Ross Douthat thinks it's legitimate for people to decide to vote for or against a candidate because of their religious denomination. Money quote:
[L]et's suppose that Mormonism hadn't dropped the whole polygamy thing, and that Mitt Romney's jokes about "a man, and a woman, and a woman . . ." actually reflected current Latter-Day dogma. Would Sullivan and Novak still object to voters taking Romney's religion into account? Would Reilly still write that Mormonism only seems strange "because it's new, which makes the human agency behind it especially palpable"?
Again, I'd vote for Romney. But Mormonism is different from most American faiths, even if it's not as different as it used to be - and voters should be allowed to consider those differences when deciding how to vote, without being accused of rolling back religious freedom.
He has a point. I wonder if anyone will bring up Mormonism's relatively recent history of racial discrimination as well. The trouble is that once we have acquiesced to the notion that you don't need and shouldn't want a bright line between political life and religious life, these kinds of questions are inevitable. This one really is a slippery slope. Once you have accepted that large numbers of people voted for W solely on the basis of his evangelical protestantism, then how can you argue against people voting against him or anyone else on similar, purely sectarian grounds? Ross is right that the constitutional issue is separate: there's no legal bar on someone of any faith from becoming president. But there is a growing social consensus that religion matters in politics. The theocons have helped bring this about; the Christianists have pioneered it; the Catholic hierarchy in Rome is abetting it. Once public policy issues become religious and doctrinal issues, all this is on the table. But it is a dangerous and divisive world we are creating. It would be ironic if Romney, the theocon candidate for 2008, were a primary victim. Stupid poetic justice, as Homer would say.