December 7, 2007

Bill Moyers talks with Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Melissa Rogers

JOHN F. KENNEDY: I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters--and the church does not speak for me.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome back to the JOURNAL and thanks again for your support of this station.

You've already met Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Director of its Annenberg Public Policy Center, and co-author with Brooks Jackson Of this book UN-SPUN: FINDING FACTS IN A WORLD OF DIS-INFORMATION.

We're joined now by Melissa Rogers, founder and Director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University's Divinity School. She once served as Executive Director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and as general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.

I'm glad you could be here. Let's begin with what to me was the instructive paragraph in Mitt Romney's speech this week.

MITT ROMNEY: Given our grand tradition of religious tolerance and liberty, some wonder whether there are any questions regarding an aspiring candidate's religion that are appropriate. I believe there are. And I will answer them today.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think he answered the question, Kathleen, that do you think is appropriate to ask of a candidate's religious beliefs?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: No, I thought, in fact, the one question he said he was often asked, and he answered in the speech when he said, 'What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and a savior of mankind', is not a question that someone should have to answer.

I think you can ask a Quaker, for example, are you capable of being commander in chief? Or are you a pacifist? And if you've served in World War Two, as Richard Nixon had, the question really goes away. I think you can ask a Jew are you able if you're Orthodox to serve and act as president on the Sabbath. And I think when Joe Lieberman says, "Yes, my religion permits it," that's an appropriate question because it bears directly on governance. But, I don't think do you believe in Jesus Christ as the savior of mankind is an appropriate question or that it should be answered.

MELISSA ROGERS: I quite agree with Kathleen when she says that purely theological questions, questions that don't have a bearing on how a person would carry out their duties as president or questions about personal religious practices-- I don't think those are helpful to our process of choosing a president. And I think as we look at it, at the history, we can see that we've had wonderful political leaders who were devout people of faith. And we've had terrible political leaders who were devout people of faith. So, I don't think hearing about truly theological determinations or personal religious practices tell us anything truly important about the person and whether he or she would make a good president

BILL MOYERS: I want to show you something that I've been looking at several times now. This is a question that was asked of all the republican candidates a week ago in the YouTube/CNN debate when they were taking questions from, quote, "ordinary people out there." And this question comes from one of my fellow Texans. Look at this.

MALE VOICE -- CNN/YOUTUBE DEBATE: This question will tell us everything we need to know about you. Do you believe every word of this book? And I mean specifically this book that I am holding in my hand--

ANDERSON COOPER: I think we've got a question. Mayor Giuliani?

MIKE HUCKABEE: Do I need to help you out, Mayor, on this one?

RUDOLPH GIULIANI: Wait a second, you're the minister. You're going to help me out on this one.

MIKE HUCKABEE: I'm trying to help you out.

RUDOLPH GIULIANI: OK. The reality is, I believe it, but I don't believe it's necessarily literally true in every single respect. I think there are parts that the Bible are interpretive. I think there are parts that the Bible are allegorical.

ANDERSON COOPER: Governor Romney?

MITT ROMNEY: I believe the Bible is the word of God, absolutely. And I try... ... I try to live by it as well as I can, but I miss in a lot of ways. But it's a guide for my life and for hundreds of millions, billions of people around the world. I believe in the Bible.

MIKE HUCKABEE: Sure. I believe the Bible is exactly what it is. It's the word of revelation to us from God himself. And the fact is that when people ask do we believe all of it, you either believe it or you don't believe it. There are parts of it I don't fully comprehend and understand but I'm not supposed to, because the Bible is a revelation of an infinite god, and no finite person is ever going to fully understand it. If they do, their God is too small.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think about that?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I think, first, that demonstrates that Huckabee is a very savvy communicator who reframed a question very effectively. But, I think when the person's asked that question said, "Believe, the way you answer this will tell me everything you need to know," I would guess that person doesn't believe who's asking the question that the Bible should be believed word by word. And the inference that you're being asked to embrace is that if one of the candidate's said, "Yes, I literally believe every word," that person should be disqualified as president.

MELISSA ROGERS: Well, if that was the implication, I mean, I don't think we should-- qualify or disqualify people based on their readings of the Bible on purely again, these are purely theological matters. Religion is particularly relevant when it has bearing on policy matters. Whether we should teach, for example, intelligent design, in our public schools. If religion bears on that issue, we should know about it. But, how one reads the Bible, what-- you know, what way in which one reads the Bible or which sacred text one embraces-- these kinds of parsings I just don't think move us forward.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think there is room in Mitt Romney's America for nonbelievers?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I heard one passage of the speech and I was troubled by it. It's the passage toward the end of the speech in which he says, 'and you can be certain of this' ...

