Winter 2008, Vol. 10, No. 3

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Articles in this issue

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From the Editor:
Apologia pro bloga sua

Men in Green

Turning Over the Bowl in Burma

When Germans Convert

Show Me the Money 


The Faith Factor
by John Green

God's Own Party:

When Romney Was a Bishop
by Philip Barlow


Mitt Romney can do the Moonwalk. Not the backward political slide his opponents accuse him of but the difficult stage-move pioneered by mime Marcel Marceau and made famous by Michael Jackson.

I learned that one Saturday morning 25 years ago in Romney’s pleasant Belmont, Massachusetts home. For several years in the early ’80s, Mitt and I and one or two others met there each week to do church and charitable work. Romney was the bishop (part-time pastor) of our Mormon ward (congregation). I was one of his two “counselors.” Together we formed the local “bishopric,” which coordinates and presides over the community welfare and voluntary service that makes Mormonism run. 

In a lighter moment on this particular morning, Mitt alluded admiringly to Michael Jackson. Beset by graduate-school presumption, I showed surprise at the pop culture awareness of the elegant management consultant and all-round wunderkind. “Oh, yeah!” he said. He then rose theatrically and oozed a rendition of “Billie Jean” while gliding, with apparent ease, backwards—a creditable Moonwalk.

Despite our weekly sessions, I was reminded there were dimensions to this man I had not glimpsed. It’s a lesson that America could apply more broadly. I do not say this necessarily to promote Mr. Romney’s candidacy. My own independent political sensibilities have in recent years inclined more toward the Democratic than the Republican Party. Yet it would be encouraging if we voted less often on the basis of caricature.

Cameras roll, print gushes, pundits opine, rivals lunge, polls stutter—image is formed. And fair or not, media-fueled questions become attached to each presidential aspirant. In Romney’s case, two dominate: Is he authentic? And what about his weird religion? 

Mormonism presents a fascinating case study quite apart from its relation to contemporary politics. Its history, theology, and makeup are colorful, uncommonly complex, much studied by scholars, and easily distorted when presented piecemeal or for advantage by religious or political rivals.

Despite its native soil here, the Mormon movement seems half-familiar and half-foreign to many Americans, especially those east of the Rocky Mountains. Hence Romney has attracted diverse questions and occasional rants, most of which he has deflected as irrelevant to his reach for national office.

     • Are Mormons Christian? Yes, in devotion to Christ. No, in adherence to the Nicene and subsequent creeds.

     • Are Mormons racist? Like most Americans, they wrestled during the 1950s and ’60s to emerge from a racist heritage. To the relief of adherents, the church discarded a vestigial policy of restriction on blacks in the priesthood in the 1970s. Romney’s father, George, really did march with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

     • Are Mormons polygamists? They haven’t been for over a century, and the story is more interesting and multifaceted than one might think—not so much like “Big Love.”)

     • Sacred underwear?  The garments some Mormons wear symbolize purity and serve as a daily reminder of covenants made in their temples: of righteousness, modesty, devotion to Christ, exactness in striving for obedience to God. Unfamiliar to the wider society, certainly, but not intrinsically more peculiar than a Sikh’s turban or the miniature replica of an instrument of torture hanging as jewelry about a Catholic’s neck.

Addressing such matters did not seem much on Romney’s mind before his run for public office. Like most Latter-day Saints, his religious preoccupations were practical—having to do with promoting morality, stable and productive families, and hands-on service to those in need. 

Mormon wards have no professional clergy. The congregation itself runs things, and more or less everyone contributes by accepting a “calling.” A bishop, serving for five or so years, might earn a living as a plumber, a teacher, or a small business owner in addition to spending ten or fifteen hours each week in church service.

While flourishing in his secular job, Bishop Romney was ultimately responsible for planning the ward’s worship services; fostering the physical, social, spiritual, and economic needs of church members and interested others; maintaining the chapel and church grounds; processing financial contributions; promoting the involvement and wellbeing of young people; staffing the ward organization; interviewing individual members for “worthiness” to enter the temple; marital and personal counseling; reaching out to the wider community; and coordinating with ecclesiastical superiors. It is a role in which one learns delegation.

Romney was effective. He seemed comfortable in his skin, verbally agile, eager to listen and to weigh opposing opinions in key decisions, ambitious to accomplish, and “apt to swim upstream” (his words) in pursuit of goals. He was also imaginative in responding to institutional and human problems, often prompting others to follow.

This was true in professional as well as religious settings. At Bain Capital, where he was managing partner, the adolescent daughter of a colleague once went missing. She had struggled with drugs and had more than one encounter with the law. One evening she ventured to a rock concert in New York City and failed to return after 24 hours. Hearing the next day from the distraught father, Romney closed his company’s doors, flew all employees (perhaps 20) to New York, and spent two days going door-to-door, in bars and through streets and alleys, until the girl was found, unharmed, in a shabby shelter.

