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Steven Waldman Tackles Religion, Politics And Palin

Ex-journalist and Belief.net co-founder Steven Waldman talks about Bill Maher's new film Religulous, and about how faith is figuring in this political season — notably in the candidacy of vice-presidential hopeful Sarah Palin.

27:40

Other segments from the episode on September 30, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 30, 2008: Interview with Bill Maher and Larry Charles; Interview with Stephen Waldman.

Transcript

DATE September 30, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Bill Maher and director Larry Charles on their new
film "Religulous"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

If you're familiar with the work of political satirist Bill Maher, you
probably know that he thinks religion has done way more harm than good in the
world. In his new film "Religulous," he describes religion as dangerous.
"Religulous" is a satirical documentary in which Maher travels to religious
sites around the world, ranging from the Vatican and Jerusalem to a Muslim gay
bar in Amsterdam and a Christian theme park in Orlando. The movie is directed
by Larry Charles, who also directed the movie "Borat," wrote episodes of
"Seinfeld," directed episodes of Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and has
been a show runner for "Entourage."

Bill Maher and Larry Charles are my guests. Later we'll talk with Stephen
Waldman, the founder of Beliefnet, the largest Web site devoted to religion
and spirituality. Let's start with a clip from "Religulous." In this scene,
Bill Maher is talking with Democratic Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

(Soundbite of "Religulous")

Mr. BILL MAHER: Do you believe in evolution?

Senator MARK PRYOR: You know, my--first, I don't know. Clearly the
scientific community's a little divided on some of the specifics of that, and
I understand that...

Mr. MAHER: I don't think they are.

Sen. PRYOR: No, no. Well...

Mr. MAHER: I think they pretty much agree.

Sen. PRYOR: I don't know how it all happened. I mean, I'm certainly willing
to...(unintelligible).

Mr. MAHER: But it couldn't possibly have been Adam and Eve 5,000 years ago
with a talking snake in a garden, could it?

Sen. PRYOR: Well, it could have possibly been that.

Mr. MAHER: Come on.

Sen. PRYOR: I don't...

Mr. MAHER: See, this is my problem...

Sen. PRYOR: Yeah.

Mr. MAHER: ...is I'm trying--I mean, you're a--you're a senator. You are
one of the very few people who really running this country. It worries me
that people are running my country who think--who believe in a talking snake.

Sen. PRYOR: You don't have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate, though.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Bill Maher, Larry Charles, welcome to FRESH AIR. Bill, one of the
things you say in the movie is that religion must die for mankind to live.
Strong words. Do you think in responding to religious extremism you've become
like an anti-religion extremist?

Mr. MAHER: I'm not an extremist at all. I believe in the doctrine of `I
don't know' when it comes to the afterlife, and to say I don't know about the
afterlife is really the only reasonable and also humble opinion you can hold.
Anybody who believes in personal gods that are really the result of a long
2,000-year-old game of telephone, personal gods who you pray to and who
perform miracles and fight with devils and so forth, that's extremism. That's
extremely irrational. So I don't think I'm the extremist, no.

GROSS: Larry, do you share Bill Maher's strong anti-religion views?

Mr. LARRY CHARLES: Yes, I think I do. I think we both are very much in
synch on our philosophies about religion. I think we both look at the world
and we see all the madness taking place in the name of religion. It's almost
like we're surprised there aren't more people who feel this way. It seems to
be the only reasonable approach to it.

GROSS: How did you find the interviewees for the movie? And, Larry, I guess
I'm interested in hearing what you told them. Because you've had a lot of
experience from the "Borat" movie of how to get people to talk to somebody,
not quite getting what the context of the conversation was going to be when
the movie's made.

Mr. CHARLES: Well, first of all, we made a master list of people we wanted
to talk to. We started with the pope. We started with God, actually. We
even talked to God, but God was so boring we actually cut him out of the
movie. But we then tried to reach the pope and the head of the Mormon Church
and the head of Scientology. But of course you can't get to those people, and
so, you know, they are protected by many filters and you just can't get to
them. So we had a master list that we kept on reaching out to people and
saying, `Are you interested in being involved in a documentary about
religion?' And many people love to talk about their belief systems and so
there's no problem getting many, many people to talk about it. And sometimes
I would tell them who the interviewer was. If they asked I would tell them.
If they didn't ask, I didn't feel obligated to tell them. In the United
States, sometimes that was necessary. In Europe it was less necessary. Bill
is a little less known in Europe, so it wasn't as volatile a dynamic initially
as it was in the United States.

GROSS: But you didn't say, `We're making a satirical film that's going to be
very anti-religion. Would you be interviewed for it?'

