Although Romney did not jump into how his faith affects his candidacy, I think it is a positive thing that people are talking about the way that faith affects politics.
Examining the role that religion should play in the life of a politician has the potential to improve both political discourse and the quality of religion in our society. Note, the article first looks at the role of personal beliefs, then religious groups as political machines.
I do not hold that all religious beliefs are benign. I would be wary of candidates that made decisions based on superstitions such as astrology, that rejected science, or that had built some fantasy that separates the nation into the saved vs. unsaved or that saw capturing the presidency as a fulfillment of prophecy. This includes people with "scientific ideologies" where they are the catharsis of some bizarre thesis/antithesis conflict.
In other words, I want leaders that are actively engaged in the thought process and who don't have adhere to a foundational theories that might make them reject a large portion of the people.
I would reject candidates if they have religious beliefs that might affect their ability to do the job. I mentioned earlier that I would vote against any Hutterite running for the president because their moral objections to serving in the military disqualify them from serving as the Commander in Chief. I would not auto-reject Hutterites running for Congress.
On the plus side, I admire candidates who recognized that there is a higher authority in the universe beyond their own ego, and that seek spiritual strength in their religion.
This process of examining beliefs in the context of leadership can help improve religion. If a large number of people are uncomfortable with a set of beliefs of a candidate, this widespread rejection of the belief might indicate that there is something off about the belief. For example, many early Utahans believed fervently in polygamy. The widespread rejection of polygamy in the US caused a local re-examination of this quaint practice, and the quaint practice was largely abandoned.
Ideals v. Limits
One of the biggest pitfalls in discussing religion and politics is the desire to legislate one's morality.
I think this issue is best resolved by recognizing the difference between ideals and limits. The goal of religion is to help us define and hone our personal ideals. Government, however, deals in setting the limits necessary to run a civil society.
Personally, I am opposed to the death penalty and abortion. I realize, however, that I would not win arguments to abolish the death penalty. Passing laws against abortion would lead to a great deal of social unrest and may not make a big dent in reducing the problem. Although the ideas fall outside my personal belief system, I've reconciled to the fact that the government should concentrate primarily on those issues needed to run a civil society, and that society will never reflect my beliefs.
I think stating a moral objection to abortion is good. Providing alternatives to abortion is better. I would be horrified if the US were to start chasing down and imprisoning abortionists. It would rip our nation apart.
Now for the meaty part of the discussion:
I love living in a nation with a diversity of churches and religious beliefs. So long as the candidate realizes that they are not on earth to legislate morality; I can reconcile myself to most candidates.
The really tough questions about politics and religion arise when religions start behaving like political machines. In the past quarter century, we've seen the rise of politically active mega churches. Some of the churches actually vet and run candidates.
The churches appear to be working as a politic machine. Some people have contended that the active evangelical political machine pushed Huckabee ahead of Romney in the Iowa caucus.
A sizeable portion of the politically active churches were Democratic in the 1950s, and became Republicans in reaction to the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s. This is a big issue for the Republicans as the political machine churches are changing the overall character of the Republican Party. The Republicans I know in Colorado are horrified by the rise of the political influence of the mega churches as they are radically changing the message of the Republican Party.
To the extent that a church acts as a political machine, a candidate's relation to that church should be questioned as aggressively as the candidate's relation to any political organization.
Reacting against a church that appears to operate as a political machine is not religious prejudice.
If a candidate receives a great deal of money and support from a particular church, then the candidate's affiliation with the church should be called into question. Conversely, if a church has a history of voting in a block, and of disenfranchising people who are not affiliated with the church, then people are correct in reacting to the church as a political entity.
Manipulation of Religion
In some cases, there are people or groups of people who actually wish to inflame religious differences to gain power.
When we look through history, we find that many of the bad things done in the name of religion were not the direct result of the religion itself, but a result of people who were using religious sentiments and fears as a path to power.
I believe that debating the role faith in politics is a good thing. The process of self examination both benefits the political process and helps improve the quality of faith.
I believe that there some religious beliefs and affiliations that detract from the viability of a candidate. As the debate progresses, most of these issues fall to the side.
As the debate occurs, people should be attentive to whether or not the talk about religion unites people or causes people to split off into factions. If the debate causes people to flake off into factions or if it alienates large groups of people; I would say that the fracturing is a sign that either our religious or political thought is not as advanced as it should be.