Here's a key passage, which nicely illustrates his balancing act:
There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.
There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes president he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths.
Romney wants to stay the heck away from the "distinctive doctrines" of the Mormon Church, because Evangelical Christians would think him an apostate, and people not familiar with the more eccentric aspects of the Mormon faith will think he's a weirdo. Objectively, it's no weirder than any other religion, but, like Scientology, it's got a bad science fiction vibe to it. This hilarious video gives a primer:
Romney doesn't want to get into all that. Instead, he wants to focus on shared moral beliefs:
It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions. And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it's usually a sound rule to focus on the latter - on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course. Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.
There's a certain internal tension here, shall we say. As David Frum puts it:
To be blunt, Romney is saying:
It is legitimate to ask a candidate, "Is Jesus the son of God?"
But it is illegitimate to ask a candidate, "Is Jesus the brother of Lucifer?"
It is hard for me to see a principled difference between these two questions, and I think on reflection that the audiences to whom Romney is trying to appeal will also fail to see such a difference. Once Romney answered any question about the content of his religious faith, he opened the door to every question about the content of his religious faith.
The reason for that is that he thinks some Evangelicals won't vote for him if he doesn't believe that Jesus Christ is the savior. But he also wants to avoid getting into the nitty-gritty details of Mormon theology, because if he does he's screwed. Hence the "distinctive doctrines" dodge. (Also take a look at Marc Ambinder and Ross Douthat for similar thoughts.)
It's true that most mainstream American religions probably have a common core of moral beliefs, but that's because they're part of a wider American culture that tends to pound down the theological differences (i.e., "distinctive doctrines") that result in disparate outcomes. For example, some people used to use the the doctrine of the "Curse of Ham" to justify the enslavement of blacks and then racial segregation. That "distinctive doctrine" went away under the pressure of a wider American culture that found it repugnant. Similar Mormon beliefs regarding blacks have been modified, over the years.
The "distinctive doctrines" of various churches are relevant to a whole host of hot-button issues, including abortion, use of stem cells, etc. Within Islam, doctrines regarding jihad and the application of Sharia law are of great import.
The line that Romney wants to draw is a very difficult line to maintain. Nonetheless, he doesn't have much of choice. He's got a constituency of Evangelical Christians that he needs to vote for him. Now, I do think that urban elites tend to overstate how narrow-minded such people are, but there really are some folks who think that being a Bible-believing Christian is a necessary qualification for office. No Republican candidate for President can ignore that constituency in the primary, and in a fifty-fifty country, he needs almost all such people to show up and vote for him to win the general election. So Romney has to communicate to that group "I am one of you." But if they start asking questions about Mormonism, he knows they will conclude he's not. Hence the balancing act.
The one group that gets left out are the atheists and agnostics. Indeed Romney's arugment is that religion is necessary for the maintenance of a free republic:
There are some who may feel that religion is not a matter to be seriously considered in the context of the weighty threats that face us. If so, they are at odds with the nation's founders, for they, when our nation faced its greatest peril, sought the blessings of the Creator. And further, they discovered the essential connection between the survival of a free land and the protection of religious freedom. In John Adams' words: "We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion... Our constitution was made for a moral and religious people."
Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.
This is actually a pretty common view. The idea is that if people don't have some religion, they'll just run riot. On this view, religion doesn't have to be true; it's just that it's necessary to keep people in line. This makes the "pick a faith, any faith" line seem reasonable. This is an empirical thesis that is certainly subject to testing. The obvious thing to do would be to look at the children of atheists and agnostics, correct for all the other variables, and see if they are more likely to grow up to be serial killers.
I suspect that the extent to which "human passions" are actually bridled by religion is at least somewhat overstated. And then there is the problem that religion, when taken too seriously, can inflame the passions rather than bridling them -- inspire people to murder doctors who commit abortion or fly airplanes into skyscrapers.
Ryan Sager appears to have been particularly stung by Romney's failure to even mention the possibility of good atheists:
The most remarkable thing about Romney’s address — and even folks at National Review picked this out, notably Ramesh Ponnuru — is that is wrote atheists and agnostics out of the American nation. Whereas even President Bush, whose own cynical politics have done so much to pit believers versus non-believers, has long gone out of his way to include “good people of no faith at all” in his vision of America. While the president’s need to qualify that phrase with the word “good” might be offensive, it’s a warm embrace of the faithless compared to Romney’s declaration that “freedom requires religion.”
Got that? Those of us who don’t believe in Christianity, those of us who don’t believe in God, those of us who don’t believe in the divinity of human-written holy books have no place in the American experiment, can’t be relied on to uphold the principles of our Constitution, and don’t have the morality necessary to keep a Republic.
I think that's the upshot of his thesis, Ryan. I think that's intentional. He's saying to the Christian Conservatives that they have a common enemy: secularists. He is trying to say that the differences between Mormons, Evangelical Christians, and Catholics don't matter, because there are these folks out there who want to take "In God We Trust" off the coins and destroy the Republic. From a purely political perspective, this is probably a good move in his part.
He's not losing many votes, because, while a few atheists and agnostics (like me) adopt a libertarian free market approach, most of the Godless embrace the Big State with both arms. Many substitute a belief in an omnipotent God with a belief in an Omnipotent state. Which is even worse, since religious belief has harmless manifestations, while statism does not.
Which is why, at the end of the day, Romney's musings on faith don't particularly interest me. So long as his religion doesn't motivate him to do something screwy or desstructive, I don't care what he believes. I'd much rather have a candidate who wears funny underwear and is bucking to be God of his own planet than one who wants to raise my taxes, increase the scope of government regulation, and take away my freedom. His feelings toward my atheistic beliefs matter not a whit, so long as he pushes policies preferable to the other candidate.