Mr. CHARLES: I don't think that would have been a wise thing to say, if I
wanted to make this movie. I kept it a much more general level of, `We're
making a movie about religion. We want you to discuss your views,' which was
true.

GROSS: Now, when you told people, `We're making a movie about religion, we
want you to discuss your views' and you didn't mention that Bill Maher was the
person behind the movie, and then Bill Maher shows up to do the interview--and
Bill, you're pretty famous, you know, in general, and you're also famous for
not having a lot of room for religion in your life, so when you'd show up to
do the interview, would some people just kind of draw back in shock?

Mr. MAHER: Well, yes. I'm not going to lie, that is the truth. That's what
happened, is that I would show up at the last minute after the scene was lit
and the person was sitting and very often had been talking for quite a bit of
time about their religion with Larry or somebody else, and we did, on a number
of occasions, see someone's face register...

Mr. CHARLES: Blanch. Yeah.

Mr. MAHER: ...register distress, but nobody got up and tore their mike off
and walked out of the room. You have to understand, first of all, that
religious people, like everybody else in America, are media whores and they
want to be on camera also. And also, you know, if something is as important
to you as religion is to these religious folks, I guess you feel an obligation
to defend your faith and, you know, if you can't beat Bill Maher, what are you
going to do against the devil?

GROSS: You tried to shoot at the Vatican and you were thrown out. What did
you want to shoot there, and how did you end up being...

Mr. CHARLES: Well, the fact is...

GROSS: ...shown the exit?

Mr. CHARLES: The fact is that we didn't intend to get inside the Vatican.
We never thought we would. But after we talked to Father Foster, he offered
to take us inside and he took us right past the guards and everything, and we
didn't even know what we were doing. We wound up on the floor outside the
door of the pope's apartment, and that's when things sort of got out of
control and we were escorted out.

GROSS: And tell us who Father Foster is.

Mr. MAHER: He's this priest who is the chief Latinist at the Vatican. He's
an American. He's from Milwaukee. And he has an apartment and an office
there, right down the hall from the pope. I guess it's a leftover position,
really, from the time when Latin was much more important. I asked him how
often he sees the pope. He said he met Pope John Paul once in 1979 when he
first became pope, and the pope hadn't talked to him in 26 years after that.
So apparently the Latinist job, it's not vital.

Mr. CHARLES: I think he made a bad joke in Latin.

Mr. MAHER: Right.

GROSS: So this father, you talked to him outside of the grounds of the
Vatican?

Mr. CHARLES: Right.

GROSS: And he seemed to be agreeing with you that the Vatican was a little
too opulent.

Mr. CHARLES: Yes.

Mr. MAHER: Oh, among other controversial things he said. That was the
least...

Mr. CHARLES: Yeah.

Mr. MAHER: You know. He said--what did he say, Larry? That he thought
the--he didn't believe the Jesus story.

Mr. CHARLES: He didn't believe the Jesus story. You know, Bill mentioned
hell, about going to hell, and Father Foster said, `Oh, hell, that's a bunch
of nonsense.' You know, I mean, he debunked virtually every doctrine of the
church.

Mr. MAHER: He said, to sum it up he said, `You know, people need their
stories,' which is pretty much what we were saying.

Mr. CHARLES: Yeah.

GROSS: Was it--did it surprise you that he was talking that way since he's
employed by the Vatican?

Mr. MAHER and Mr. CHARLES: (In unison) Yes.

GROSS: And did you ask him why he talks that way since he's employed by the
Vatican?

Mr. CHARLES: I think he's at a point in his life, he's an older man, he's
been there for 45 years. I actually think that most of the Catholic hierarchy
probably feels this way. They all know that they're stories and they know
that they're perpetuating these stories for the masses. They're all PhDs,
they're highly educated men. They're rational men on a certain level. And
they recognize the difference between the myths and the metaphors and the
poetry of it, and the reality, the literal truth of it, you know. They have
no problem reconciling that for themselves. It's the masses who are not
allowed to sort of be part of that process.

GROSS: We opened the interview with a clip from the movie in which, Bill,
you're talking with Senator Mark Pryor. Why did you choose him?

Mr. MAHER: Well, because he's, I think, from the Bible Belt, and I think
when Senator Pryor says he thinks that life may have started 5,000 years ago
in the garden of Eden, he's being sincere. I don't think he's faking it for
his constituents, as some politicians do. John McCain has been doing that for
a year, now that he's running for president. He's pretending to be a pious
man and he never has been. But I think Senator Pryor really is, like so many
of the people in the heartland of this country, who are Bible-believing
Christians.

