Voters need to look at a presidential candidate’s religious beliefs and practices to make sound political choices. Yes, I know; in America, thanks to God and the Constitution, no religious test can be applied for any office.
But once a candidate is running it is important to assess the whole person and his or her commitments and behavior. Mitt Romney can no more declare his Mormon religious faith off limits than can a Catholic. To say that your faith would never affect your political performance-- as a hard pressed JFK once implied before hostile Protestant clergymen-- can appear as being either luke warm or dangerously compartmentalized in mind.
Of course we should not forget how much anti-Catholicism existed in the 60’s. I once heard a prominent Protestant Harvard Divinity School professor actually announce to a group that no one should vote for Kennedy because he was a Catholic. Will the mounting attacks on Romney and Mormonism reach similar levels of virulence? Probably.
One proactive approach for religious candidates to take would be to confront the critical faith issuea head on. They can set forth those religious beliefs that most count in politics and affirm the primacy of God given conscience, the commitment to God given reason (including science,) and admit that every evolving faith community’s is engaged in a dynamic and complex search for God’s Truth. Religious doctrines have evolved and are still evolving amidst controversies. Catholics change, Mormons change, Baptists change and produce a variety of intra faith differences. Also, adhering to a religious respect for conscience, practices within one’s faith community are not asked of everyone else.
Voters then can appraise each candidate’s religious views of conscience, reason and evolving insight and try to assess how they would affect their decisions in office. These judgments ought then be weighed and balance with appraisals of personal characteristics of intelligence, prudence, courage, tolerance, justice and temperance. Moral virtues and capabilities for the job are equally necessary for political leadership.
As a Roman Catholic I naturally look for the candidate who personally exemplifies most completely, comprehensively and consistently the social justice teachings of the Church. (This isn’t always the Catholic candidate.) I keep trying to be “shrewd as a serpent, innocent as a dove.” It’s not enough to simply ask WWJD? As a wise moral theologian once explained, we are asked “to go and do likewise.” This means asking what is the most Christ like thing to do, existing as your unique self, here and now in this particular situation—or in this election.