Terry Eastland offers a very sympathetic portrait of Mitt Romney, who may well be the second Mormon (after Orin Hatch) to seek the Presidency. Eastland devotes a lot of time to explaining the doctrinal differences between Mormons and the "Judaeo-Christian" tradition.
Several things seem clear from the article. First, Mormons in general, and Romney in particular, are well inside the mainstream when it comes to participating in the complex dance of religion and politics in America.
Romney hasn’t felt compelled to regard the church’s guidance to its members as sufficient in matters of public policy. He emphasizes his independence in assessing issues. He points out that he doesn’t drink, consistent with what his church advises, yet he signed a bill permitting liquor sales on Sunday because "there is nothing wrong with drinking alcohol if you do it properly and responsibly." He notes, too, that he doesn’t smoke, again as his church counsels, but that it was public-health arguments that caused him to approve a ban on smoking in public places.
On a more momentous issue, abortion, Romney told voters when he ran for the Senate in 1994 that he was personally opposed to abortion but that abortion should be "safe and legal in this country," and that "we should sustain and support" Roe v. Wade because it had been law for 20 years. When Romney ran for governor in 2002, he maintained his position on Roe, but also indicated that he didn’t want to be known as "pro-choice." He promised voters that he would honor a "moratorium," meaning he would not try to move state abortion law in one direction or the other, and he’s kept his word. Romney speaks of the moratorium as an act of deference to "an overwhelmingly pro-choice state" and not as reflecting any commitment he might still have to a pro-abortion rights position. "I recognize the right for a state to choose its own course," he says. Romney describes himself as "pro-life," but his own moratorium has prevented him from moving abortion policy in that direction, were he inclined to do so. On abortion, Romney’s church is in favor of life but permissive of abortion in cases of incest or rape or when the mother’s life or health is threatened (that last a very roomy loophole). Suffice to say, Romney has not seen fit to advance his church’s policy.
In other words, like other religious conservatives, Romney (and his church) recognize the distinction between the moral and the legal, between the laws that ought to govern the behavior of individuals and church communities and the laws that are or can be enforced on everyone by the power of the state. (In the interest of brevity, I won’t say more about this here, though, I’d be happy to elaborate in response to queries. In the meantime, consider this: Romney doesn’t drink, because his church forbids it, but he’s not a prohibitionist.)
Second, while many conservative religionists have made common cause with Mormons, and may even support a Mormon candidate, this doesn’t mean Romney’s Mormonism would be a non-issue in an election:
Someone willing to go on the record was Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship. Notwithstanding his "fundamental" theological differences with Mormonism, Colson said, "I could in very good conscience support Romney," calling him "a first-rate guy in every respect" and "a social conservative on most of the issues we care about." Colson obviously wasn’t declaring for Romney, but simply indicating that he would not in religious principle, so to speak, be opposed to Romney and indeed could find political reasons to support him. Whether he would actually do so, of course, would "all depend on what the lineup is" and "where each person stands." The other evangelical leaders I contacted took the same view. Colson offered the likely correct forecast: Romney’s appeal to evangelicals might slacken if a competent evangelical or Catholic with social views similar to Romney’s were in the race; on the other hand, Romney’s stock with evangelicals might go up if he were pitted against candidates holding more liberal social views, regardless of their religion. One evangelical leader offered this succinct take on whether Romney’s faith would hurt him in the primaries: "Against Giuliani, no. Against Frist, yes. Against [Rick] Santorum, yes. Against Arnold [Schwarzenegger, who is ineligible], no."
Eastland notes that Romney’s political opponents have in the past reminded voters of the social conservatism of the LDS church. Would they do so again? Not likely in a Republican primary. In a general election, who knows? I wonder how much of this we’d see.