GROSS: I think it's fair to say one of the things you feel particularly
strongly about is the mixing of religion and politics. What are some of the
things that each of you have heard during this presidential campaign that you
find most troubling?

Mr. MAHER: Well, there's a clip on YouTube these days of Sarah Palin in one
of her churches and she's standing before the congregation and some--I don't
know what he is, a minister, a pastor--somebody is putting his hands on her
and telling her that he's praying for her, and then he says something like,
`I'm going to cure you of witches.' So in my book, that's a witch doctor. You
know, if you're talking about getting rid of witches in someone's life, that's
a witch doctor.

GROSS: This is a pastor from Kenya who was visiting her church.

Mr. MAHER: You've seen it?

GROSS: Yes.

Mr. MAHER: OK. So it's pretty frightening to me that it's the year 2008 and
we're considering for the second most important job in the United States of
American someone who's being ministered to by a witch doctor.

GROSS: And, Larry, your vote?

Mr. CHARLES: Well, I would say, you know, when I think about it, that the
Scopes trial was in 1925, so 80 years later we're still arguing about putting
creationism in the public schools alongside of evolution. I mean, it's like
teaching magic and chemistry. It's really like such a regressive step, that
frightens me. And the blurring of the line between church and state that
really began with Jimmy Carter, ironically, as a Democrat. He introduced
Jesus into the campaign, and once he was ineffective as a president, the
Republicans seized upon that and drew in all these religious voters, created
the moral majority, etc. And ever since then we've sort of been on this
Christian nation path, which is very much not in keeping with the founding
fathers, despite what people try to say. So I think that trend is very, very
scary to me.

GROSS: The film starts, Bill, with you saying that the end of days used to be
God's business but now man can end the world, too. Are you concerned when
somebody in politics believes that the end of days is near, that the second
coming is near?

Mr. MAHER: Absolutely. You have identified...

GROSS: Why?

Mr. MAHER: Because if the most important thing in a person's life is their
fervent religious belief--and I'm sure that George Bush would say--and he's
not kidding you, he means it--I'm sure he would say his religion, his
relationship with Jesus, his views of the after world are the most important
thing in his life--Sarah Palin would say the same thing--OK, if the next thing
out of their mouth is that they believe end times are going to come within
their lifetime, and I'm quite sure Sarah Palin believes that, that's very
frightening because they're not against the world coming to an end. It's
actually a good thing because they want to meet Jesus. They want to bring it
on. It's called the rapture. Does that sound like a bad thing to you? It
sounds romantic to me. I wouldn't refer to the end of the world as the
rapture. I would use a name that connoted something bad.

GROSS: My guests are political satirist Bill Maher and director Larry
Charles. We're talking about their new film "Religulous." We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is political satirist Bill Maher,
and his new movie "Religulous," is a comic satire about religion with real
people in it. It's not a fiction film. It's a nonfiction film. He travels
around the world interviewing religious people and going to religious sites.
Also with us is director Larry Charles, who directed the film.

You know, I think, in answer to your question, I think one of the problems
that some people who are secular have with your just like adamant
anti-religion views is that there seems to be no room in there for the kind of
religion in which, yes, it's stories, but they're stories that have meaning.
They're stories that are metaphorical. Their religion comes along with this
sense of...

Mr. MAHER: Like what?

GROSS: ...always questioning--wait, wait, let me finish. With a sense of
always question like, `Why are we here? What's the purpose of life? What's
the purpose of death? How do we get through life's ups and downs?' I mean,
religions supplies like rituals and people who can...

Mr. MAHER: Why are they good?

GROSS: Well, for a lot of people, rituals, for instance, at a time when a
loved one dies, it's a structure to help you through a horrible experience.
Reminding you of the eternal nature of death with somebody who's been through
it a lot with a lot of people, whether it's a rabbi or a priest or a pastor.
I mean...

Mr. MAHER: But you can get it without resorting...

GROSS: You can.

Mr. MAHER: ...to ancient myths.

GROSS: Well, of course you can. You can.

Mr. MAHER: OK.

GROSS: But on the other hand, for a lot of people there's comfort in
resorting to something that has been going on since ancient history.

Mr. CHARLES: But is it ultimately soothing to believe in an illusion that
isn't true? You know, in the end, isn't that--the illusion being shattered,
could it be more traumatic for that person than believing in something that
isn't true? That's the question, I think, the equation that you have to
balance.

Mr. MAHER: And religions bring with them so many horror stories. Yes,
there--I will not argue with you that people do get comfort from religion.
What I would say to you is that it comes at a terrible price, and that price
is the way religions tribalize the people on earth. Most of the wars we've
had were in some way religious. You look at the history of mankind from
ancient times to the present and you go through the list of wars and crusades
and suicide bombings and honor killings and the oppression of minorities and
the oppression of women and having sex with children systematically and
exorcism and burning witches. I mean, stop me if you've heard enough. But
you know, that's a pretty big price for comfort that can be gotten other ways.

