Why is CNN Asking Presidential Candidates if They Believe in God?

CNN has been asking third-party political candidates if they believe in God, pray, and go to church.  It’s a new trend that’s deeply unethical.

[Excerpts.  The full version of this article can be viewed where it is published at The Friendly Atheist.]

By Bo Gardiner

“Do you believe in God?”

Since June, CNN has boxed into a corner three third-party candidates for President and Vice-President with this ridiculous question.   On June 22, the Libertarian Party candidates for president and vice-president, Gary Johnson and William Weld, answered questions by CNN reporter Chris Cuomo and selected voters in a CNN-hosted “town hall.”

(Video here, relevant portion starts at 22:00)

CNN selected Amanda Lindemann, an undecided voter from New York, to ask Johnson “Do you pray and do you believe in God?” 

Johnson isn’t interested, but knows what he must say:  “I have to admit to praying once in awhile and yes, I do believe in God.”

Cuomo clearly thinks she should have asked the vice-presidential candidate too, so puts the litmus test question to Weld:  “Governor?”

Weld is even less interested, but knows what he must do:  “Same on both.  Same on both.”

Cuomo is unsatisfied, and pushes Johnson harder:  “What do you want people to know about you in terms of religion?   I mean, is the answer “none of your business?” Or do you go to church?  Do you ascribe to a particular religious philosophy?”

Johnson:  “I was raised a Christian, I do not attend church, and if there’s one thing I’ve taken away from Christianity, ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.’”

And then this from Cuomo:  “Why don’t you go to church?”

Now, when I transcribe interviews I normally omit the “ums” and “uhs,” but I include them here since their dramatic and uncomfortable increase for this question compared to others is marked.

Johnson:  “Uh… I don’t…”

Cuomo interrupts, trying to disguise his inappropriateness with an attempt at humor:  “I ask you as a suffering Catholic, you know?  The question just comes up.”  [Laughter]

Johnson is literally spluttering:  “I’m one of those that just uh… I… I… the god, uh, that I speak to, uh, is not, uh, doesn’t have a particular religion.”

Awwkward.

Then yesterday CNN hosted a similar event for the Green Party candidates Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka, again moderated by Chris Cuomo.

(Video here, relevant portion starts at 33:45)

Jasmine Rebadavia, an undecided 2nd grade teacher from New York City, was chosen to ask Stein: “Do you currently believe in God, and could you tell us more about your personal journey in this area?”

Stein dodged the question with her characteristic word salad, nervously sprinkled with a much heavier-than-normal helping of “ums” and “uhs.”

There absolutely are times when a candidate’s religious views are a fair target for questioning.  Candidates who signal that they hold specific religious beliefs that will substantially influence their decisions should be asked to explain what those beliefs are.  When George W. Bush consults Revelations for an invasion of Iraq, Ted Cruz may back Dominionists with theocratic goals, or Jill Stein’s New Age purity obsessions could harm the environment and public health, religion becomes fair game.  But simply asking whether a candidate believes in God is of zero consequence to national well-being and governance; it has only one purpose, and one purpose alone: to subject a candidate to religious bigotry.

The candidates and CNN are know perfectly well what’s going on.  As researchers Scott Clifford and Ben Gaskins note in their paper “Trust Me, I Believe in God: Candidate Religiousness as a Signal of Trustworthiness,”

the use of religious and theistic  references by U.S. presidents and candidates has risen dramatically over time… Americans are largely unwilling to vote for an atheist, and many do not believe that atheists can be moral…

That’s almost certainly why Bernie Sanders chose to pander to the religious by lamely defining God as the belief that “all of us are connected” so that he can give the correct answer that he’s a believer and angrily deny he’s an atheist.   And why Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, the first member of Congress to officially describe her religious affiliation as “none,” chose to pander by lashing back at suggestions she was an atheist by treating it like a dirty word, having her press office send the bigoted statement “the terms non-theist, atheist or non-believer are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.”

Underlying CNN’s religious interrogations is the inescapable fact that anti-atheist bigotry is one of the last bigotries that remains socially acceptable in America.  This is why even liberal politicians who eschew all other bigotries are willing to feed into false beliefs about and intolerance of atheists.

It’s unethical for a political candidate to deliberately participate in the sustaining of a bigotry or intolerance by pandering to a privileged majority.  There comes a time in each equality movement when politicians must show moral backbone.  They accomplish this best not by stepping out alone, but by actively building the caucuses and the support they need so they’re less vulnerable.   Given the rise of the Nones, the decline in atheist prejudice, and the success of atheist politicians in Europe, nonbelieving American politicians are morally obligated to begin that process now.

Meanwhile, it’s also unethical for the media to force political candidates to choose between political suicide or pandering to bigotry, when no information of national consequence is to be gained.

Our constitutional ban on religious tests for public office is worth less to the nonreligious than the sheepskin parchment it was written on was worth to the sheep.

 

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