Personally, while I'm intellectually curious about Mormonism - the topic du jour because of Mitt Romney's big religion speech this week - I really can't get worked up about the topic.
Romney says that his faith informs his values, and I believe him. I also think he's generally right about the importance of faith in a free society. But, ultimately, I don't much care why he's a decent guy; I just care that he's decent.
In fact, I think we get too hung up on motivations, particularly when it comes to religion.
For example, many Christian conservatives support Israel and look kindly on Jews because they believe they have a holy duty to do so. The Messiah will not return, according to the book of Revelation, until the Jews restore the Kingdom of Israel.
Evangelical Christians believe that when the Messiah returns, things won't go too well for the Jews - two thirds die, one third convert. Gershom Gorenberg, author of "The End of Days," once complained to "60 Minutes," "As a Jew, I can't feel very comfortable with the affections of somebody who looks forward to that scenario."
Well, boohoo. In the horrible annals of Jewish problems, the fact that a whole bunch of Christians love Jews for the "wrong" reasons has got to rank pretty low. Besides, since presumably Jews don't believe in Christian prophecy, what's the problem? If it's not true, then no harm, no foul. If it is true, well, who are we to argue with God? My guess is God's response to the morally decent Jew who gets really worked up about this would be something akin to "Don't worry, I've got you covered."
Of course, that's not a terribly sophisticated theological argument. But, historically, theology hasn't mattered that much to Americans. Mormons are a good example. Americans didn't want Utah to become a state because Mormon men took too many wives. Mormons dropped polygamy and - bada bing - Americans dropped their objections to Mormon statehood.
Irving Kristol has cited the fight over Utah's statehood as a quintessential expression of how America practices theological pluralism while insisting on moral conformity. It is the American way to care about what people do, not about what they think. Every religion's theology has some wacky stuff in it, not only from the atheist's perspective but from the perspective of pretty much every other religion. It's impossible to know how much this or that theological tenet guides a person's actions. All we can judge is the person's actions.
This is why I think many people get too invested in the tenets of Muslim theology. Defenders of Islam, as well as apologists for terror, often say Islam means peace and point to this or that quote from the Koran. Opponents of Islam will often say that Islam is a religion of violence and conquest and point to a different part of the Koran. As a literary exercise, both sides have good arguments. But at the end of the day, Koranic exegesis will only get you so far. Ultimately, a religion is what its adherents do in its name.
And for a significant minority of Muslims, it is simply the case that Islam is a religion of violence. How else are we supposed to react to a Sudanese mob chanting for the execution of a schoolteacher because she permitted her students to name a teddy bear Mohammed. The people who should be angry about this fact are the majority of Muslims who claim theirs is a religion of peace (and, it should be noted, some Muslims were indeed mortified by the spectacle).
I have liberal Jewish friends who are sometimes flummoxed as to how I could hang out, ideologically or personally, with "Christian fundamentalists." My short answer is: Have you ever met any? I may not want some of them planning my next trip to Vegas, but the ones I've met couldn't be nicer or more polite.
And the same goes for Mormons. Yes, I think there's some weird stuff in Mormonism, but they might say "Same to you!" about Jews. Still, all of the Mormons I've met have been serious, kind and morally upstanding. Republicans might also note that Mormons are among the most reliably conservative senators and congressman.
I think the objections to Mormon theology are often sound. But I think there are sound objections to pretty much every theology. It's a good thing for Romney that while theology isn't relevant to picking a president, morality is.