I'm not religious, but I have my traditions, you know. I always have
Christmas dinner with my sister. There's a tradition that makes sense because
I like her, she's my family and I really want to do it. I'm not just doing it
because we've always done it and it doesn't make sense anymore. Religions
have to be re-looked at to see if they still make sense.

GROSS: Bill, you mention in the movie that when you were growing up, your
father was Catholic and your mother was Jewish but the children--you and your
sister--were raised Catholic. And the impression I got from the movie is that
you didn't know your mother was Jewish until later in life. Is that right?

Mr. MAHER: Well, when I was about 13 is when it came up, and yes, I had
never given it a thought because when you're a child you do whatever adults
have you doing, and if it's part of the routine from the earliest time you can
remember, you really don't question things. So from the earliest I could
remember, my father, my sister and I went to church and did Catholic things,
and my mother stayed home and I never really thought why. I never gave it a
thought. And it came up when I was about 12 or 13, and then it was just like,
oh!

GROSS: So what was your reaction when you found out that your mother was
Jewish? And, you know, technically in the Jewish religion, if you're born to
a Jewish mother, you're Jewish. It's the mother who determines...

Mr. MAHER: Well that's--yeah, I know.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MAHER: People say that to me all the time and I think it's the most
ridiculous thing in the world that people would, A, propose to tell me what I
am because of some law they're listening to, and B, it's a Roman law. So I'm
going to cop to being a Jew because of what the Romans said 2,000 years ago?
I mean, it's just really silly. I mean, that's my heritage. I was raised
Catholic. My mother is of Jewish descent. But, you know, as soon as I became
a thinking adult, I said, `No, I don't want any part of any of this nonsense.'

GROSS: So your mother's briefly in the movie. You talk to your mother and
your sister in the church that you used to go to as a child, and your mother
in the movie explains that she and your father stopped going to church because
the church was opposed to birth control, which they were using. So they sent
you to church even though they stopped going?

Mr. MAHER: Well, as I say, my mother never went.

GROSS: Right, right.

Mr. MAHER: My father stopped going, and we didn't go to church anymore after
I was--it's about when I was 13, because I remember I was about to get my
confirmation, is the sacrament that you do at that age. That's where you get
a middle name. I was about to get a middle name. To this day I do not have a
middle name, because right before that my father just stopped going to church.
And I always thought it was because he didn't like Pope Paul VI. He loved
Pope John. He was the liberal pope. And when he died in 1963, and Kennedy
died that year, I think a lot of lights went out in my father's life. And
Pope Paul was too conservative. So I wanted to find out from my mother, and
when she told me, you know, it was because of the birth control thing, it
really blew me away because of course I thought my parents only had sex twice,
for my sister and myself. And the idea that they were using birth control was
just quite shocking.

GROSS: Did you read the Old and the New Testament Testaments before making
the movie?

Mr. CHARLES: Yes, actually. A number of times over the years.

Mr. MAHER: Yeah.

Mr. CHARLES: And again just before we made the movie. And we carried, of
course, we carried all these holy books with us because we would cite things,
cite quotes and so we became pretty conversant on that.

Mr. MAHER: I took a course in the Bible at Cornell when I was an
undergrad--not that I was ever a grad, but I did go to college. And when I
was in college I did study the Bible, yeah. I remember I had a course.

GROSS: Did you find anything in the Old or New Testaments that you thought,
`Well, this is actually beautifully written or this is actually a really
interesting thought that I should keep with me whether I practice religion or
not?'

Mr. MAHER: Yes, the proscription against eating lobster I think is excellent
because I don't like lobster. It is a dirty fish, or sea creature, and I
don't like the way they kill them by putting them in the boiling pot, and so I
think the thing against lobster, I'm totally down with that.

Mr. CHARLES: To me it reads like Pynchon novel.

Mr. MAHER: Yeah. I mean, the New Testament is obviously different. The New
Testament, if you strip away all the magic tricks and the bells and whistles
and the nonsense, the message of Jesus is not only beautiful but
revolutionary. The idea that the meek shall inherit the earth, and the poor
and the powerless have just as much dignity as the powerful and the rich, that
was a very new idea at the time, and it has not gone out of style, I might
add. And it's a wonderful message. It's a shame it gets lost amidst all the
other nonsense.

