In many ways, Romney is a poor fit for the Republican Party right now, but in this—the certainty that American culture is fixed and exceptional—he matches it precisely. The party’s politics have narrowed since the evangelism of George W. Bush (“The desire for freedom resides in every human heart”). Today, its perspective is more like Romney’s: less universal, more tribal, as if a vast nation could be described as a single people with a single culture, as if material success could replicated anywhere by anyone, as if we had a script.
In retrospect, the experiment in Lynn began to lose its momentum when the stake presidency, Romney’s office, suggested that it was time to take away the bus service that picked up parishioners and brought them to services. The thought was to see what kind of commitment the converts had. The mission office had already begun to cut back the missionaries devoted to Lynn, from ten to six and then finally to two. With the bus no longer circulating, Paul Dredge began to perceive “a gradual loss of energy.” After that, it was a matter of time, and by 1993, the branch was closed. For all the strict discipline the religion demanded, Dredge realized, watching the congregation decay, that what drew the young men away wasn’t mostly temptation—drugs or sex or alcohol. “The church demands an enormous amount of time,” Dredge tells me, “and that commitment was very hard for people who also needed to scrape together a living.”
There are only a handful of success stories that Dredge can enumerate: a boy they’d sent on a mission, a girl who’d gone to BYU. And then there was Kan Sam Sen. Four days before Christmas in 1997, her husband came home to find their youngest daughter, 17, dead in the bathtub. Someone had entered the house, cut the telephone extension cord, and killed her. At church, afterward, everyone was very kind to the family but no one seemed to know what to say. For a while, her husband would ask rhetorically why they’d come to the United States in the first place if this is what they got. Sen bore her grief heavily, but she did not have those same feelings of regret. She was a citizen, thanks to the church’s English classes, and another of her daughters had been married in the Mormon temple. She had endured years of querying from other Cambodians—why couldn’t she drink? Why wouldn’t her church let her have any fun?—but she had endured it. “I follow a good path,” she tells me. “The Heavenly Father is going to take care of us, and my family can meet together after we die.”
I was sitting in her dining room in Lynn the Tuesday before the Republican convention as she was explaining all this, five of her grandkids antic in her living room. Romney, from the podium in Tampa, would remember his “vibrant and diverse” congregation, “many who were new to America,” and there would be a ring of genuine pride in his voice. It is possible he was thinking of the church’s success stories as he recited this line, of Kan Sam Sen or of others like her. “If you only get a handful of members, that’s still a good result,” Romney had told Dredge, and in many ways that’s what he’d gotten: a select few like Sen, an immigrant elite, dedicated and dogged and fixed on the long view. To Dredge at the time, Romney’s counsel was a huge relief and something close to inspiration.
Through the lens of religion, there is something sublime about Romney’s work to convert others, whether in Bordeaux or in Lynn, where extreme missionary efforts were required to save a single soul. But viewed through the lens of this presidential campaign, the narrowness of Romney’s empathy is striking. What he offered was salvation via a rule book, a recipe for getting ahead in America that had less to offer the doubters, the uncommitted, the foreign. In Lynn, at least, the right culture wasn’t just something that the church could teach you. In some ways, you needed the right culture to belong at all.