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Ryan Lizza of the New York on how journalists ought to cover religion and politics on the presidential campaign trail

Friday, September 30, 2011

HH: This segment and next, Ryan Lizza, chief political correspondent for the New Yorker, is back. Ryan, it’s always a pleasure. Thanks for joining me.

RL: Hey, thanks for having me. How are you?

HH: I am great. And you have launched this great back and forth with Ross Douthat over at the New York Times on the subject of faith in the presidential campaign. Would you summarize for the audience what you two have been up to? And then let’s talk about it a little bit.

RL: Oh, boy, this was a few weeks ago. Well, here’s the back story. So what I wrote in a profile of Michele Bachmann, I noted that one of the influences she often talks about is Francis Schaeffer, a theologian who died in the 80s, and was very influential in bringing Evangelicals into politics. And one of the points that I made is that one of his last books, A Christian Manifesto, suggested that violence was appropriate, and specifically, if Roe V. Wade was not reversed. Now I took some heat for that comment, because a lot of folks, and many admirers of Francis Schaeffer, argued that I was misreading A Christian Manifesto, and that Schaeffer only called for civil disobedience, and not violence. And so Ross and I had what I think is a pretty civil exchange, about four or five volleys back and forth, going through A Christian Manifesto, and Ross arguing that no, Schaeffer never called for anything beyond civil disobedience, and me arguing that yes, indeed, if you read A Christian Manifesto closely, Schaeffer, one of the main things he does in that book, is lay out the criteria in extreme circumstances when violence, including the overthrow of the government, is justified. And so that’s the back and forth.

HH: Now the most recent one was on September the 2nd, and they can find all these back and forths both at and at They’re fascinating. My friends at Article Six Blog, which is one of the very few that I read all the time, because it’s got an Evangelical, John Schroeder, and a Mormon, Lowell Brown, and now John Mark Reynolds, who’s Orthodox, is joining them. And they take religion in politics very seriously. They’re really mad at you.

RL: Yeah, I saw this today. I saw this today.

HH: Oh, you did? Already?

RL: Yeah.

HH: And so I thought to myself, what is it about this particular intersection that gets people a little…I’ve been writing about this for fifteen years, working on PBS about it. It attracts all sorts of journalists. But it’s got nothing to do with governing, does it, Ryan Lizza?

RL: No, and I’ll tell you what, and you know, you always learn something when you step into…I write about a lot of different subjects, so I’m dipping my toe into all sorts of subjects, from national security to religion to politics all the time, right? And you know, as a journalist, you need to become an expert on a whole range of subjects in a short period of time. And you often…and one of the thing about putting your name out there on a piece like this is the people who consider themselves the experts will come back at you hard if they think that you’ve misinterpreted something. And I discovered a couple of things. One, there, for many Evangelicals, Schaeffer is an extremely, extremely important person. And it’s beyond just his philosophy, but there’s a sort of personal love for the man. And criticism of him is taken not just as a different subjective, or different take on the meaning of what he wrote, but as a personal attack on him, which I was certainly not doing, but which some conservatives accused me of doing. And I would say that’s probably the…so it’s one of those debates that I think I stepped in without quite realizing the sort of passion and energy on the side of people who sort of worship Schaeffer.

HH: And of course Bill Keller had written this piece about the faith beliefs of Republicans generally, which unleashed from me and others many a torrent of criticism for both large and small issues. Not knowing that Rick Santorum is a Catholic is kind of a big giveaway that you haven’t done your homework. But generally, no one gets to write on this about whom there is some question of motive. And so Ryan, how do you answer people that say hey, you know, you’re not genuinely interested in what the candidates believe, you’re looking to gig them?

RL: I would say that’s false, because what I was trying to do with the Bachmann piece, which man, it seems like Michele Bachmann has really faded from this race.

HH: Yeah.

RL: But when that piece came out, it was right before the Ames Straw Poll, she was sort of peaking. Credible people were arguing she could win the nomination. Look, it’s my job and my responsibility to take very hard looks at the people who want to be president of the United States. And right now, that job is mostly about looking at this Republican field, because that’s the only game in town. And you know, back in 2008, and back in 2004, when the Democrats had competitive primaries, you know, your listeners can go look this stuff up. I tried to take the same critical judgment and apply it to the profiles of those Democrats. And so when I was writing about Bachmann, I was genuinely interested in who and what influenced her. And she cited, you know, we talked about this last time I was on the program, Hugh. And she cited a number of influences. And I think I explored those influences in a pretty fair way in the piece. The one that has gotten the most attention, and probably more than it deserves, considering it’s relatively minor importance in the piece, is this Francis Schaeffer, and specifically this debate over whether Schaeffer ever allowed for violence in his philosophy.

HH: I just don’t read Schaeffer. I’m a C.S. Lewis fan.

RL: Yeah…

HH: I just don’t have any idea what the right answer is, here.

RL: Yeah.

HH: But people like Article Six Blog say no, no, no, no, and other people. But…

RL: They say no. And it comes down to a fairly close reading of one section of A Christian Manifesto. And if your listeners are interested in the sort of details, and it is a fascinating debate…

HH: Oh, it’s fascinating, yeah.

RL: And it’s not, you know, I hope it wasn’t…I thought that Ross Douthat and I had a pretty civilized exchange on this.

HH: Yes.

RL: And you know, I suggest your listeners go check out the exchange we had. There are links. You can go read…A Christian Manifesto is on Google books. You can look at the language yourself.

