On Saturday afternoon, two of the Washington Post’s crack political correspondents accosted Governor Scott Walker in the lobby of a JW Marriott hotel and asked him whether he believed that President Obama is “a Christian.” As is always the way with silly questions, this inquiry elicited a silly answer. And, as it was foretold, that silly answer provoked a maelstrom inside the bubble.
Had Walker been asked, “To which religion does President Obama claim he adheres?” he might well have responded without making headlines. But he wasn’t. Instead, he was prompted to weigh in on a question that he could not possibly answer: namely, whether the president is, in any meaningful sense, what he claims to be. “Told that Obama has frequently spoken publicly about his Christian faith,” Dan Balz and Robert Costa wrote excitedly, “Walker maintained that he was not aware of the president’s religion.” And the critics screamed bloody murder.
But, really, how could he be so aware? None among us is able to manufacture windows into other men’s souls, and we should certainly not be asked to try — either on the record or off. Easy as it may be for Walker’s critics to pretend that his demurral revealed a tolerance for fever-swamp conspiracy theorizing, one can only imagine that the man would have been equally stumped had he been asked to weigh in on the faith of, say, Mitt Romney. As Soren Kierkegaard rather brutally observed, the question of what we mean by a “Christian” is extremely complicated, especially in a country in which most people claim to be devout. Presumably, Walker has a particular set of definitions and parameters; and, presumably, his Evangelical worldview requires that they be substantiated only by earnest investigation. If this is how we conduct our public discussions now, one wonders why the Post didn’t ask him to tweet out the meaning of life.
For a question to be posed in good faith, it must be possible both for the respondent to deliver an honest answer, and for his inquisitor to accept that answer at face value. Evidently, Balz and Costa did not ask in good faith. Rather, they wanted a specific response, and they were determined to crucify their man if he didn’t give it to them. That, I’m afraid, is not journalism; it’s entertainment. Their goal wasn’t “asking questions”; it was enforcing a catechism. The intention here wasn’t to ascertain facts; it was to begin a call-and-response. For a brief moment in the lobby, the Washington Post was the high priest and Walker was the congregant. The inquisition did not end well. (Walker’s press team seemed to recognize this, and undercut him at the first opportunity.)
Politically speaking, Ross Douthat has a kernel of a point when he proposes that Walker could have answered the “bad question” more adroitly. Certainly, it would be nice if conservatives were not always so tongue-tied. But, in a case such as this, one really cannot extricate the question from the answer. Because the Post’s inquiry could only provoke one correct response — “yes” — and because the questioners knew that Walker was unlikely to repeat the words upon which they had conditioned his salvation, any longer meditation on how he should have addressed the ambush seems rather pointless.
To grasp just how farcical this game is, one needs only to run an eye across the list of those who are now feigning high dudgeon. Yesterday, on CBS’s Face the Nation, Obama’s former adviser David Axelrod pretended to be surprised at Walker’s remarks: “I don’t know why there is confusion,” Axelrod proclaimed, indignantly. Really? At present, Axelrod is running around the country promoting a book in which he confesses bluntly that Obama’s well-documented objections to gay marriage were nothing more than opportunistic lies. In 2008, Axelrod recalls in one chapter, “opposition to gay marriage was particularly strong in the black church.” In consequence, he adds, Obama “accepted the counsel of more pragmatic folks like me, and modified his position to support civil unions rather than marriage, which he would term a ‘sacred union.’” Elsewhere, Obama would tell audiences that, being “a Christian, . . . my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman”; and that, “as a Christian — for me — for me as a Christian . . . God’s in the mix.” Axelrod’s admission that this was baloney will sell him a lot of books.
Such suspicions are routinely expressed on the left. At various points during Obama’s tenure, public figures such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Maher have openly suggested that President Obama is either an atheist or an agnostic, and that he is merely pretending to be a Christian to placate the rubes in the middle of the country. “You know who’s a liar about [his faith],” Maher suggested last year, “is Obama. He’s a drop-dead atheist, absolutely.” “Our new president,” Christopher Hitchens told France 24 in 2009, “I’m practically sure he is not a believer.” Richard Dawkins, meanwhile, has noted correctly that this theory is popular among progressives. “Like many people,” he averred in 2014, “I’m sure that Obama is an atheist.” These statements lacked the modesty of Scott Walker’s effective “dunno.” In fact, they were far, far harsher. And yet they were met with relative indifference. Are we to conclude that the bien pensant class considers it to be more honorable for a person to suggest that the president of the United States is lying than to say that he does not know and does not care?
When discussing the thorny question of racial prejudice, it is asserted with ever-increasing frequency that false consciousness rules the roost. On Vox last week, Jenée Desmond-Harris blamed many of America’s ills on “unconscious racism,” which, she suggests, is “also known as implicit bias.” There is a regnant idea in America, Desmond-Harris contends, that is “so deeply entrenched that many of us aren’t aware that we hold it — that white is better than black.” This point was echoed by Nicholas Kristof in Saturday’s New York Times. Directly addressing “white men,” Kristof submitted that because all human beings are “prone to the buffeting of unconscious influences,” “bias remains widespread in ways that systematically benefit both whites and men.” In both cases, the argument is clear: that one’s own preconceptions determine what is “normal” and what is “abnormal,” and that it is important for everybody to audit themselves in order to recognize their inclinations.
This being so, one can only wonder why such rules are not applied to the press corps, the members of which are disproportionately of, by, and for the Left. All too often, the media’s starting point is that Democrats are “normal,” and that Republicans are not, and that conservatives therefore need to be subjected to obtuse questions that progressives, being sound, can be spared. From the reaction to Walker’s words, we might conclude rather confidently that our leading lights are simply incapable of discerning that there is something rotten about the presumption that Walker’s silence and indifference are “disqualifying” but that Hillary’s apparently well-documented refusal to answer even the most basic of questions is politically smart. We might understand why Scott Walker’s being ambushed in hotel lobbies and invited to opine on the state of the president’s soul is deemed to be a vital part of the usual cut and thrust, but that anything that casts President Obama in a bad light is regarded as worthy of condemnation. And we might comprehend why two middle-of-the-road — and often excellent — reporters sincerely believed that the question was a good one to offer up in the first instance.