Last week, blogger MuddyPolitics wrote a piece that took a swipe at Mitt Romney for his Mormon faith. The article provoked a passionate debate, one that is likely being repeated in various forms across the country this election season.
The question is this: Should we consider Romney's religious beliefs when assessing his fitness for the presidency?
It's a thorny question. On one hand, certain kinds of religious beliefs are obviously relevant. A candidate who believes that gays should be stoned or that women should not be permitted to drive is not fit to be president. On the other hand, rejecting candidates because of their faith raises the specter of religious discrimination.
You may think that the question has an easy answer: Religious faith is only relevant if it is informs a candidate's political agenda. Those who would impose religious doctrine on the country are unfit, but we should not object to those who practice their faith privately.
This answer works in the simple case of a candidate whose faith is merely "spiritual"--a personal relationship with God that has no practical implications on earth. But for many devout believers, religious faith extends well beyond the spiritual realm, even if they don't translate their beliefs into specific policy proposals.
We should be concerned about a candidate who believes in certain biblical doctrines, such as creationism or millennialism, even if she does not insist that creationism be taught in schools or that Jews emigrate to Israel to hasten the apocalypse. We should be disturbed by a candidate who does not permit his wife to work or who believes in "curing" homosexuality through prayer, even if he does not advocate policies that would impose these views on the rest of us.
Religious beliefs, like any deeply held convictions, provide insight into a how a candidate thinks and what he or she values. These matters are indeed relevant to the question of who is most qualified to lead the country.
So where does that leave Mitt Romney? Those who criticize his Mormon faith suggest that his religious beliefs raise valid concerns about how he thinks and what he values. They point out that he tithes to the Church, refrains from alcohol and caffeine, and has served as a missionary and a lay cleric. They add that Mormonism is a "strange" religion out of sync with mainstream ideas--with the implication that Romney probably holds some very strange ideas.
Leaving aside the question of whether Mormonism is any stranger than other popular religions, there is another serious flaw in that argument.
As an atheist and a Jew, I may have slightly different perspective on the connection between practice and belief. Judaism is also a "strange" religion. Like Mormons, observant Jews wear unusual clothing and follow strict dietary regimes. On shabbat, they do not drive or even turn on lights. At synagogue, they read disturbing passages from the Torah (in Hebrew) about how blasphemers and Jews who work on shabbat should be stoned to death.
But I know many observant Jews who keep kosher, wear kippot on their heads and tzitzit under their clothes, attend synagogue every weekend, and pray three times a day--yet who hold no religious beliefs that would reflect negatively on their values or their way of thinking. Outwardly, they express more devotion than most hard-core members of the Christian right, but they do not believe in creationism, stoning, the Messiah, or the chauvinistic ideas of Jewish fundamentalists.
If Mitt Romney were a fanatical Mormon with disturbing beliefs, it would be fair enough to criticize him for it. But to my knowledge, he has never espoused "strange" ideas in polygamy, spirit wives in Heaven, American Indians as the lost tribe of Israel, or other exceptional elements of Mormon doctrine. Indeed, Mitt Romney and fellow Mormon Jon Huntsman were the only Republican candidates who made a point of defending the science of evolution, while the "mainstream" Christians clamored to promote intelligent design.
There may be some who regard Romney's evident religious devotion as sufficient to impute his belief in strict Mormon dogma. They may not be satisfied unless he explicitly renounces the most extreme tenants of Mormon doctrine. But that's an ugly road. To demand that someone renounce elements of his faith in order to serve in office would violate the very foundations of religious tolerance that those of us who do not believe what the majority believes cherish so dearly.
Mitt Romney has plenty of flaws as presidential material, but his religious beliefs are not among them.