Some of the feminists in Romney’s congregation have a more complicated impression. In their minds, the key event for understanding Romney took place in 1993, when the complaints of the Boston feminists were peaking. Many of these women were highly educated professionals well regarded in their fields, and yet the church barred them from most important leadership positions. Sievers went to Romney and suggested he meet with them to see what he could do. He fretted about it—it would get him in trouble with Salt Lake City, he told a confidant—and Kimball recalls frequent phone calls to Romney from Utah, asking whether he couldn’t simply keep the feminists quiet. But eventually Romney agreed and met with 250 women in the Belmont church. He jotted down lists of complaints he could fix and those he couldn’t. The priesthood was impossible. But when some women asked why they couldn’t run Sunday school or lead particular prayers, and others asked for a petition to Salt Lake City to object to the highly traditional gender roles described in the church’s literature, Romney said he thought he could do something about those problems, and he did.
Sievers was far from the rowdiest of the feminists in Boston, but she was one of them. Sitting in a stake meeting a few weeks later, listening to Romney recount the changes he planned to make, she realized with a start that the feminists had gotten nearly everything she thought was within Romney’s power to give. He told one of his female subordinates privately that if it were up to him, women would be allowed to be bishops. For years, women had never been allowed to go around to the wards delivering sermons on behalf of the stake presidency; a few weeks later, Sievers was giving them herself.
It was as if Romney had no guiding philosophy at all. He was at once the blunt hand of the hierarchy and a subtle force for progress. There are shades here of a particularly Mormon deference, in which the church’s central authority, in Salt Lake City, is responsible for much of the scriptural interpretation, Sunday-school lessons, and missionary material, and in which the local leader often simply follows the script. “Ministering and administering” is the saying.
“Mitt doesn’t worry about shaping things,” Low tells me when I asked her what she made of the contradictions in Romney’s relations with the feminists. “He’s okay with saying, ‘Well, I don’t know why the Lord wanted to restore the priesthood to only men, but that’s the way it is right now and that’s what were going to deal with.’ ”
Romney’s attachment to Mormonism seemed fixed upon its culture—its rules, its rituals, its process, its description of a path through life—which in his hands could be remarkably specific. Once when I was talking to Grant Bennett, I asked him about Romney’s relationship with his oldest son, Tagg. “I remember long conversations [with Romney] about Tagg’s uncertainty about continuing in the Scouts,” Bennett tells me. “And Mitt would say, ‘I really try to encourage them to take Scouting seriously, and I think the Scouts are a great thing.’ I would say, ‘Mitt, you hate camping. And Tagg is a great kid. On the scale of one to ten, if he’s not roaring through merit badges, most parents would say that’s nothing.’ But Mitt wouldn’t let it go.”
The Democratic attacks on Romney have used his Mormonism to suggest that he is a paternalistic relic from the fifties. But Romney’s ideology was more flexible than that. The stronger strain is not traditionalism but a narrow defense of the rituals of an elite—what people should strive for, how they might get ahead. “He would say that you’ve got to work and work hard so you can get an education so you could get married and that’s the goal,” Low remembers about Romney’s work with teenagers. “To point them in a direction where we as a church believe ultimate happiness is found.”
Early this past summer, on the Jerusalem stop of a tour of Europe and Israel that presented an alarming portrait of his own purchase on global affairs, Romney began to muse to the audience at a fund-raiser at the King David Hotel about why certain countries were often much richer than their neighbors. He mentioned the “dramatic, stark” differences between the United States and Mexico, Israel and the Palestinian territories, and—a little mysteriously—Chile and Ecuador. Romney said he had been reading broadly in an effort to make sense of the differences. The way to explain the discrepancies between these countries’ economic performances, he said, was to study their cultures. “Culture,” he said, “makes all the difference.”