Republicans shouldn't have to answer questions about Obama's faith and patriotism
As American voters consider their choices for the next president in 2016, what issues will matter most? Obviously, national security and foreign policy have taken on a much higher priority of late, with the rise of ISIS, terror attacks in Europe, and new threats against American targets, such as the Mall of America. Economic policy will generate hot debate. Executive competence will also play a significant role after the VA and IRS scandals, especially for the candidates who will vie for their parties' nominations. Their records will get vetted to various degrees by each other, interest groups, and the media.
Oh, I forgot one topic: religion.
But wait, you might say. There is no religious test for political office! In fact, that's explicitly forbidden in the U.S. Constitution, in Article VI: "[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
Well, I'm not talking about the religious affiliations of the candidates. I'm speaking of the religious affiliation of the media. Specifically, the media has attempted on multiple occasions to make Barack Obama's worship — literally and figuratively — into an issue for Republican contenders in the 2016 field.
This started last week in a speech from Rudy Giuliani, who last held office in 2001 and last ran for office in early 2008. Giuliani blasted President Obama's response to terrorism and ISIS during a dinner at the 21 Club in Manhattan, in which Wisconsin governor and 2016 hopeful Scott Walker was present. "I do not believe that the president loves America," the former mayor of New York concluded after listing Obama's failures. "He wasn't brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country."
The media demanded an answer from Scott Walker about Giuliani's cringe-worthy comments, perhaps reasonably so considering the Wisconsin governor's presence in the room. Walker applied the "Hoffa standard" — established by none other than the Obama White House — by referring reporters back to Giuliani (who, after all, was the one who made the comments in the first place). For refusing to take responsibility or participate in Giuliani's comments, the media lashed out at Walker as too cowardly to defend Obama's honor.
At least proximity to the event gave the media some reason to ask Walker about Giuliani's remarks. What followed from The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Robert Costa, was inexplicable. Following up on Giuliani's comments about Obama's patriotism, they demanded to know whether Walker considered Obama a Christian. Walker responded by saying he's never asked:
"I don't know. . . . I've actually never talked about it or I haven't read about that. I've never asked him that. You've asked me to make statements about people that I haven't had a conversation with about that. How [could] I say if I know either of you are a Christian? To me, this is a classic example of why people hate Washington and, increasingly, they dislike the press. The things they care about don't even remotely come close to what you're asking about." [Walker]
This answer drew another round of recriminations. NBC's Chuck Todd called it an "unforced error." US News' Susan Milligan accused Walker of "othering" Obama and CNBC's Ben White accused Walker of "questioning the president's faith," even though Walker hadn't ever raised the issue of Obama's faith before the Post demanded an answer on it. In fact, Walker made it clear that the question didn't interest him at all. The Post's Chris Cillizza argued that Balz and Costa were justified in asking about Obama's faith because Walker refused to engage on the first gotcha attempt about Obama's patriotism. That context made asking about Obama's Christianity "entirely defensible," Cillizza wrote, without ever explaining what one has to do with the other — or with what Obama's interior life has to do with the 2016 election.
The media pendulum thus went from the extreme of shrieking over Giuliani's arrogance in declaring he knew Obama's heart, to bellowing when Walker stated clearly that he not only couldn't do so but didn't really think much about it at all.
Obama certainly didn't have to live by that standard in his 2008 campaign. He called his predecessor George W. Bush "unpatriotic" for running up debt. In 2007, while on the campaign trail, he accused Christian conservatives of having "hijacked" Christianity, in what was very much a blanket accusation of a lack of integrity in public proclamations of faith. Yet the media seemed very disinterested in demanding answers from other Democrats in the 2008 primary on Obama's own remarks — or really, from Obama himself.
This goes beyond double standards, though. Obama's policies may be relevant to the 2016 campaign, and Republicans have no reluctance to discuss those ad infinitum with the media. Obama himself is not; he's not running for any office, and after two elections, voters know him well enough to make those questions moot at best. Obama's interior life has absolutely nothing to do with 2016 — unless the new metric for the presidency is a measure of Obama worship, a rather odd prerequisite to apply to Republicans.
There are only two reasons to demand Republicans answer these questions. The first is to make criticism of Obama toxic; the second is to allow the media to paint the entire GOP field as extreme, or "cowardly" if they refuse to cooperate in the effort. Some, like my good friend and colleague at The Week Matt Lewis, argued that Republicans had better work with the media rather than fight against their narrative building. "Why is it so damned difficult for someone to say that Obama is a Christian who loves America — and he also happens to have been a really bad president? Why not grant him this small concession? He's never going to be on the ballot again, so why are Republicans still fighting the last war?"
It's not Republicans who are fighting the last war, though. It's the media, holding up Obama as a victim through another electoral cycle, trying to goad Republicans into that "last war" by applying a standard of discourse they never applied to Obama himself. Walker responded by pointing that out — that Obama's faith and personal life aren't relevant to 2016 or Walker's own presumed campaign, and that the media should focus on what is actually relevant. Cooperating with this by offering bon mots about Obama only encourages reporters to keep making Obama worship the focus of the 2016 race — rather than all the work that Republicans will have to do to repair the damage Obama has done on foreign policy, the economy, and the regulatory state.
Republicans win that debate. That's why the media doesn't want them to have it. Walker and his fellow Republican candidates have no responsibility to play the media's silly gotcha games, and they have a good chance to expose them now. The media wants to apply an Obama loyalty test rather than a religious test, and Republicans should make sure they don't impose that agenda.