of candidates. Major newspapers and magazines reported extensively during the Republican primaries on presidential nominee Mitt Romney's Mormonism and the beliefs of former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who is Catholic, and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), an evangelical.

On Thursday, Keller expounded on a column he wrote a little more than year ago in which he first proposed that candidates should be asked tough questions about their beliefs.

“I care a lot 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,” he wrote in the column, penned while he was the paper's top editor. “So this season I’m paying closer attention to what the candidates say about their faith and what they have said in the past that they may have decided to play down in the quest for mainstream respectability.”

At the time, the New Yorker had just run a profile detailing Bachmann's ties to Dominionism, a movement whose followers aim to establish a Christian theocracy.

Romney's Mormonism continues to be in the news, including his beliefs about the church's practice of baptism of the dead, which became controversial this year when it was uncovered that church members were baptizing Holocaust victims such as Anne Frank. More recently, a story about the potential excommunication of an Orlando-area Mormon blogger who was critical of Romney and of church practices made national headlines.

Romney himself was shy about discussing his religion –- possibly because polls show many Americans have negative views of Mormonism -- until right before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, when he gave several interviews about the importance of his faith.

“There is a lot of talk about what is appropriate or what is legitimate or what the boundaries should be ...” Keller said Thursday. “I don't worry too much about whether a question is appropriate or legitimate to ask because I trust the candidates can ... say 'that's private and that's none of your business'. What I reject is that we cede to the candidates the decision about what candidates would be asked.”

Probing how a candidate's religion informs views about evolution and science is fair game, he said.

“My hunch is that people who believe the Earth is some thousands of years old and believe the story of Noah is literally true -– that those people are less likely to be open to controversial science than people who take a more allegorical view of the Bible,” he said.

Other panelists had slightly differing views.

“Religion is relevant only to the extent that it has a plausible effect on what a candidate would do in office ... It means we wouldn't have coverage of some of elements of a candidate's faith that seem odd or exotic,” said David Campbell, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame.

Amy Sullivan, a panelist and former Time magazine writer, said she is more interested in candidates' positions on issues, not how they reached them. “Bill would very much like to know if a candidate believes in the literal truth of the scripture or if a candidate doesn’t believe in evolution but in creationism, because that would tell him if a candidate was antagonistic to science,” said Sullivan. “I don't care what [a candidate's] motivation is, I care where he would end up.”

However, Sullivan didn't rule out asking tough questions about religion, interviewing members of a candidate's congregation to learn about their views, or reporting on how candidates have publicly practiced their religion. She alluded to the Romneys' church encouraging members to tithe. The Romneys' tax returns show they gave $1.12 million to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 2011. They also gave $214,516 to the Tyler Charitable Foundation, their charity that works with epileptic children.

“When you have somebody like Mitt Romney who has not explicitly talked about his religion at all but who has also not talked the specifics of a lot of things at all, in that case religion may be one of those things you have to look at to come to some answers about what the heck this guy believes,” she said.

One of those conclusions from Romney's religious practice, she said, could be that he is a “a generous man.”