09/05/2012 12:45 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

Why a Candidate's Religion Matters

My Old South grandmother used to tell me that I should never speak of religion and politics in "polite company." She was right. Nothing divides like these two topics and if we wish to preserve harmony with our acquaintances we should find other subjects for discussion.

Until, that is, one of those acquaintances asks me to entrust him with the power of a public office. Then, though I should remain polite as grandma would have insisted, I am not fulfilling the duty of citizenship unless I insist upon knowing everything about this acquaintance that might come to bear upon his conduct in office. His religion, among other features of his life, then moves from the private realm into the realm of respectful public scrutiny.

Why is the religion of a candidate important? Because if he is sincere about his religion, it shapes him politically. Because our religion -- again, if it is more than window dressing or social club -- is the lens through which we see the world. Because law and public policy are rooted in concepts of fair and good and right and just that are as much product of religion as any other influence. Because my vote puts civil authority under influence of a politician's religion merely by helping to place the man in his position.

Religion matters. And it matters in politics. To say so is not to require an unconstitutional religious test or to fuel bigotry or to force all religion into political correctness. It is to simply insist upon knowing before Election Day what factors might be of influence while a man or woman sits in office.

Revere Ronald Reagan as we might -- and I do -- we would be justified in wishing we had known more of his religious views before he entered the Oval Office. We might also wish we had known what was influencing him religiously once he held office, particularly when he was learning about Armageddon from his informal night time reading and then making pronouncements about its meaning for his presidency. Something similar could be said of the religious views of Jimmy Carter or George W. Bush or even Dwight Eisenhower. Religion shaped each of these as public men. Did we have opportunity to know facets of this shaping before they entered office?

This brings us to the 2012 presidential race. Though we have men running for office who are profoundly fashioned by their faith, we have yet to hear definitively from them about how religion informs their politics. Numerous Mormons spoke in support of Gov. Romney at the Republican National Convention in Tampa last week, but the candidate himself said nothing of consequence about his Mormonism in his acceptance speech. Yet, the Sunday after the convention, Romney sat in a Mormon gathering and heard himself proclaimed an "ambassador" of Mormonism. The speaker was J.W. Marriott of the hotel chain Marriotts and the sentiments were echoed around the country. Perhaps it is true. Perhaps there is even much in Mormonism that might make a man a sterling president. Frankly, I believe there is, but may we not hear of this, fully, from the candidate himself?

If another candidate were proclaimed an ambassador of the Roman Catholic church or of the South or of the Ivy League educated, wouldn't we insist upon knowing exactly what this meant before we sent the man to the White House?

The same is true of President Obama. We should ask for greater clarity about his religious views also. He reads the Bible almost daily, has a team of very respected spiritual advisors, has been profoundly influenced by his chaplain at Camp David's Evergreen chapel and has given testimony of his Christian faith as fully as any president in recent memory. He has also made it clear that his policies grow from his faith. He supports same sex marriage because he is influenced by the Sermon on the Mount, he has said. He champions policies for the underprivileged, he explains, because of the ethics Jesus Christ taught. He reaches to the Muslim world not just out of geo-political necessity but also because of the common religious heritage shared by western Judeo/Christianity and Islam. We might welcome it all. We might not. Still, shouldn't we know more? Must his blend of traditional Christianity and progressive social values remain a mystery to us?

It is easy to understand why candidates shy away from the political implications of their religious lives. It means defining themselves in a way that distinguishes them from millions who believe differently and it potentially puts another club in the hands of their opponents. So be it. We live in a democracy. Presidents are not allowed undisclosed loyalties -- to foreign governments, to political movements, to private clubs and, yes, to religions. It's time for the media and the voters to ask the appropriate questions. Now. Two months before the election. Before a religion of some kind begins whispering in the ear of a man of some party as he decides matters of some national consequence.