God's Own Party:
Romney Was a Bishop
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
• Are Mormons Christian?
Yes, in devotion to Christ. No, in adherence to the Nicene and subsequent
• 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,
• 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
• 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
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
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
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
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.