Ross Douthat's column today urging liberals not to overhype the theocratic roots of Republican presidential candidates has some well-taken points. But it suffers from a couple important flaws. First, Douthat doesn't provide any specific examples of liberals committing the various sins he describes. No doubt this is a function of small constraints, but it's a piece that badly needed to be a long, detail-rich essay rather than a 700-word column. The most prominent example of a study of a presidential candidate's theological beliefs is Ryan Lizza's masterful profile of Michelle Bachmann. In that piece, Ryan made a concerted effort to understand the whole of Bachmann's worldview, rather than cherry-pick loose connections here and there.
Does Douthat object to Lizza's portrait? If he does, I'd like to know how so. If he doesn't, it's important to note that the single largest example of liberal analysis of the religiosity of the GOP field does not display any of the flaws he identifies. Douthat mentions the piece but does not actually say that it commits (or doesn't commit) the sins he identifies.
Second, Douthat offers up a seductive but ultimately quite weak analogy to President Obama:
If you roll your eyes when conservatives trumpet Barack Obama’s links to Chicago socialists and academic radicals, you probably shouldn’t leap to the conclusion that Bachmann’s more outré law school influences prove she’s a budding Torquemada. If you didn’t spend the Jeremiah Wright controversy searching works of black liberation theology for inflammatory evidence of what Obama “really” believed, you probably shouldn’t obsess over the supposed links between Rick Perry and R. J. Rushdoony, the Christian Reconstructionist guru.
The real problem with the right-wing obsession with Obama's "real" roots is that they do not reflect in any way upon Obama's public record. Obama is a mainstream Democrat, surrounded by Clinton-era veterans, and pursuing roughly the same policies that Bill Clinton would be pursuing if he were president under current circumstances. Bachmann and (to a slightly lesser extent) Perry are at the forefront of a movement to redefine their party's ideology in far more radical hues. Their ideological and theological roots offer useful clues to figuring out this new direction. It's clearly not completely separate from their policies. Bachmann is running around saying that natural disasters are God's message to cut spending. It's not a reach to tie her program to her theology. She does it herself constantly.