MITT ROMNEY: And you can be certain of this: any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty has a friend and an ally in me. And so it is for hundreds of millions of our country men. We do not exist without a single strain of religion rather we welcome our nations symphony of faith.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I would have liked to have heard that person who doesn't kneel to the Almighty also will have a friend in whoever is the president. Because the president doesn't distinguish between believers and unbelievers when he acts as president.

BILL MOYERS: It's awfully hard for a lot of people who are believers to admit that the First Amendment protection of religious liberty includes the right not to believe.

MELISSA ROGERS: I mean, that's the soul of religious freedom — the freedom to choose or reject God. And, really, if we're honest with ourselves, those of us who believe in a Christian faith, there's no real evangelism without recognizing that a person has a freedom to either respond to God's call or to reject God's call. That's a personal decision that is made. And we always have wanted in our country, and in our best have always tried, to ensure that we protect both the freedom to choose religion and the freedom to reject religion.

BILL MOYERS: Why do you think Romney made this speech now?

MELISSA ROGERS: Well, of course, the speculation is that because Huckabee is rising in Iowa and using appeals to religion and making references to his own Evangelical faith that Romney felt he needed to respond in some way and that this was, you know, the time to do it before the Iowa caucuses. The campaign says, that's not it and that they made this decision before various polls came out showing Huckabee taking the lead in Iowa.

BILL MOYERS: Here's the paradox to me Romney strikes me as a man who wouldn't be talking about these things if he didn't have to. I mean, I don't think he goes around with his religion on his sleeve. I think he's being forced to talk about this even though it really goes against his grain, don't you?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The speech appears to be a speech reluctantly given. And - I think it's unfortunate that it had to be given, that they thought that it had to be given. I think it's unfortunate that these kinds of questions are being asked of candidates. And I think the appropriate thing is to ask the question that you began with. "What are the appropriate questions that one should ask?" And I think the appropriate questions are those to which you have a clear answer about governance. How this would affect someone in the Oval Office if they were president. When Romney was at the section of the speech in which he says, "These are the basic values that I share with you." He's not speaking as a Mormon. He's not speaking as a Christian. He's speaking as an American. Those are American values.

I think the problem is he's trying to straddle two different audiences. He's trying to speak to the Evangelical Christians whom he wants back. He's seeing his lead eroding and he wants to say to them, "You're being afraid of me needlessly." But, he doesn't want to speak for his church. He doesn't want to be put in that role because that would falsify his entire argument. But, at the same time, he's got to make that claim while also saying to the people who don't fall into faith tradition — may fall into other traditions — may not fall into a faith community at all — I would nonetheless be your president. He's hoping you hear both in the speech.

MELISSA ROGERS: What seems strange to me is that it doesn't have to take away from his belief at all for him to be a very strong supporter of a robust religious liberty that would recognize that people can embrace faith or choose to reject faith. We don't have to — as religious people — do not have to affirm atheism to affirm the rights of atheists. One can be deeply, deeply religious and fight tooth and nail for his neighbor or her neighbor whose mind or conscience has not been swayed in the same way.

So, in a way, I see some leaders today who want to beat their chest about their own religion and being reluctant to recognize the soul of religious freedom, which is this choice, this voluntarism to choose or reject religion when they don't have to go there. They don't have to do that. And their speech would be strengthened by recognizing that there's a liberty for which we all fight, which is the rights of conscience for everyone.

BILL MOYERS: You remind me that I think I see something different in this race that I haven't seen in the past. And as you were talking I was thinking about and ad that Michael Huckabee is running in Iowa. Defining himself as Christian leader. Let me show you that.

MIKE HUCKABEE: My faith doesn't just influence me it really defines me. I don't have to wake up everyday wondering what do I need to believe. Let us never sacrifice our principles for anybodies politcs. Not now not ever. I believe life begins at conception we believe in some things we stand for those things we live or die by those things. I'm Mike Huckabee and I approved this message.

BILL MOYERS: So, here you have both Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney defining themselves by statements of faith in the heat of a political campaign.

BILL MOYERS: How important is it for us to know about their religious identity?

MELISSA ROGERS: Well, I think if something really contributes to a person's identity. It explains what makes them tick-- Mike Huckabee's history as a pastor is relevant to that extent. But, I think that this ad, for example, with the bold face capital letters "Christian Leader" begins to raise some questions. Such as, well, should our nation only have leaders who are Christian? Now, I think he had some exchanges with Chris Matthews where he's indicated that he did not believe that to be the case.

BILL MOYERS: Let's take a look.

MR. MATTHEWS: So there's no message there when we see the big sign, "Christian Leader." You're not saying you're more a Christian leader than anyone else running. You're just saying what? What's the point of mentioning it as a selling point?

