Jonah, a typically thoughtful post, but I am respectfully going to disagree, at least slightly. I don’t believe this is as subjective as you indicate in suggesting that the relevance of religion depends on whether “politicians claim or telegraph that they will rely on their religion as a guide to their public policies.”
As far as what politicians claim is concerned, I think I am the voter and I will decide what is relevant regardless of what the politician says — politicians say all sorts of things about themselves that aren’t true. Telegraph is the more interesting question. This correctly connotes that it is for the voter to decide what’s relevant, but it still suggests that the only inquiry is what the politician affirmatively indicates about how his creed will inform his governance — i.e., that the creed per se is of no objective interest to us, just its apparent impact on the politician who adheres to it. I don’t mean to put words in your mouth, and if I’ve misinterpreted you I’m sorry about that (and I hope you’ll correct me). But if I’ve correctly interpreted you, I don’t buy it — and, for the same reasons, I respectfully disagree with Kathryn.
This is not just about Islam. If, say, a Christian presidential candidate believes the creation story as set down in Genesis is literally true, I’d like to know that, I’d like to know why he thinks that, and I’d like to probe what that says about how he regards science, history, epistemology, etc. It doesn’t make his belief valid or invalid, but I think I’m entitled to evaluate how (if at all) his reasoning is likely to translate into governing.
There are objective reasons why some religions and some religious beliefs are unconventional. When a politician who wants to be president of the United States adheres to them, I don’t see why we should hesitate to ask about what those beliefs are and why he thinks they are sensible. And when a politician holds himself out to be a person of deep religious belief, again I don’t see why we should not probe. I don’t think that’s hostility to religion; I think it’s common sense.
Romney says — and I think he’s right about this — that radical Islam is perhaps the most serious challenge to our national security today. We are fighting an ideology which we haven’t taken the time to understand. Well, how do we tell radical Islam from other kinds of Islam if we don’t examine it? How do we evaluate all the claims politicians make about moderate Islam and moderate Muslims unless we understand what it means to be “moderate”? And if we are going to take the position that religious beliefs are so sacrosanct that even a presidential candidate’s beliefs are irrelevant unless he signals a likelihood of acting on them, don’t we badly hurt the case for examining Islamic ideology?