Last night on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart had a lengthy segment on Mitt Romney and how conservative evangelical attitudes about his Mormonism have suddenly been “born again” (my characterization) now that Romney is the presumptive Republican nominee. After noting that liberals, now, are taking issue with elements of his Mormonism, such as the fact that black men could not join the Latter-day Saint priesthood until 1978, Stewart ended the segment with the following point:
It’s not like Mitt Romney will pursue policies that are unfair to black people because he’s a Mormon. He’ll do that because he’s a Republican.
Whether or not one agrees with Stewart’s political sentiment, his underlying point is a serious one: Romney’s political policies, should he become president, are not going to be governed by the fact that he is Mormon. In the United States, there are Mormon Democrats, Mormon Republicans, Mormon libertarians, and Mormon anarchists. There are racist Mormons, Mormon civil rights activists, Mormon homophobes, LGBT Mormons, feminist Mormons, and patriarchal Mormons. For every doctrine such as the pre-1978 racial ban, there are Mormons both pro and con. Thus, we cannot look to decade’s old Mormon doctrinal embarrassments as a reliable indicator about what kind of president he would be.
That said, I don’t think anybody really knows what kind of president Romney would make. He was one kind of governor of Massachusetts, and quite another candidate during the Republican primaries in 2008 and 2012. As the centrist governor of Massachusetts, he was certainly to the left of the majority of U.S. Mormons. But did he have a change of heart in 2008 that turned him from a centrist into a doctrinaire conservative? Is there anything within Mormonism that would prompt such an about-face?
Generally speaking, pious Mormons often drift from conservative to liberal. Sometimes, it happens at college, when the Mormon become open to a different perspective from that taught by his or her conservative parents. Sometimes, it happens in conjunction with a crisis of faith, when Mormons come to believe that the LDS Church is not what they thought it was, after reading things on the internet. Sometimes Mormons who grew up in ultra-conservative Utah or Idaho move elsewhere and learn to see things differently. I have heard of rare cases in which liberal “cultural Mormons” turn conservative in conjunction with a return to a church-going state. But what would make an already-pious Mormon shift from a more liberal persuasion to a hard conservatism?
The fact that I can’t think of a mechanism for such a “conversion” to hard conservatism by a pious Mormon makes me wonder whether Romney is really as rightist as he now portrays himself to be. Or maybe, in Massachusetts, he was pretending to be moderate, while harboring a closet conservatism.