“When it comes to the religious beliefs of our would-be presidents, we are a little squeamish about probing too aggressively,” writes Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, in his latest column. Keller illustrates his argument with a scene from a recent Republican presidential candidate debate:

Michele Bachmann was asked during the Iowa G.O.P. debate what she meant when she said the Bible obliged her to “be submissive” to her husband, and there was an audible wave of boos — for the question, not the answer. There is a sense, encouraged by the candidates, that what goes on between a candidate and his or her God is a sensitive, even privileged domain, except when it is useful for mobilizing the religious base and prying open their wallets.

Yet Keller is not buying this line of thought. He continues:

But 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. It matters to me whether a president respects serious science and verifiable history — in short, belongs to what an official in a previous administration once scornfully described as “the reality-based community.” I do care if religious doctrine becomes an excuse to exclude my fellow citizens from the rights and protections our country promises.

And 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.

As such, Keller has issued a set of well-posed questions to the range of Republican candidates. I’ll post an update if any of the candidates actually respond, though unfortunately I don’t expect that they will. Politicians have a knack for avoiding tough questions, especially when said politicians are running for office and the questions concern religion.

That said, Keller’s got the right idea. Religious beliefs often play a central role in shaping one’s moral and legal views, and so those beliefs — especially when they belong to a public servant — should be open to discussion.

Update: you can read more coverage on the blog Friendly Atheist.