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.
If a Muslim were running for high office, even if (however unlikely this seems) he never mentioned his religion or gave public indications of how he understood its doctrines, I would want to know his interpretation of jihad, and his views about such things as whether his first allegiance was to the Muslim umma or the U.S., whether sharia should be the law of the land, the authority of the governed to depart from Islamic doctrine, whether the Qur’an reflects the immutable word of God, whether Mohammed is the ideal role model, whether all people are equal regardless of gender or religion, etc. I think Islam is sufficiently troublesome, and we have enough experience with its being troublesome, that we are entitled to inquire and take these matters into account regardless of what signals the politician himself sends.
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.
President Bush, for example, is a man of deep religious faith. Faith may be able to move mountains; but it can also substitute hope and blind conviction for experience and hard inquiry. In my observation, the president believes in democracy with a religious zeal that ignores the real limitations of democracy; he sincerely believes in the oneness and dignity of all human beings to a degree that makes him insensitive to the downsides of his proposed comprehensive immigration reform; he sincerely believes in our duty to help our fellow human beings in need with an ardor that makes him insensitive to the limitations of government (and, indeed, to the negative effects of public welfare on the individual). I could be wrong about this, but I perceive a connection between his religious convictions and the things I don’t like about his policies. (I also sense a connection between his religious convictions and some of the things I like about his policies.) I don’t see why any of this should be beyond inquiry. This is the presidency we’re talking about.
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?