GROSS: Bill Maher is the producer and star of "Religulous" and the host of
the HBO series "Real Time with Bill Maher." Larry Charles directed
"Religulous." We recorded an interview with Larry Charles about his other
work, directing "Borat," writing episodes of "Seinfeld" and directing episodes
of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." We'll hear that interview sometime soon. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Stephen Waldman, founder of Beliefnet and author of
the book "Founding Faith," on "Religulous" and the election
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The Web site Beliefnet has been following the elections with reporting and
analysis of how religion has been figuring into the presidential and vice
presidential campaigns. The Web site is also asking for readers' opinions of
Bill Maher's film "Religulous." My guest Stephen Waldman is the founder and
editor in chief of Beliefnet. It's the largest Web site devoted to religion
and spirituality. It's not affiliated with any specific religion.

Waldman is also the author of the book "Founding Faith," about some of the
myths surrounding the role of religion in the founding in America. He says
the founding faith wasn't Christianity and it wasn't secularism. It was
religious liberty.

Stephen Waldman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start first with your
opinion of "Religulous." I know you saw it. What did you think?

Mr. STEPHEN WALDMAN: Well, I thought it was funnier than I was expecting and
more challenging, but also, as expected, highly offensive and quite slippery
in its own way.

GROSS: What do you mean by offensive and slippery?

Mr. WALDMAN: Well, throughout a lot of the movie he says that all he is
trying to do is make the case for doubt, for people having doubt and being
free to have doubt, but by the end of the movie it's very clear that he does
not have doubt. He has great certainty about his beliefs against religion and
he doesn't see the contradiction there. He also--most of the movie is an
attack on fundamentalism and he really doesn't deal very well with moderate
religion or religion that isn't, you know, take scripture literally.

GROSS: What would you say to him to make a case for religion?

Mr. WALDMAN: Well, first of all, for every example he gives of religion
harming society, there's at least one or many more of religion helping
society. Whether it's, you know, the role that faith played in the civil
rights movement on a social level, or whether it's the way that faith drives
millions if not billions of people towards leading good lives or getting
through crisis and trauma, there's just literally, you know, billions of
examples of faith helping people on a personal level and helping the world on
a global level. I'm not arguing that faith doesn't also do harm, as he's
suggested, but to only look at one part of the story is not really a
documentary, as he calls it.

GROSS: One of the things that you and others have been writing about on
Beliefnet is how religion is figuring into the presidential campaigns so I'd
like to talk with you about that, if you will. You've written that you have
friends who are secular and friends who are very religious and you've been
trying to figure out what you find scary and not scary about how religion is
being used in the campaign to reassure your secular friends that certain
things aren't scary and to warn others that certain things kind of are scary
about how religion and politic are meeting. So I'm going to first ask you to
choose one of the statements that you've chosen to reassure your secular
friends that the statement isn't as bad as they think it is.

Mr. WALDMAN: This particularly came up in the context of Sarah Palin and the
swirl of information of people learning about what she believes and what she
practices, and it's absolutely terrifying to a lot of people. The first
example that came up, and it was used by Charlie Gibson in his first interview
with Sarah Palin, was a comment that she made essentially talking about God's
plan for the Iraq war. And many people became enraged and frightened by this
statement because it sounded to some like she was saying the Iraq war was
God's plan, which would be understandably of concern. But actually...

GROSS: Let me just quote what she said, because I have the quote here.

Mr. WALDMAN: Good.

GROSS: She said that she asked the members of the church to pray, quote,
"that our leaders, our national leaders are sending US soldiers out on a task
that is from God. That's what we have to make sure that we're praying for,
that there is a plan and that that plan is God's plan."

Mr. WALDMAN: Right. So she's saying we need to pray that it is God's plan.
In other words, it may be God's plan, it may not be God's plan. We should
pray that it sure is. That strikes me as being perfectly within the normal,
legitimate bounds of a Christian politician talking about faith and politics,
that we all want to be taking steps that are in line with God's will and God's
values. In that case, it did not seem to me that she was justifying the war
as being God's plan, and that was the way it was interpreted by Charlie Gibson
and many other people. Now, there's another...

GROSS: But if you are secular, doesn't it sound kind of scary that somebody
would think that going to war, or not going to war, is God's plan? That God
has a specific plan and it's the job of the politicians to follow it?

Mr. WALDMAN: Well, I think if you're secular, you are frightened by that,
and this is one of those areas where...

GROSS: Well, even if you're just of a different religion, or even if you're
of that religion and don't take things as literally as that.

