Mitt Romney: proudly, quietly Mormon

The former governor of Massachusetts is a Mormon in full. But, facing a wary public, he has played his faith cautiously on the presidential campaign trail.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Successful businessman, rescuer of the scandal-marred 2002 Olympics, governor of Massachusetts. The highlights of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's résumé are well known. But there's a fourth point that he does not advertise in his stump speech: 12 years in top leadership positions in the Boston-area Mormon community.

For three years, from 1982 to 1985, Mr. Romney served as the bishop, or lay pastor, at his church in Belmont, Mass. After that, he served nine years as "stake" president, overseeing about a dozen Boston-area parishes. But it was his time as bishop that gave him the most contact with everyday churchgoers. He organized weekly church services and ministered to parishioners, offering spiritual guidance on whatever problems they brought to him – financial, marital, physical, anything. He heard confessions of sin and determined who is allowed to enter a Mormon temple, a privilege reserved for those who meet the church's high standards of personal conduct. He distributed church funds to those in need.

Romney's church work was voluntary – Mormon congregations have no paid clergy – but the time commitment was intense, even as he built a high-flying career in his "day job," first in management consulting and then private-equity investment.

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Being a bishop is "a very weighty responsibility, which you take with a great deal of care and sobriety," Romney said in a Monitor interview.

He says the experience taught him that, despite the sea of happy faces he saw each week at church, everybody faces hardships. That lesson is just as vibrant for him now, as a presidential candidate, traveling the country and addressing crowds.

"As I sat in that room today and met with all those people, I know that almost everyone there, smiling and cheerful as they are, has some real challenges," Romney said, speaking of the 100 or so voters he had just addressed at an event in Ottumwa, Iowa. "They're hoping that collectively we can help one another, and that's something I very much hope I can do if I'm elected."

Easing public concern

That Romney's Mormon faith infuses his life and informs his approach to public service is evident. But at this unusually religion-focused time in politics, the irony is that Romney has had to be more cautious than most presidential candidates in how he discusses his faith. Public wariness toward the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the Mormon Church's official name, remains deep-seated. Polls continue to show that a sizable portion of the electorate – 27 percent, Newsweek found in July – would not vote for a Mormon for president. Among GOP primary voters, the numbers get even more daunting: A February poll by the Pew Research Center found that 40 percent of white evangelical Protestants, most of whom are Republicans, would be "less likely" to support a Mormon for president.

One other issue poses as significant a hurdle to Romney in his quest for the nomination: his switch to conservative positions on social issues, including abortion and stem-cell research. Some conservatives remain skeptical over the timing of his conversion, coming as it did after he had won the governorship of liberal Massachusetts and began laying the groundwork for a presidential run.

But it's the Mormon issue that could turn ugly for Romney. Already, anti-Mormon incidents have sprung up out of rival GOP presidential campaigns. In a few instances, voters themselves have confronted Romney with hostile questions. One, captured on a video posted on YouTube, refused to shake his hand.

As the January start of primary season draws closer, "I think [his religion] is a huge problem for him …. if he's doing well in the polls," says Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. "This is a party that unleashes attack dogs, and it will be too tempting for one of the other candidates not to do it.

"It doesn't matter that Mormonism is by now a very fast-growing and successful religion," he adds. "It doesn't matter that Romney's Mormon faith has in no way impeded his political career thus far. Same with Harry Reid [the Senate Democratic leader, also a Mormon]…. When ordinary people start to think about Mormonism, the word that flits across their brain is 'cult.' "

Romney is keenly aware of this fact and has organized "faith and values steering committees" – one national, several statewide – made up of prominent supporters from a range of faiths. The committees advise the campaign on values-related issues and grass-roots outreach.

In addition, Romney has sought to carve out an image of openness toward the public and press. He has held more than 100 "ask-me-anything"-style events in early primary states and has sat for countless interviews with journalists, some of whom have posed the most intimate of questions regarding his religious practices and personal life. Usually Romney takes them in good humor, though in a recent talk- radio interview, he got testy when the host pushed hard on his faith. Romney also defers to church headquarters in Salt Lake City when questioned on Mormon beliefs, such as those about Jesus' past and future ministries on the American continent.

Romney's approach to the press extended to his home on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire last month, when he invited about 30 journalists for an off-the-record barbecue with his family and campaign staff. (Reporters paid for their own meals.) Most of his immediate family was there – four of his five sons, their wives, and the 10 grandchildren. (Note to those keeping score: No. 11 is on the way.) Oldest son Tagg offered rides around the lake in a motorboat.