Years later, a suspicious fire razed the new, nearly completed Mormon chapel in Belmont, Massachusetts, where Romney, by now bishop, was about to move his congregation. Six months earlier a deliberately set fire had claimed another chapel, 25 miles to the west in Marlboro. Quite apart from the arsons, we Mormons had not previously felt fully a part of even the religious community in the area, sensing that many viewed us through a squint.

Following the chapel’s destruction, however, other churches and the city of Belmont extended help to the orphaned congregation. The Board of Selectmen offered the town hall and eight churches tendered their own buildings for the Saints to meet in during the nine months required for reconstruction of their chapel.

Although not every church had the 21 classrooms Romney’s ward needed for its ordinary functions, any Mormon bishop would likely have worked out compatible arrangements in one of them to become tenants in light of the warm offers of help. Romney’s response, though, was less typical, less convenient, and more powerful.

Reasoning that the disaster had become an opportunity for building religious and community bridges, Romney thanked each of those who had offered their buildings and after looking at each decided to accept all that would accommodate his congregation’s size. 

His ward thus met in the town hall for one symbolic session, in St. Joseph’s Catholic school for three months, then in the Protestant Armenian Church meetinghouse, and finally in the chapel of the Plymouth Congregational Church. Romney assigned five families to clean up each Monday morning after Sunday use and to leave the premises finer than they found them.

He was adamant that even his affluent congregants not hire someone to perform the task for them, but show how they felt about what their neighbors were doing for them by doing the cleaning themselves. The generous community outreach and the Romney-led Mormon response resulted in new, permanent friendships and altered relations between the Mormons and their several temporary hosts.

Romney the presidential candidate is sometimes taken as inauthentic. In one of the more extreme expressions of this view, a December 22 editorial in New Hampshire’s Concord Monitor called him “a phony” and “a disquieting figure” with no “core,” guilty of changing his stance between the time he governed Massachusetts and his current run for president on such issues as gay marriage, abortion, taxes, and stem cell research.

Whether these are fair charges and whether Romney’s explanations are persuasive require looking beyond the sound-bites. One good, brief, and recent opportunity to come to a more balanced judgment is the online transcript or footage of Romney’s hour-long exchange with Tim Russert, who gave Romney a typical grilling on  NBC’s “Meet the Press” on December 16.

Part of Romney’s problem is that he just seems too charmed, too cheerful, too polished, too practiced—too good to be true. The Monitor, for example, not only assailed his positions but also seemed to mock his central-casting appearance as it referred to his “athletic build, ramrod posture, Reaganesque hair, a charismatic speaking style and a crisp dark suit,” attended by “a beautiful wife.”

Back in September, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd was either frightened by—or wished to frighten the rest of us with—images of Romney’s “scary-perfect wife and scary-perfect kids.” Film star Robert Redford went so far as to suggest that Romney is “plastic” because he is Mormon.

For the record, let me say that the Romneys their neighbors and associates know are neither phony nor scary. Ann Romney is not dismissible or false because she is lovely. The Romneys’ children, when I encountered them, were thoughtful, courteous, and promising. Should the nation elect to discard this family politically, it would be unfortunate if it were because they behaved themselves and looked too good. 

Candidate Romney may indeed over-practice his responses to anticipated public questions. He is determined not to repeat what he regards as mistakes his presidential-candidate father made by blunt, careless, forceful language—which, because he was ahead of his time in recognizing America’s mistake in Vietnam, probably cost him the Republican nomination in 1968. 

Maybe Mitt would connect more deeply with the American public if, like his father, he let his boots get a little more muddy. But that might be asking him not to be more authentic, but to pretend to be more authentic. Like it or not, Romney is naturally smooth, as much in private as in public.

Romney has always smiled faintly when listening and talking, even about serious or controversial matters. He smiled in conducting religious services or planning meetings. He smiled while hosting friends at his Cape Cod vacation home. He smiled when comforting a wounded congregant. I interpreted this not as a false persona, but as a mixture of good will, confidence, optimism, enjoyment of intellectual challenge, and idiosyncrasy.

Before he ran for Ted Kennedy’s senate seat in Massachusetts, before he rescued the Olympics in Salt Lake City, and before his declaration for United States President, all the “Romneyness” showed up in his everyday life as a citizen, as a businessman, and as a father and husband. It showed up also in the private practice of his religion. 

Mitt Romney’s private beliefs are, of course, consequential, as is his character. In his December 6 speech to the nation, he insisted, not for the first time, that his values derive in large part from his religion. But as the contrasting politics of Harry Reid, another faithful Mormon, suggest, it is perilous for voters to deduce and predict a candidate’s political behavior on the basis of his church’s doctrines and practices. And that goes whether he happens to belong to the LDS or any other church.


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