The Mitt Romney who led the outreach to Lynn—the Mormon Mitt Romney—has appeared mostly absent from his presidential campaign. The emptiness has invited skepticism: Liberals find Romney’s discomfort in talking about his religion disquieting, even sinister, as if he must be hiding something, and some conservative Evangelicals have been leery, too. Romney’s co-congregants in Boston are simply perplexed. “Sometimes I wish he would explain more what being a Mormon has meant to him,” Romney’s friend from the church Grant Bennett tells me plaintively. In his religious life they see the feeling for others that he’s never conveyed in public—they see the contours of his empathy.
And yet there is something genuinely mysterious—and not just underexposed—in Romney’s faith. As a church leader, Romney seemed devoted to a Mormon ethic of sacrifice for the welfare of the group, an almost communitarian system of belief. As a candidate, his philosophy has been nakedly individualistic and elitist—a turn made explicit last week, when a video emerged of Romney at a Florida fund-raiser writing off 47 percent of the country as shiftless freeloaders: “My job is not to worry about these people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Many of the Boston Mormons believe the Romney they saw in church reflected a separate, genuine strain of his character, one that was opportunistically quashed as he entered national politics. But the clues from Romney’s tenure as a church leader suggest a more complicated relationship to his religion and, therefore, a different explanation—that his approach to leadership seems not so much a departure from his own version of Mormonism as an extension of it. More than anything else, Romney’s church seems to have armed him with a particular view of success.
To many in his church, it is difficult to differentiate Romney’s life from his own reputation as a leader, which seems to have pooled into a permanent moat around his personality early on. (Romney, to his deputy, Tony Kimball, who was tasked with helping families in the congregation: “How are things going?” “Very well, but there’s one family in the ward that I can’t get in to see.” Romney, interested: “Oh, yeah? Which one’s that?” Kimball: “The Romneys!” Mitt grins. “You never will.”) Soon after he moved to Massachusetts in 1975, Romney was assigned leadership roles that customarily went to older men: counselor to the senior church official in Boston, then, in 1982, bishop of the Cambridge ward (roughly equivalent to running a single Catholic church), and four years later president of the Boston stake (the equivalent of overseeing a diocese), a position he held until his campaign for U.S. Senate in 1994.
Leadership is crucial to Mormonism—administratively, theologically, culturally. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no professional clergy, so all of its works—the organization of Sunday school, the arrangement of services, the provision of welfare—depend upon volunteers. The dedication it requires is extensive, with each member encouraged to give 10 percent of his income to his church and to hold some leadership position. (One of the reasons Romney may have seemed distant and unavailable to his colleagues at Bain Capital, as he was managing its first funds during the eighties, is that he was also spending 30 hours a week on church business.) The Cambridge ward had several members who were Harvard Business School professors, and they would sometimes instruct newly appointed leaders on how to delegate and prioritize, supplementing the texts that the church supplied. Because there is no separation between a local church’s administrative hierarchy and its ecclesiastical hierarchy, being good at running things—at process, really—is part of how an ordinary member becomes a bishop, and mediates between his congregants and God.
Part of what makes Mormonism unique, even seductive, to Mormons is the communal ethic, the idea of an extended family that meets you wherever you move. In Cambridge, Romney was the hub. Even Mormons who are Democrats remember him fondly, in jeans more than in suits, lugging move-in boxes up the narrow stairs of student quarters. Though few of his church peers recall much of his spiritual testimony, they do remember his commitment. At the end of long bureaucratic meetings, he would lead a delegation to help fix an elderly parishioner’s roof: “I don’t know about you, brothers, but right now I’ve got nothing better to do than help with that roof.” Laurie Low, a friend of the Romneys, says, “You know Mitt. Needs were met.”
Romney was like a metronome for his church. On Tuesday evenings, as his Bain career was soaring, he scheduled counseling meetings with whichever teenagers in the congregation had a birthday that month. Often the conversations were witheringly dull—these were ninth-graders: “How are you doing?” “Fine.” “How are things going with your parents?” “Fine.” But he kept at it.