Ross Douthat’s NYT column raises an interesting point today about the possibility of overreacting to politicians and their religious affiliations. There’s a kernel of truth here, but the argument ultimately falls short for important reasons.

Douthat’s larger point, at first blush, seems fairly compelling. He notes that George W. Bush’s ties to various religious extremists didn’t amount to much, which seems to cast doubts on theocratic fears about Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and their associations with various fringe, religious radicals. Douthat therefore dismisses concerns about the Republican candidates and efforts to link them to “scary-sounding political theologies like ‘Dominionism’ and ‘Christian Reconstructionism.’”

The columnist goes on to offers some suggests to those of us who take these religio-political connections seriously. Douthat raises several points, but this is the heart of the case:

First, conservative Christianity is a large and complicated world, and like other such worlds — the realm of the secular intelligentsia very much included — it has various centers and various fringes, which overlap in complicated ways. Sometimes teasing out these connections tells us something meaningful and interesting. But it’s easy to succumb to a paranoid six-degrees-of-separation game, in which the most radical figure in a particular community is always the most important one, or the most extreme passage in a particular writer’s work always defines his real-world influence.

Second, journalists should avoid double standards. 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 outre 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.

It’s worth appreciating the extent to which Douthat’s argument paints only part of a larger picture.

First, “Dominionism” and “Christian Reconstructionism” aren’t just “scary-sounding political theologies”; they’re genuinely scary political theologies. Without delving into these worldviews in too much detail — at least not in this post — these are off-the-charts radical ideologies that would effectively establish Christian theocracies, in the United States, based on the right’s interpretation of Scripture.

Second, I’m very much inclined to agree with Douthat about the futility of playing a “six-degrees-of-separation game,” but what about when there’s one degree of separation? When it comes to Perry’s associations, for example, there are some really far-out-there religious extremists he not only knows, but who the governor directly associates himself with. Is it unreasonable for those who take the First Amendment seriously to question the propriety of these close relationships? Given the direct ties, is it unfair to ask Perry to address these relationships in some detail? Of course not.

But Douthat’s case seems especially weak when he brings in Obama comparisons. As he sees it, if Obama’s connection to Jeremiah Wright were unimportant, so, too, are Perry’s and Bachmann’s more controversial associates. The problem here is that Douthat himself said Obama’s ties to Wright were very important, making it a convenient time for him to dismiss the guilt-by-association game. The columnist’s argument starts to look like, “It would be wrong for the left to do what I did three years ago.”

For that matter, we have public records of public officials to consider. As Jon Chait explained, “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.”

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.