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When JFK ran for president, he made sure to carve out differences between himself and his church on a couple of policy issues–aid to parochial schools and a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. This was important because a central concern of those who opposed having a Catholic in the White House was that he would take orders from the Catholic hierarchy. That is a less important concern among those who are wary of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism–indeed, it’s a little hard to grasp what exactly is the basis of their concern other than just not liking Mormonism. Still, it’s interesting that Romney vigorously resists letting any light appear between himself and the positions of his church. He made that clear again last Sunday on Meet the Press when, on the issue of the status of blacks under the previous (pre-1978) dispensation, he said, “I’m not going to distance myself in any way from my faith.”
Be that as it may, you’d think that it would be in Romney’s interest to indicate his independence of mind by calling attention to any divergence between a position of his and that of his church–if such exists. And it actually seems to. So far as one can tell–here’s an account–Romney opposes public funding for embryonic stem cell research. Yet unlike the Catholic Church and a lot of conservative evangelicals, the LDS Church has no objection to it. The reason is that Mormon doctrine posits a theory of ensoulment under which embryonic tissue does not become a human being until implantation–and embryonic stem cells are taken for research purposes prior to implantation. It is thus consistent with their church’s position that Mormon senators like Orrin Hatch and Gordon Smith have always supported federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. (For an excellent account of all this, see this article by Drew Clark’s that appeared in Slate in 2001.)
Is there any reason for Romney not to say, “Well, my church does not hold that it is destruction of human life to harvest embryonic stem cells for research purposes, but I just am not comfortable with doing so”? Yes. It would highlight the distinctiveness of Mormon doctrine in a way that he seems at all costs to want to avoid calling attention to.