Mr. WALDMAN: It doesn't bother me if someone is trying to figure out what is
the right thing to do according to God's plan or what God would want. You
know, there's a long tradition of this among our founding fathers, especially
trying to do what they thought was right and trying to justify it as being
part of God's plan. The slippery slope is when politicians claim to know what
God's plan is and claim to try to figure out the policy, to match it up with
God's plan. That's where it gets very troublesome because, first of all,
where does that politician come off claiming they have a direct pipeline to
God's voice when other politicians or other voters don't. That's where it
really gets dangerous.

The mere fact of someone trying to craft a policy that they think is, you
know, in synch with what their religion or their god would what seems fine.
That's absolutely what, you know, Martin Luther King did when he was promoting
the civil rights movement. It's absolutely what George Washington was doing
when he was fighting the American Revolution.

Now, there's a second Sarah Palin quote where she does go into what I view as
a dangerous area.

GROSS: What's that?

Mr. WALDMAN: That's the one where she says that it is God's will that they
build a particular natural gas pipeline, and that quote to me was very
different. Because in that case, she was saying--or did appear to be
saying--that it is God's will that this pipeline be built. That's problematic
for all sorts of reasons. First of all, how does she know that it's God's
plan that this pipeline gets built? What does that do, and what kind of
position does that put the opposition in? That means if you oppose the
pipeline, you're against God, you're against God's will. That's exactly the
kind of religion and politics mixing that the founding fathers were terrified
of, and with good cause.

GROSS: She signed a bill in Alaska while she was governor creating a
Christian Heritage Week. What do you think of that?

Mr. WALDMAN: That made me uncomfortable for a couple of reasons. First, it
was a string of founding fathers' quotes proving what good Christians they
were, and I just happened to write a whole book about how founding fathers'
quotes have been routinely taken out of context, and there she was doing it as
the governor of Alaska, ripping the founding fathers out of context and
portraying them as devout Christians when not all of them were.

More importantly, if the state of Alaska has a week called Christian Heritage
Week and they don't also have Jewish Heritage Week and Muslim Heritage Week
and Secular Heritage Week, then they are putting the official stamp of
approval of Alaska that they are preferring one religion over another. That's
a big no-no. What the Supreme Court has said and what many philosophers
believe is that it is OK for government or government officials to stick their
toe in the water of promoting religion in general as long as they do it
equally for all religions, as long as they're very pluralistic about it. Once
the government gets in the business of favoring a particular religion, that
really does go the spirit or the letter of the Constitution.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Waldman, the founder and editor in chief of
beliefnet.com. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Waldman, the founder and editor in chief of
beliefnet.com, the largest Web site devoted to religion and spirituality.
Beliefnet has been reporting on and analyzing how religion is figuring into
the presidential campaign. It's also asking its readers for their comments
about Bill Maher's new satirical film "Religulous," which we talked about with
Bill Maher earlier in the show.

Bill Maher made it clear that he's very disturbed by the idea of somebody who
has political power believing that the end of days is imminent because if
there's the possibility of the end of the world, they're going to see that as
a good thing, as a chance to get reunited with Jesus as opposed to a bad thing
that needs to be avoided. I'm wondering what your take is as the founder of
Beliefnet about--well, in particular, Sarah Palin, I know, the church that she
used to attend to, the Wasilla Assembly of God, has it on their list of the
basic beliefs of the church that the rapture is imminent, the end of days is
imminent.

Mr. WALDMAN: I think it's a fair question to ask Sarah Palin, but it's also
important that we keep in mind that many people who believe in end times, or
even say that it's imminent, don't necessarily mean it's tomorrow or in their
lifetime. And secondly, even those who do think it might be in their lifetime
are not changing anything about their lives. They're not doing anything
differently as a result.

Now, I think it is a legitimate question because some people are doing things
differently, and if a public official is going to be influenced by that view,
if, for instance, it makes them not want to have peace in the Middle East
because war in the Middle East will actually be what brings Jesus' return,
well, that is an important thing to know. But it is important to know that
many, many people who believe in end times don't change their lives or their
behavior at all.

GROSS: One of the videos being widely circulated on the Internet now is of a
minister from Kenya named Thomas Muthee who was at Sarah Palin's church. This
is, I guess, at her former church. This is a few years ago.

Mr. WALDMAN: Right.

GROSS: And he had a reputation in his village of having chased out a witch,
someone who he believed was practicing witchcraft, so when he was praying over
Sarah Palin, one of the things he prayed for was to protect her from the
spirit of witchcraft. Where does that register on your meter?

Mr. WALDMAN: It doesn't bother me that much. It would bother me a lot more
if she piped up and said, `Yes, I agree, I've got a lot of witches in my life
that I would like to get rid of,' and started naming names. That would be
very troublesome. But, you know, in my life of work as editor of Beliefnet,
I'll often be in situations where people will want to pray over me or for me,
and a lot of times it comes from a direction that is, you know, certainly not
where I came from, but I tend to view it as a gift and as someone trying to do
well by me. So it didn't bother me that someone was praying over her that
way, because it really left unanswered the question of what did she think of
this? What did...