HH: So looking forward, not backwards…

RL: Yeah…

HH: …to the Perry-Romney race…

RL: Yeah.

HH: How important are these religion questions, because this gets me very concerned?

RL: Hey, I want to go back to Keller for a second, because look, yes, he got a crucial fact wrong about Santorum and his religion. But the questions he’s trying to raise are important. And how we cover politics and religion is really, really important. And I can’t believe that in American politics, it can only be a one way street. In other words, politicians can use religion in any way they want when they’re looking for votes, and they can talk about religious philosophy and Biblical influence on them when they’re out there trying to win people over, but on the other hand, journalists can’t actually dig deeper into that and question what one’s religion means for them, and would mean for them as president.

– – – –

HH: Going back to the subject of how to cover faith and politics, okay, Ryan, it’s going to come up, and so my question is…

RL: Yes.

HH: The ground rules – everyone should get asked the same thing. But if someone like Bill Keller or Jacob Weisberg starts raising questions about Perry’s Evangelicalism, or Romney’s Mormon background, are they obliged to do at least the minimum of homework that you did with Bachmann, which is to read the stuff that’s already been written about them in that regard? And I mean, with Romney, people say I want to ask questions about will he be controlled…he’s answered this question, like 55,000 times. And so when people come back again and again and again…

RL: Yeah.

HH: And they don’t do their homework or they don’t reference it, isn’t that bad faith?

RL: Look, without…and you’re right. We have a responsibility, if we’re going to dig into…and look, when we’re talking about religion, we’re not talking about something, I think we shouldn’t, as journalists, treat religion as something separate and apart. And we shouldn’t treat it as something that is 100% private. In other words, look, most, a lot of Christians believe this and preach this, that your Christianity and your belief system is not just something you do on Sunday in church. It needs to pervade your whole life. And as journalists, we have to, it’s fair to ask the question what it means for one’s political views. But you’re 100% right that we have the responsibility to read a little theology and study up, and make sure we understand at least the basics about one’s philosophy. I agree with you 100% there. But do you…I think that a lot of the criticism I’ve seen, though, I’m afraid is just journalists shut up and stop asking questions about people’s religion, because you’re not allowed to do that.

HH: No, that’s actually, my criticism is different. It’s not shut up and don’t ask questions, it’s please find out what questions have been asked and answered 50 times, and by the way, I think your question about seven day creation, you haven’t asked this, Ryan, I think that’s a stupid question that’s designed to elicit anger towards a candidate and put him in a box as opposed to talking about the deficit or the number of ships in the Navy. So most of my criticism of MSM when it comes to doing religion reporting is that they’re not sincere, that not you, but generally…

RL: Yes.

HH: They don’t really give a damn.

RL: Well, this is, you know, this came up because Byron York, who I’ve known forever, wrote a column saying well, all the…and he lumped, I think, me and Keller and maybe one or two other people in it, and said all of these journalists are now asking about Bachmann and Perry’s religion because they don’t want to have the campaign discussion about the economy, and they’re doing this because they want to help Barack Obama win, which I mean, first of all, I don’t like arguments that assume bad faith, or assume you have some strategy behind what you’re doing, because you know, he obviously couldn’t know that. And number two, Byron York was the journalist that asked the wifely submission question at one of the debates. So I thought there was some irony in him pulling this argument out.

HH: I hated that question as well. Hated it.

RL: No, I would defend his right to ask it.

HH: Well, of course he’s got a right to ask it, but it’s got nothing to do with being president.

RL: But my point is, I know…and you hinted at something that Byron said, that you think that asking these questions is somehow trying to knock the candidates off what they want to talk about. And frankly, I don’t necessarily care what the candidates themselves want to talk about. As a journalist, that’s less important to me than what I think is important for my readers to learn about.

HH: Well, that’s, I have the same standard, but I don’t think your readers, my listeners, give a whit about whether or not Rick Perry ascribes to the theology of everyone on the stadium…

RL: Yeah, well, I want to be honest. Your listeners and my readers are two different (laughing)…

HH: Ah, you’d be surprised, Ryan Lizza. Let me conclude by asking…

RL: A lot of, I understand there’s a lot of overlap.

HH: I’ve got to ask, did you say not a lot of overlap?

RL: No, I said I’m sure there is.

HH: Oh, okay. I’ve got to ask by concluding, Des Moines, this is a very practical question. When Florida moved yesterday, the whole calendar moved forward.

RL: Yeah.

HH: Have you started to make reservations in Iowa in December?

RL: (laughing) Not yet. This happens every four years, and I always wait for everything to shake out before I pay super close attention.

HH: And so who is helped by this acceleration, Ryan Lizza?

RL: Well, certainly not, if you’re Chris Christie or any of the dwindling band of possible-maybe-sort of candidates, it doesn’t help you, right, because you need more time. Although I suppose you could argue that both ways, right? But I…I don’t know. You know, I could argue it helps Romney, I could argue it helps Perry. But what do you think?

HH: I don’t have an opinion yet, either, because it depends on when the superPACs start spending money and where. Last question, 30 seconds, why does everyone push Chris Christie to run, but no one pushes Marco Rubio to run?

RL: Because Marco Rubio is going to be the vice presidential nominee no matter what. And in fact, I think you should start this on your show. We should rename the Republican primary process the contest to be Marco Rubio’s running mate.

HH: That is, you are exactly right. Ryan Lizza, that’s why I like having you on. Thanks for coming back. Go to the New Yorker to read Ryan’s pieces.

End of interview.

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