Why the LDS Church Could Never Control a Mormon President– A Response to Damon Linker

On January 1, 2007, the New Republic posted a stunning piece by Damon Linker, a well-regarded professor, author, and former editor of the journal First Things. The article (subscription required) discussed accurately many facets of Mormonism, but highlighted one in particular: the willingness of Mormons to obey their leaders, particularly the President of the Church. Focusing on this tendency, Mr. Linker argued confidently that “under a President Romney, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would truly be in charge of the country.” In other words, should Mitt Romney prevail in the race for the presidency, he would have no choice but to take direct calls from LDS leaders in Salt Lake City, and would be forced to do their bidding, however malevolent. Mr. Linker’s evidence for this hugely controversial claim was drawn from one source alone: his purely speculative reading of abstract theological possibilities within LDS doctrine.

Ignored in Mr. Linker’s piece was a plethora of real-world, objectively verifiable factors that indicate that the doomsday scenario Linker predicts in the piece is impossibly unlikely. To list only ten:

1. Romney’s personality and biography, which evidence a free-thinking, moderate, Liberal (Big L), independently intelligent mind and a determined will.

2. Strong political incentives for a President Romney never to be seen as a stool pigeon for his church.

3. Strong political incentives for the LDS Church not to get involved in the ugly and high-profile business of pressuring a political leader (for an organization that has proven to be both very conscious of its public image and quite hesitant to become entangled in government at any level).

4. The LDS Church’s unblemished history of non-meddling, including zero record of any pressure placed on Harry Reid, Michael Leavitt, Gordon Smith, and other highly-placed Mormon politicians.

5. The LDS Church’s explicit policy of maintaining complete neutrality in elections and keeping its distance from the political arena.

6. The interest of a large, five million-member LDS American population in maintaining its nascent status as part of the American mainstream, and the influence that constituency must have on decisions by church leaders.

7. The voices of the 200 to 300 administratively conservative general leaders of the church who have direct influence on and personal relationships with the church’s President.

8. The moderate and mainstream records and personalities of the Church’s President, Gordon B. Hinckley, and Thomas S. Monson, his likely successor.

9. The deeply ingrained LDS belief in and support for the Constitution and American Institutions.

10. The LDS Church’s general lack of political positions and longstanding tendency to be extremely deliberative and slow in making significant course adjustments.

Each of the above items is a real world fact that can be verified empirically. While it is impossible to predict the future, these facts go a long way in foretelling the likelihood that the LDS Church would completely break with its longstanding traditions of neutrality, image-tending, good citizenship, patriotism, and conservative leadership to compel an independent and powerful Mormon president to take some improper action. In the face of these facts, Damon Linker has a prophecy based on a set of hypothetical conjectures, which themselves rest on a theology that is sometimes difficult to pin down.

Given the face off between real facts and theological speculation, there is no real contest. This attack is Exhibit 1 of the ever-more-frequent tendency of liberals to ask a relevant question about Romney (What will Mitt Romney do in office?) and then seek to answer it by peering into the irrelevant tea leaves of Romney’s religious beliefs (Mormon theology suggests that Mitt Romney may feel inclined to obey his religious leaders over the priorities of the American people), instead of by examining the obvious sources- his record, background and platform. This approach illuminates nothing except the insistence of some to view Mitt Romney only as a Mormon, and nothing else.

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