GROSS: Is that a question you'd like to her?

Mr. WALDMAN: Yes, that would definitely be a question I would like to ask
her. I have about 75 questions related to religion that I would like to ask
Sarah Palin. That's not even in the top 10, but I absolutely would love to
know what she was thinking when he was talking about casting out witches. Was
she thinking, `Oh, I hope this gets over quickly and there's no one filming
this for YouTube'? Or was she thinking, `Yes! Good! I'm glad he's saying
that because I've got a lot of witches in my life I'd like to get rid of.'

GROSS: You know, it seems that John McCain chose Sarah Palin in part because
she is an evangelical Christian and she could rally the base. And so many
Americans have questions that they want to know about her faith. She's been
doing remarkably little with the press, but the couple of interviews that
she's given, I don't think she's been asked directly about her religion, not
the questions that you would like to hear asked. How appropriate do you think
it would be for a journalist to just ask point blank the kind of questions
you've been asking?

MR. WALDMAN: I think it's completely appropriate, and these types of
questions have been asked of Barack Obama and John McCain and Joe Biden, and
they ought to be asked of Sarah Palin as well. The problem is, of course,
that there's a lot of different types of questions that need to be asked of
Sarah Palin, and so these religion questions need to sort of get in line. But
I do think it's one of key outstanding questions about her, is how does her
faith affect the way she would govern. It's obviously an issue of great
concern to some voters.

GROSS: It seems that religion has backfired a little bit during this
presidential campaign. For example, Barack Obama had to distance himself from
Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor. He even had to leave his church, in part,
he said, because it was causing so much--the controversy was causing so much
distraction and ruckus in the church. John McCain after getting his
endorsement from John Hagee ended up having to disavow the endorsement because
of Hagee's controversial views about the end times and homosexuals and
Hurricane Katrina. And Sarah Palin appears to have been chosen in part
because of her religious views and their ability to rally the evangelical
base, but at the same time you could argue that her religious views have
alienated a lot of voters and it's unclear how that will play out on Election
Day. I wonder what your thoughts are about how religion has at times
backfired this time around, or made things problematic.

Mr. WALDMAN: Well, we're certainly seeing that if you insert religion into a
campaign it's not a guaranteed positive thing. For every effort to promote
your religion as a way of getting votes, you run the risk of it backfiring and
leading to some controversy. And Sarah Palin's a great example. I mean, she
absolutely energized religious conservatives in the Republican Party--which
was no small feat, because they really didn't like McCain very much, and yet
overnight it made them enthusiastic about the McCain-Palin ticket. That's
quite a neat trick politically. On the other hand, obviously she comes with
certain baggage, and we will see on Election Day whether she ended up being a
net plus or a net minus.

Barack Obama has talked more about his personal faith than John McCain and
Sarah Palin combined, and I think it's mostly been an electoral positive, but
as you noted, he's also got hammered for his connections to his past church
and is still trying to disabuse people of the notion that he's a Muslim. So
we're seeing in very, very rich detail that when you encourage or invite
religion to be part of a political campaign, you can't be sure that it's going
to have a nice, noble, cleansing effect on the political system. You can't be
sure that it's only going to help you. It clearly cuts both ways.

And by the way, this is not the first time this has happened. You know, in
the 1800 election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson accused
Adams of shoving religion down America's throats, that he was going to create
an official state religion--which was a bit of an exaggeration, but it showed
that religion has been used fairly and unfairly in presidential elections
going all the way back to the beginning. And I suppose that should make us
feel a little bit better, that however bad it gets, we'll survive.

GROSS: John McCain has made reference to America being a Christian nation.
I've seen you refer to this. So can you tell us what the context was and what
specifically he said about America as a Christian nation?

Mr. WALDMAN: He was asked whether he thought the Constitution to create
America to be a Christian nation, and he said, yes, the Constitution defines
America as a Christian nation, which is way out there. I mean, that's just
untrue. There's lots of different ways of fudging and finessing that
question. Lots of people say American was a Christian nation. And that
means, you know, it's majority Christian or it was infused with
Judeo-Christian values. There's ways of phrasing that where you can fudge and
be, you know, sort of subject to interpretation, but he went farther than that
and actually said the Constitution created a Christian nation, which is not
true. I actually viewed it as a sign that McCain, when he tries to pander to
religious conservatives, he usually messes it up. He's just not that good at
it. You know, most religious conservative politicians, when they answer that
same question, come up with that wording that implies that it's sort of a
Christian nation, Christianity had a higher place in it, but it also allows
for other religions. There's many different ways of fudging that, but he
didn't quite know what they were.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Waldman, the founder and editor in chief of
beliefnet.com. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Waldman, the founder and editor in chief of
beliefnet.com, a Web site devoted to religion and spirituality. Beliefnet has
been reporting and analyzing how religion is figuring into the presidential
campaign.

