In the middle of the night on August 1, 1984, the new church Romney’s congregation was building in suburban Belmont burned to the ground so rapidly and with such obvious intent that the authorities suspected from the start that it was arson. There had been arsons at other Mormon churches in Massachusetts, and the Belmont project had triggered a particularly fraught local dispute over the size of its parking lot. Still, the fire seemed like a ghost out of seventeenth-century New England, a bizarre visitation of violent religious schism in a town filled with professors and consultants. A few days after the fire, Grant Bennett met with Romney to try to figure out what to do. The fire, Romney told him, was a “blessing in disguise.”
Offers had been coming in from local congregations to house Mormon services temporarily. The Mormons weren’t going to choose one to accept, Romney told Bennett. They would accept every single one. This was, procedurally, an incredibly annoying decision: It meant the Mormons would set up in a new space every few Sundays, rearrange meetings to fit rooms, reorganize services. But to his congregants, especially the western transplants still filled with a remnant persecution complex, it meant an instilled confidence, an optimism—the better they were known, the more they would fit in. “For the first time, people began accepting us as a legitimate church,” Don Eddington, an MIT scientist and church member, said at the time. “I don’t think we had ever been included as one before.”
Romney did not share that self-consciousness. To him, Mormonism didn’t alienate you from America; it operated as a kind of key to success within it. “I honestly think there’s no program, government or private, that is as good at bringing people into the American middle class,” says Helen Claire Sievers, a church colleague of Romney’s, and in many ways this was the Mormon program that Romney worked to execute.
His peers from church will often say that he was very good with teenagers, not as a confidant but as a cultural counterprogrammer, a promiser of the rewards the straight path might bring. The church’s program for teenagers includes instruction on work ethic, on modest attire, on personal finance, and Romney would have over for pancakes the dedicated groups that showed up to seminary lessons before school. He would invite teenagers from the church’s poorer wards to his house for dinner, let them swim in his pool, let the tangible connection between godliness and prosperity sink in.
This is a peculiarly American promise, the conviction that there is a connection between virtue and wealth. Romney would urge teenagers struggling in school not to give up, that great success was still possible; he would emphasize the practical applicability of spiritual lessons, saying, according to Bennett, “These values you are learning—empathy, honesty—will be a great aid to you in your careers.”
When people say that Romney is robotic, they mean, in part, the strange theater of his campaign, in which he laughs mirthlessly, in which he imagines half the country as handout-hunters, in which he lunges for intimacy with strangers and keeps his distance from those who want to be hugged. But beneath these tics is the impression he leaves that he lacks one essential human trait: doubt. Pressed by Boston Globe reporters for an account of his work as a missionary in France, Romney said simply that though the faith of some around him evaporated, his “became much deeper.” In these accounts he usually moves quickly to jokes: “As you can imagine, it’s quite an experience to go to Bordeaux and say, ‘Give up your wine! I’ve got a great religion for you!’ ” Of all the things Romney has denied Americans during his strange campaign to lead them, one of the most profound is any insight into the story of himself.
It is arresting, when you come across a counterexample, to realize for a moment how irretrievably Protestant our political narratives are, how precisely they fit the model of doubt and recommitment, of being born again. We often speak of the come-to-Jesus moment in politics: A young person, raised with certain beliefs, experiences a crisis of faith and eventually emerges from it with a new philosophy, one of his own making. This is the story, told in different forms, that Barack Obama recounts, and George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. It is also the narrative of The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Mormons often don’t talk like this. “I remember that when Michele Bachmann first came on the scene, there were all these stories that tried to figure out what her ‘worldview’ was,” says the historian Matthew Bowman. “But just the notion that religion would supply your ‘worldview’ is an Evangelical idea. It is not necessarily a Mormon one.”