This is a tricky question to raise, but I’m going to raise it anyhow, and hope that I can get away with it because of where I myself am coming from.
I’ve long held that while people develop, they don’t change in the most fundamental ways. A substantial portion of our personalities is hardwired genetically; much of the essential code that we run was programmed into us in our childhoods; and the adaptive kludges and workarounds that we program ourselves with semi-consciously to deal with the gaps and failures of the lower levels of our mental architectures are mostly written in the Darwinian frenzy of adolescence. All we can hope for, after that, is something resembling the wisdom of experience from living with ourselves decade after decade, wisdom which, hopefully, teaches us not to run certain particularly destructive routines with quite our youthful level of enthusiasm.
So I’ve been fascinated by reports of Mitt Romney’s adolescent assaults on vulnerable classmates, finding in them confirmation of something I’ve suspected for some time: deep down, Romney just isn’t much of an alpha dog. Oh, he’s a capable, and enormously successful man; he’s developed quite a powerful battery of adaptive kludges and workarounds, and more power to him. But I can see the anxiety underneath, the need to preemptively deny vulnerability. His opponents can as well, which is one reason why so many naturally confident opponents have held him in such contempt – especially when they sense he’s beating them. And it’s this anxiety, I suspect, that lies behind Romney’s striking inability to express remorse for wrongs committed, even in the distant past.
But today, I wondered whether there wasn’t another dimension to this failure on Romney’s part: a religious dimension. Is it possible that he hasn’t expressed remorse not merely because his ego is kind of brittle, but because he doesn’t have a language for doing so that we gentiles would recognize?
I have some idea what traditional Protestant expressions of remorse and atonement sound like. I also have some idea what traditional Catholic expressions of remorse and atonement sound like. We heard plenty of both kinds of language over the years – often transparently insincere, but still recognizable for what they are. But I don’t know what Mormon expressions of the same thing sound like.
I assume they exist. I don’t know how a religion could function without them. But I don’t know what they sound like.
And I wonder how developed such formalisms are for dealing with the gentile world. Speaking from my experience as a Jew, formalisms that were designed to work between co-religionists often don’t translate well between religious groups, and formalisms historically designed to work between Jew and gentile come off as rather stilted in a modern context of equal citizenship. Mainstream Christian figures, if they choose to make public contrition, can lazily assume their audience speaks the same language and be right 90% of the time. Members of minority faiths can’t make the same assumption, and they surely know it.
So this is a question I hope any Mormon readers I might have could help me answer: what are the Mormon formalities of remorse? If Romney’s adolescent actions had come up in an intra-Mormon context, what would you expect him to say?