Now, Joe Biden is a Catholic, which is still a minority religion as far as the
White House goes. Has the Catholic Church threatened to withhold Communion
from him because he supports a woman's right to choose to have an abortion,
although he opposes federal funding for abortion?

Mr. WALDMAN: Well, the whole Catholic Church hasn't gone that far, but
individual bishops have suggested that he might not want to present himself
for Communion. This is a problem for all pro-choice Catholic politicians..
And ironically, right now Barack Obama is doing better among Catholics than
John Kerry, who was Catholic, had done with Catholics. And it sure would be a
supreme irony if it turns out that Barack Obama is able to do better among
Catholics because he's not Catholic. Because he's not Catholic, he doesn't
have to deal with this issue of whether or not he's a bad Catholic for being
pro-choice.

The other really interesting test that Biden's candidacy provides is what kind
of a Catholic can actually draw Catholic votes. In other words, Joe Biden is
not a theological Catholic in terms of being 100 percent in synch with the
teachings of the church. On the other hand, he is very much a cultural
Catholic. He went to Catholic boys' school. He went to a Catholic high
school. He had a rosary under his pillow when he was getting brain surgery
for his aneurysm, and he came from a kind of working-class Catholic
background. If anyone can make the case that he was a cultural Catholic, Joe
Biden can.

He's trying to appeal to Catholics in a really interesting way. He doesn't go
around quoting Scripture or talking at great length about his Catholic
upbringing, but he uses words and phrases that are evocative of Catholic
social teaching. So when he talks about economics and employment, he doesn't
just say, `We need more jobs.' He says, `We need to fight for the dignity of
work.' The dignity of work is a phrase that is a critical part of Catholic
social teaching, so he will try to cast classic Democratic Party economic
talking points as being part of Catholic social teaching. And then he'll also
just drop, you know, anecdotes about his experience in Catholic boys' school
and things like that. So it's a kind of subtle use of Catholic language and
his own biographical material more than it is a, you know, quoting of the pope
or a particular encyclical.

GROSS: Have you been following what's happening in the Jewish vote, if we can
generalize that way?

Mr. WALDMAN: Yes. For a while, it was really looking like John McCain was
going to do better among Jews than a Republican had done in a long time, and
that's because there are a lot of Jews who have problems with Barack Obama,
and I think there's a real racial element to that. Now, Sarah Palin's
selection as John McCain's running mate may reverse that pattern because,
while Palin is thrilling evangelical Christians, she's scaring a lot of
American Jews, so it may well be, in particular, that Florida, a critical
state in this election, has moved closer to the Obama side as a result of the
Palin selection.

GROSS: Well, you know, because McCain is so close to Joe Lieberman, who is an
Orthodox Jew, I think that was probably having an impact on many Jewish
voters, but why do you think Sarah Palin is, as you put it, "scaring" some
Jewish voters?

Mr. WALDMAN: Well, Sarah Palin, you know, among other things, signed a law
calling for Christian Heritage Week in Alaska; and things like that, you know,
make Jews fearful that she's a Christian extremist who's going to shove, you
know, Christianity down their throats. And that creates a lot of worries for
particularly older Jews, of which there are many in Florida.

GROSS: Before we wrap up, let me just ask you if you have any other
impressions that you'd like to share with us about how religion is playing out
in this presidential campaign?

Mr. WALDMAN: The economic crisis has meant that, even among the most
observant religious people in America, moral values issues are secondary this
year to the economy. That's a hugely important factor as we head toward the
election that's very different from last time around.

Another big factor that hasn't been much discussed is the massive shift of
Hispanics towards the Democratic Party, and it turns out that that shift is
mostly coming from Protestant Hispanics, and these are Protestant Hispanics
who are Pentecostal or evangelical and really like George Bush's faith. And
they've now abandoned the Republican Party and shifted to the Democrats in
large measure, and that hasn't been discussed very much, but that may end up
being one of the most important religious developments of the entire election.

GROSS: Stephen Waldman, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. WALDMAN: My pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: Stephen Waldman is the founder and editor in chief of beliefnet.com
and the author of the book "Founding Faith: Providence, Politics and the
Birth of Religious Freedom in America."

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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