If part of the point was to show family values in action, it worked. Among Romney backers, the hope seems to be that eventually the Mormon theme will play out and the media will move on. For now, though, it's still a matter of public concern, or at least curiosity. In public forums, Romney's approach is to steer his rhetoric away from the specifics of his faith and toward the common ground of values, God, and patriotism – themes that play especially well among GOP primary voters.

At a recent "Ask Mitt Anything" forum in Indianola, Iowa, the first comment from the audience centered on Romney's faith.

"You know, one of the great things about this country of ours is that we don't choose our leaders based on what church they go to. We care about the values they have," Romney began, his wife and son Josh at his side. "And if you want to learn something about my values, you can meet my wife and my son and you can see that we have American values like anyone else in this country.

"And I'm really proud of the fact that wherever I go, people say, 'We love the fact that you're a person of faith, you believe in God, you believe in the Bible, you believe that Jesus Christ is the savior of the world.' Those are my beliefs, they form who I am. And one of the great elements of America is that we accept people of all faiths as long as they share our values and our love for this great country."

But even in that answer, in mentioning Jesus Christ, Romney is treading on sensitive territory. Many Protestants and Roman Catholics do not recognize Mormons as Christian because the church does not adhere to the common view of the Holy Trinity. The Mormon Church, instead, sees God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost as three separate beings – God and Jesus having human form – who collectively make up the Godhead.

Another objection is to the church's use of additional scriptures, such as the Book of Mormon. Richard John Neuhaus, a prominent conservative Catholic priest, calls Mormonism "a false religion." The Southern Baptist Convention instructs its members to view Mormonism as a cult.

In addition, Mormons' past practice of polygamy – disavowed by the church in 1890 – and the HBO series "Big Love," which features a modern-day polygamous family in Utah, do Romney no favors. Ditto Romney's own well-known ancestral history of polygamy. Mormons' successful efforts to win converts also make evangelical Christians uncomfortable, even as the LDS Church loses members to evangelical proselytizing. Some non-Mormons worry that a President Romney would be the ultimate missionary, making the church more attractive worldwide.

This fall, an independently produced documentary called "A Mormon President" – examining the history of church founder Joseph Smith's presidential campaign – will bring yet more attention to politics and Mormonism.

The speech

One big tactical question hanging over the Romney campaign is whether the candidate should give a major speech that addresses his faith and how he would relate to his church's central leadership if elected. That is, should he follow in the footsteps of John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign, when he faced similar doubts about his Roman Catholic faith and delivered a groundbreaking address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Romney has read Kennedy's speech.

In late July, Romney went from "maybe" to "more likely than not" on the speech question. But he cannot say when, and has yet to weigh pros and cons.

"I don't know that there's a lot of downside risk," he says. "The question is when's the right time…. So we'll let people think about it in my team, but it's not anything imminent."

The Mormon Church states that while it encourages members to vote and be active in politics, it does not try to direct or dictate to elected officials. When Romney's father, George, ran for president in 1968, his candidacy did not create the extended "Mormon moment" that Mitt's campaign has sparked, but George did feel compelled to assert his view to a group of non-Mormon ministers that the church should not become politically active, conservative talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt notes in his book, "A Mormon in the White House?"

Among outside political observers, many say that Mitt Romney should address the Mormon question head-on, and soon. Kennedy's speech came late in the game – fewer than two months before Election Day. But Romney's challenge comes in the primaries. Though he leads among Republican voters in Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire, the first three nominating contests, he is far behind in the next states, South Carolina and Florida.

Richard Land, head of public policy for the Southern Baptist Convention, calls the Kennedy speech "tone perfect," in the way that it appealed to "Americans' basic sense of fair play." Last October, at a gathering the governor held for religious conservative leaders at his home in Massachusetts, Mr. Land says he told Romney, "In my opinion, Governor, the Mormonism issue is not a deal-breaker, but only you can close the deal. Only John Kennedy could make millions of Americans feel comfortable with voting for a Catholic president. Only Mitt Romney can make millions of Americans feel comfortable voting for a Mormon president."

Romney himself raises the opposing view of Mr. Hewitt. "Romney's best strategy," Hewitt writes, "is to overwhelm any objections to him based on faith by demonstrating that he is simply the best-prepared, best-qualified candidate to run for, win, and then serve as president."

Ultimately, the decision may boil down to how Romney is doing on the eve of the primaries. If he's behind, he may decide he has nothing to lose. If he's competitive, and still delivers such a speech, the risk is that it reignites discussion about Mormonism – possibly adding to public unease about electing a Mormon president.