MR. HUCKABEE: It's been interesting that a lot of people have tried to read something into that ad that's not there. What's there is this is who I am. I'm not saying anything about who somebody else is or who somebody else isn't. I'm trying to describe what I'm about, what drives my decisions. And that was the sole purpose of the ad.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: But, let me tell you that I think Huckabee's got a challenge. Because part of his biography is Baptist minister. And so, if you say what is his biography history? That is, you go to describe his life to you to tell you how he got where he got.

BILL MOYERS: His story.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: His story. Yes. Part of his story is that that's what he did for a living. We haven't had a minister who was a serious candidate for president before. Is he supposed to now take that part of his life and abstract it from his biography? At which point, people would say, "Why are you running away from your religious background?" What were you before you were governor? What are you trying to hide?

Now that he characterizes it as "Christian Leader" as opposed to minister or some other construction is a rhetorical choice. And that, of itself, is interesting. But, I think the fact of his background creates some constraints on him that are unique and interesting.

But, secondly, I think that ad is telling us something very important about why some people think that faith may be relevant in this context. What he's arguing here is that his pro-life stand on abortion comes from religious conviction. And as a result, he doesn't wake up wondering what his position is. That's an implicit attack on those candidates who've changed their position.

Which candidate has changed a position? Ah, that would be Romney. And as a result, he's using his religious beliefs to warrant a claim about consistency on an issue that, in fact, does have political implications in two ways. The president can support a constitutional ban on abortion. And a president can appoint justices that the Supreme Court -- nominates for justice of Supreme Court who are pro-life rather than pro-choice. The relevant policy intersection is to ask those two questions.

But he gets some ballast at arguing that his faith gives him consistency and he invites the inference he'll be more pro-life as president than some other person who doesn't have that background. And I'm not sure that's an illegitimate inference.

BILL MOYERS: That's interesting because a number of Evangelicals have told me they think Huckabee is different from other Christian conservatives who have played prominent roles in politics in recent years. And that he's trying to show us there's a different way to be conservative and Christian in politics. Do you see that?

MELISSA ROGERS: I see that. And I think he's cut an important-- he's cut a really great profile in some respects in that he has said-'My religion does influence my policymaking. But, it doesn't just influence my policymaking on abortion and gay marriage,' which tend to be the two issues that the Christian Right has focused on. But, he recognizes that religion and the Christian scripture can be applied to issues such as poverty, immigration and other issues. And environmentalism and the like. And that makes him very different from some other Christian candidates from the Christian Right.

And it's not limited to Republicans either. We also see Democrats talking about how their faith inspires them to act in certain ways on immigration or on poverty and the like. And these things, I think, are relevant. Although, they always have to be managed carefully.

BILL MOYERS: Timothy LaHaye, who is one of the most influential right wingers in the country, the architect that enormously saw a popular series of apocalyptic LEFT BEHIND novels — he's come out for Huckabee in a letter that's being widely distributed in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire. And his letters say, quote, "America and our Judeo-Christian heritage are under attack by a force that is more destructive than any America has faced."

Listen to this. "Defeating the radical jihadists will require renewed resolve and spiritual by the Evangelical pastors in America." Not by all of us. But, by the Evangelical pastors. And if you listen carefully to Romney's speech, you see him echoing this line from Timothy LaHaye directed at the threat of Islamic jihadists.

MITT ROMNEY: The creed of conversion by conquest: violent Jihad, murder as martyrdom...killing Christians, Jews, and Muslims with equal indifference. These radical Islamists do their preaching not by reason or example, but in the coercion of minds and the shedding of blood. We face no greater today than theocratic tyranny, and the boundless suffering theses states and groups could inflict if given the chance.

MELISSA ROGERS: I think that clearly in this speech, and I've heard other things that Mitt Romney has said that reflect those ideas. I think it's unfortunate that when we try to turn this into a battle between Christianity and Islam. It does not help us. I think it hurts us.

BILL MOYERS: What's missing from all this talk about religion and politics?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Relevance to governance.


KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Meaning an explanation for why these questions should matter in our assessment of who should be president.

MELISSA ROGERS: And a robust defense of religious liberty, I think. A defense of-- and an understanding that the spheres of religion and our American political sphere are different spheres. They're not the same. There are distinctions that we need to make. And that doesn't mean that a person of faith can't be an excellent American. And it also doesn't mean that a person who doesn't have a faith can't be an excellent American. Both can be excellent Americans. They're different spheres and we tend to be forgetting that, I think, in our politics today.

BILL MOYERS: Melissa Rogers and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, thank you for being with me on THE JOURNAL.


BILL MOYERS: I enjoyed this discussion.

That's it for this week. We'll be back next week. I'm Bill Moyers.