What seems glib and unquestioning about Romney to many voters does not seem quite so strange within his own church. “You hear various narratives in church,” says Richard Bushman, the influential historian of Mormonism at Columbia. Bushman and his wife, Claudia, were members of Romney’s congregation in the seventies; Richard preceded him as the president of the Boston stake. “It is acceptable to say, ‘I had doubts and then through inspiration I resolved them.’ Romney tells another kind of story: ‘I’ve always loved the church and never doubted it.’ He apparently was one who always did what was right and never wavered.”
Romney is a deeply religious man, but his Mormonism isn’t organized in the ways we expect religion to be—around its beliefs. It’s organized around Mormon culture, almost as if it were a tribe. “The Mormons have in a deep sense repeated the experience of the Jews,” the literary scholar Harold Bloom once wrote of their long isolation in the West. “They are a religion that has become a people.” Mormon intellectuals—even those who find some of Bloom’s writing on their religion bombastic and off-point—think that here he noticed something profoundly true, that in their long period of persecution, isolation, and procreation, the Mormons came to be something like a people apart—to see themselves as, if not exactly “chosen,” than in a way superior. As Claudia Bushman, herself an LDS historian, puts it, as “an island of morality in a sea of moral decay.”
But as Bloom was writing, in the early nineties, this isolated, insulated Mormon world had already begun to disappear. In a few places in the country, among them Romney’s Boston stake, a complicated encounter with post-sixties America had begun.
One of the roles Romney filled in the church after he returned from his failed Senate campaign against Ted Kennedy was to teach adult Sunday school, and one week there was a minor conflict in his class. The church text, from which Romney had been teaching directly, attributed the Letter to the Hebrews to the apostle Paul, an out-of-date claim that scholars had dismissed for decades. When some more progressive members of the class (Tony Kimball among them) objected, they found themselves frozen out by the more Orthodox Mormons. “The core issue was that many in the class were bothered by something that challenged their inherited beliefs,” Kimball says. The next week, he tried to raise the issue with Romney. “We’re not going to talk about that,” Romney replied. “Let’s move on.”
The challenge to inherited Mormon beliefs was particularly potent just then. A younger generation of historians, combing through the archives, had noticed that the official church accounts had departed from the historical record, often excessively. Richard Bushman was one of the leaders of this group of historians, who were trying to correct the record, and to whom the church was at best ambivalent. Some time after the conflict over the Letter to the Hebrews, Romney called Kimball to ask how he might teach the church’s history in Sunday school: “ “You know I don’t know anything about church history—what should I do?” Romney said. Kimball advised him to ditch the official church version and pick up Bushman’s revisionist biography of Joseph Smith. By the next week, Romney was teaching from it, chapter by chapter. The literalists and the progressives held starkly opposed views, yet Romney slid easily between them. “Mitt went just from following the lesson manual to using cutting-edge historical material,” Kimball says.
Cambridge, with a population thick with academics and graduate students, was home to a curious little vanguard within the church. The Mormon feminist movement began within Romney’s own congregation, with the activities of a small feminist cell that started a magazine called Exponent II. In 1990, a member of the Cambridge ward named Carrel Hilton Sheldon published an anonymous article in an issue of the magazine devoted to abortion in which she detailed a run-in with Romney she’d had seven years earlier, when he was her bishop. (She told a longer version of the same story to the Romney biographer R.B. Scott, whom she also permitted to name her publicly.) She had been in her late thirties then, and when she was pregnant with her sixth child, she developed a serious medical complication, a blood clot in her pelvis. Hilton’s condition was severe enough that she wanted to get an abortion. Romney visited her bedside, she writes, and “regaled me with stories of his sister and her retarded child and what a blessing the child had been to the family.” “As your bishop,” she writes that Romney told her, “my concern is with the child.” Romney later went to Hilton’s father’s house to plead his case; the father threw him out, later telling Scott he considered Romney “an authoritative type of fellow who thinks he is in charge of the world.” By the time Romney ran for office, this story was coupled with another (one that some Mormon feminists seem hesitant to believe), in which a young women named Peggie Hayes, struggling financially, accused Romney of threatening her with excommunication if she did not give up a child for adoption. This is the image of Romney as a Mormon that most liberal voters in Massachusetts carried with them, as an enforcer of a doctrinaire religious traditionalism.