Duty to God

On the campaign's home page, a video called "The Decision" shows the big Romney family in heartfelt discussion over whether Dad should run for president. In the end, son Tagg concludes that his dad has no choice but to run, given his talents and good fortune. "I think you have a duty to your country and to God to see what comes of it," he says.

In his 20-minute Monitor interview, Mitt Romney was asked to explain how running for president fulfills a duty to God.

His reply: "If you come with a fundamental view that you are a child of God, and if you've been blessed in some way by being in this country, there is an obligation to serve if you find yourself in a unique position to make that service."

On questions of policy – such as his shift away from supporting abortion rights – Romney says he leaves the specifics of his faith at the office door. "I felt that in a secular position [as governor], my job was to [make] the considerations not from a religious standpoint but from a standpoint of a successful civilization," he says. "From that standpoint, I believe that a civilized society should respect the sanctity of life."

What about his brother-in-law's sister, who died from an illegal abortion in the 1960s? This family tragedy weighed on Romney's mother when she ran for the US Senate from Michigan in 1970 as an abortion-rights candidate.

"I've given a lot of thought to that issue, and someone like myself who is very much opposed to abortion, as I have always been, struggles with what the role of government ought to be in making that choice," he says. "It's not an easy decision, but when it went from a matter of discussion and a philosophical view to actually making a decision relating to life and death, I as governor concluded I had to come down on the side of life."

The issue at hand in Massachusetts was embryonic cloning, as Romney has recounted repeatedly. But from that came his change of heart on how government should address abortion. As president, he says, he would like to see the legality of abortion decided state by state.

Given his position on life, why does he favor the death penalty?

"In my view, a person who takes life should be subject to having life taken, in certainly the most extreme cases," he says. "To show respect for life, it is entirely consistent to say [that] somebody who flagrantly and violently and in a heinous manner takes the life of humans should not be given the privilege of being kept alive."

The family religion

The Mormon Church and the Romney family go way back. Mitt Romney's great-great grandfather Miles Romney converted to the LDS faith in 1837, just seven years after Joseph Smith started the religion. At what point in Mitt's life did he know that Mormonism was for him, a doctrine and lifestyle he could embrace as his own?

The answer centers on matters of the heart. While a freshman at Stanford University, he wanted nothing more than to be back home in Michigan with his girlfriend, Ann Davies, who was still in high school. The last thing he wanted to do was go overseas as a church missionary.

"The question had to be reached: Did I really believe my religion, or was it just the family religion?" he recalls. "And so I did a lot of soul-searching that year, and by the time the end of the year came around, I was convinced that God lived, and that Jesus Christ was my savior, and that my responsibilities included service to my church. And I was convinced that my church was right, and so I committed to go on my mission."

After Romney went off to France, Ann decided to convert to Mormonism. But Romney says he would have married her anyway. "Look, I was so completely in love, and she was, that we'd have gotten married no matter what. But as I became a missionary for my church and became more and more a student of the Bible and of the scriptures in our church, I was more and more pleased that she had decided to look into our church herself and decided to join."

Thirty-eight years later, the family commitment to the LDS faith remains whole. Mitt Romney remains a full tithe payer, meaning he donates 10 percent of his income to the church. All five sons graduated from the church-affiliated Brigham Young University, and all five married Mormon women in temple weddings. And even if there's an effective fire wall between Romney and the church leadership in Salt Lake City, Romney has willingly fulfilled whatever he has been called to do in his local parish.

"You pretty much always do what you're asked to do – everything from teaching kids, teaching teenagers, working in Boy Scouts, and … for a few years, I was the adult Sunday School teacher," he says. "I like teaching. I taught the New Testament, I taught church history, I taught the Book of Mormon, I taught the Old Testament, and learned a lot about those."

When the president of the LDS Church decided in 1995 that a temple – a large structure used for certain church rituals – should be built in Belmont, Mass., Romney did his part to see the project through. He met with neighbors to assuage their opposition, spoke at a zoning hearing on the height of the steeple, which exceeded local bylaws, and donated money.

Even today, Romney fulfills a role in the Belmont church, as a "home teacher." Every member is assigned to visit another member once a month to see if anything is needed. According to family friend Grant Bennett, Romney told the current bishop that these days he's around only one day a month, and the bishop said, "Meet your family on that day."

Romney "doesn't wear his religion on his sleeve," says Kirk Jowers, who served as general counsel to Romney's political action committee. "But I know that in his heart, that and his family are the two things that really move him and motivate him."

Staff writer Ben Arnoldy contributed to this report from Salt Lake City.

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