Mitt Romney wants the J.F.K. deal with voters: If you don't hold my religion against me, I won't impose my religion on you. But that deal made little sense in 1960 and makes no sense today. Kennedy said, "I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair." But the Roman Catholic Church holds that abortion is the deliberate killing of a human being. Catholic liberal politicians since Mario Cuomo have said they personally accept the doctrine of their church but nevertheless believe in a woman's right to choose. This is silly. There is no right to choose murder. Either these politicians are lying to their church, or they are lying to us.
These days presidential candidates are required to wear their religion on their sleeve. God is a personal adviser and inspiration to all of them. They all pray relentlessly. Or so they say. If that's not true, I want to know it. And if it is true, I want to know more about it. I want to know what God is telling them--just as I would want to know what Karl Rove was telling them if they claimed him for an adviser. If religion is central to their lives and moral systems, then it cannot be the candidates' "own private affair." To evaluate them, we need to know in some detail the doctrines of their faith and the extent to which they accept these doctrines. "Worry about whether I'm going to reform health care, not whether I'm going to hell" is not sufficient.
What exactly should we worry about? Most important, we need to know what forms of conduct a candidate's religion forbids or requires and how the candidate interprets that injunction. Is it a universal moral imperative or just a personal lifestyle choice? Every religion has its list of no-nos. Mormonism's is very long and includes alcohol, coffee, tea and such forms of sexual behavior as "passionate kissing" outside wedlock. If Romney's church doctrines require efforts to impose these restrictions on others, Romney has a Cuomo problem: he cannot be a good Mormon and a good President. He needs to show at the least that he has thought about this.
Some church doctrines give offense even though they don't constrain an outsider's behavior in any way. They can imply a more general worldview, and voters have a right to know if a presidential candidate shares that perspective. Until recently, just about all religions had a built-in patriarchal worldview--God the Father, male priests and so on--that many today find offensive. To what extent has the candidate's church moved with the times, and what has the candidate done to push his or her church in the right direction? I say the right direction, but many voters, of course, believe that this kind of modernization is the wrong direction. They also are entitled to know where the candidate stands and to vote on that basis.
In the online magazine Slate a while back, editor Jacob Weisberg called Joseph Smith, Mormonism's founder, an "obvious con man" and wrote, "Romney has every right to believe in con men, but I want to know if he does, and if so, I don't want him running the country." Thus a third argument that religion can't be a private affair for a presidential candidate: what a person deeply believes says something about his or her character, which voters may wish to take into account. Deeply religious people may find a candidate's ability to make that "leap of faith" admirable or even essential. Or they may find it offensive if it conflicts with their own faith. (Some devout Christians object to Mormonism's belief that the Bible is a mistranslation.) A skeptic may not want someone so credulous in the nation's top job.
Proceed with caution here, of course. Every religion is full of doctrines and beliefs that may seem nutty to outsiders. Jesus could be seen as a snake-oil salesman if you don't buy the snake oil. Weisberg says Mormonism is different because it is so "recent," involving miraculous events in the 19th century in upstate New York. Well, I dunno. The patina of age may explain why Jesus' walking on water is easier to believe than Smith's golden plates and magic glasses. But it doesn't go far in justifying the distinction. For me, any candidate who believes in the literal truth of the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon or the novels of Jane Austen is probably too credulous to be President.
Above all, we need to see some struggle. Precisely because all religious doctrines are hard to believe, believers and nonbelievers alike have an interest in how a candidate who claims to be deeply religious deals with religion's improbabilities. It will be amusing if Romney is done in by a fear of his religious values because, as near as we can tell, he has no values of any sort that he wouldn't happily abandon if they became a burden. But in politics, you are who you pretend to be.