It's a good thing Newsweek's “religion” reporter isn't a historian. She'd never make the grade on historical interpretation.
In the November 19th edition of Newsweek, Lisa Miller's “Belief Watch” column talks about the importance to the American people that our presidents be people of faith. She makes her point with what can only be described as creative reinterpretation of data.
Miller uses Sen. John Kerry's self-professed failure to connect his faith with the American public in the 2004 election as a vehicle through which to drive a few statistics about presidential politics and the importance of religious faith to voters.
She cites a Pew poll done in August which found that “although just 40 percent of Americans go to church every week, 70 percent say they want a president with strong religious faith, and 94 percent believe in God.” Miller quotes Kerry and Pew fellow John Green, who both believe an agnostic or atheist couldn't win the White House. Green states, “Supporting a candidate who's religious is shorthand for supporting a candidate with values and principles.”
Then Miller mentions Thomas Jefferson and Ronald Reagan, saying “Americans have elected and loved secular presidents before.” Miller needs to brush up on her history.
And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.
Reagan, of course, was an outspoken believer who referred to God repeatedly in his speeches, though he did not attend church regularly.
All of this sets up the point Miller really wants to make, which is that politicians don't have to go to church to be president. But here is how she gets there:
As the religious right scrambles to cohere, perhaps this is a good moment to remember that authentic belief in God is a personal matter, and if half of Americans can't find God in church, maybe the president doesn't have to either.
That's a neat example of stretching the stats. The Pew poll only stated that 40 percent of Americans go to church weekly. It did not state that the Americans who don't go to church weekly don't go because they can't find God there, and it shouldn't be used to imply that Americans might not really care that much about their President's faith.
Miller who seems to use the column to promote beliefs that are more liberal than conservative – and even some that are outright attacks on Christianity – goes out of her way this time to twist the facts to fit her own agenda.