There's been a bunch of buzz lately around Mitt Romney and whether America is ready to accept a Mormon for President, forcing him to do his version of John F. Kennedy's "I don’t take orders from the Pope" speech. Personally, I'm a bit bemused by the whole fuss. Sure, the Mormons have some official beliefs that look a little crazy to those of us on the outside, like some guy in the 1820s finding golden tablets hidden in upstate New York, magic glasses enabling him to read the ancient language, and so on. But if we were anthropologists looking in on western culture, rather than being so embedded in it as we are, would those beliefs seem much more crazy than a virgin birth, the parting of the Red Sea, a guy being swallowed alive by a large fish for several days, and many other things that most of us Americans don't blanch at? I can't really think of any good reason that one set of miraculous narratives should be more crazy than another. The only objective difference is distance in time and space, and some unexpressed but commonly held notion that supernatural events that happened on another continent a couple thousand years ago are somehow easier to accept than supernatural events that happened in this country just a couple centuries ago. As if the laws of nature may be more wobbly in ancient Israel or Egypt, but they're hard and fast in New York and Pennsylvania. It sounds a little irrational when it's put so starkly, because, well, it is irrational. But I think that's what most Americans really feel in their gut. So as far as that goes, I think it's unfair to beat Romney up with urim and thummim.
As to the question whether it's fair to judge a candidate by his religion, I think it depends on the candidate and it depends on the religion. I think it's certainly fair to want to understand how a candidate's religion influences his policy views and his character. It would be a mistake to say that religion is completely off the table. While the Constitution prohibits any "religious test" for public office, I think the Constitution implies a "theocracy test" for weeding out inappropriate candidates. Anyone whose policy views include establishing their religion with the force of government, enacting laws to enforce their religious values, or selecting judges based on their religious views, that candidate should be soundly rejected. So I want to understand that a candidate, even if personally religious, which is fine, has a healthy understanding of the proper role of religion in American government. (See JFK speech if a refresher is needed.)
As I said, it also depends on the religion. I should be up front about my own prejudices here: I would be a priori bothered by a candidate from some weird cult religion. If Romney were a Jehovah's Witness, a Christian Scientist, or a Scientologist, that would strongly put me off. And Romney's problem is probably that many Americans think of Mormonism as in the same bucket with the Witnesses, the Scientologists, and other cults. But I certainly don't. I've known enough Mormons to get a sense of what sort of people they are. And so far as one can generalize about such things, my experience is that Mormons are very decent people. I admit I find some of their beliefs wacky, but their values -- honesty, hard work, helpfulness to others, love of family -- are solid and upstanding. And I guess what impresses me most positively or negatively about religions are their cultural manifestations, the sort of people they produce. And if a belief in magic spectacles and golden tablets gets people to be honest, helpful and decent, well then, I won't quibble about the spectacles. To use one of those completely far-fetched hypotheticals to illustrate my feeling: if I had children, and if I were being suddenly taken away somewhere for a long time, and I had to leave my children in the care of one of four neighbors -- a Mormon family, a JW family, a Christian Science family, or a Scientologist family -- I would pick the Mormon family in a heartbeat, and I would feel pretty comfortable about it.
So I would certainly not be deterred from voting for a presidential candidate just because he is a Mormon. In fact, since I hold the prejudice that Mormons are generally decent people, Romney's religion is a net positive influence on me. Romney's problem, for me, is his transformation during this campaign into a man with no apparent willingness to hold to any principles and a complete willingness to pander. In my case, it's fair to say that Romney has lost my vote despite his being a Mormon.