AP Photo/Jim Cole
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, greets fellow candidate, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr., prior to the start the Fourth of July parade in Amherst, N.H., Monday, July 4, 2011.

On Sunday, New York Times outgoing executive editor Bill Keller asked the following question in a column: "If a candidate for president said he believed that space aliens dwell among us, would that affect your willingness to vote for him?" Keller says he wouldn't dismiss the candidate outright, but would "certainly want to ask a few questions." For Keller, the same goes for presidential candidates with religious affilitations.

As one might expect, his column, "Asking Candidates Tougher Questions About Faith," set off a "hailstorm of online criticism among religious bloggers and conservative activists," according to Dan Gilgoff of CNN's Belief Blog.

Michael Medved called it a "wildly controversial column."

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby added, In 2007, a prominent Florida televangelist named Bill Keller condemned Mitt Romneys religion ...If you vote for Mitt Romney, you are voting for Satan! ... that was ugly, offensive, and intolerant. So was another diatribe about religion, published by a different Bill Keller last week.

Among other things, Keller wrote that "Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are Mormons, a faith that many conservative Christians have been taught is a 'cult' and that many others think is just weird," and "Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are both affiliated with fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity," while "Rick Santorum comes out of the most conservative wing of Catholicism — which has raised concerns about their respect for the separation of church and state, not to mention the separation of fact and fiction."

Keller argues that the GOP candidates vying for the Presidency should be asked tough questions regarding their faith, especially since many of the potential presidential candidates are affiliated with "churches that are mysterious or suspect to many Americans."

Keller continues:

"I do want to know if a candidate places fealty to the Bible, the Book of Mormon (the text, not the Broadway musical) or some other authority higher than the Constitution and laws of this country. ... I care a lot if a candidate is going to be a Trojan horse for a sect that believes it has divine instructions on how we should be governed."

Keller followed his column with a blog posting of the questionnaire he sent the candidates. The questionnaire consists of nine general questions, and specific questions for Romney, Huntsman, Bachmann, Perry and Santorum.

A prominent writer for getreligion.org, Mollie Ziegler, actually gasped when she read Keller's column. "Considering I've been reading dozens of religion stories a day for years, it's hard to surprise me," Ziegler wrote, "I'm not saying I haven't heard these types of comments uttered against religious believers, be they Pagan or Mormon or Catholic. And there's even a counter-Jihad movement that says similar things to what Keller has said, only about Muslims. But it's not like Pamela Geller is given space in the New York Times to share her views about creeping Sharia. Far from it."

Ziegler was so surprised at Keller's piece that she wrote, haf-jestingly, that Keller's column must be an attempt at satire — "If the piece isn't satire, why would he claim that 'many Americans' view Catholicism, Protestant Christianity and Mormonism as 'mysterious or suspect'? Does he have any concept of what percentage of Americans fall into one of those three categories? Of course he does. It's clearly satire," she wrote. "Why would (Keller) traffic in the type of crude stereotypes about Mormons that result in condemnation from liberals?"

Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt was likewise appalled by Keller's piece. "At a time when most Americans care that President Obama has no clue about why his policies have brought about a near-depression in many parts of the economy, the numero uno Timesman emeritus (Keller) wants a lot (of) secular reporters to dig deep into the religious beliefs of Republicans," Hewitt wrote. "... The only difference between Keller's attacks and those on Romney in the 2008 cycle is that this time they have been broadened to include the evangelical candidates — an evolution predicted then and presented as a warning to the anti-Mormon evangelicals of what would occur if they sanctioned attacks on Romney not because of his policies but because of his faith."

Hewitt pointed to a post on the article VI blog which refutates Keller's most salient arguments — as the blog itself points out, echoing the constitution, "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

Michael Medved called the Keller's proposed questions for candidates of faith a religious test and dismissed them as simplistic. Writing for Newsweek's website, the Daily Beast, Medved said, "Actually, his specific questions for GOP contenders don't seem tough at all, and the fact that Keller considers them so formidable demonstrates his dismissive, condescending attitude toward religious believers of every stripe."

Medved took questions Keller posed in his column and answered them on behalf of the candidates.

Despite the backlash, others agreed with Keller's suggestion to "confront our scruples about the privacy of faith in public life — and to get over them" — fellow timesman, Ross Douthat, wrote, "Keller is absolutely right. The separation of church and state in the United States has never separated religion from politics, and the 'private' beliefs of politicians have often had very public consequences. When candidates wear their religion on their sleeve, especially, the press has every right to ask how that faith relates to their political agenda."

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In 2008, Mormon GOP candidate Mitt Romney addressed his view regarding faith and politics in a now famous speech titled, "Faith in America."

Romney and Huntsman's church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has stressed its political neutrality in a statement posted on its newsroom website: "The Church's mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neutral in matters of party politics … The Church does not: endorse, promote or oppose political parties, candidates or platforms … (or) attempt to direct or dictate to a government leader."

EMAIL: hboyd@desnews.com