Mitt’s Stake

Romney as bishop in 1984.Photo: Marty Mayo

No one can remember exactly who in the Mormon-church hierarchy thought it a good idea to send missionaries into the poor, Asian neighborhoods of Lynn, Massachusetts, but by the time the appointed pair, an optimistic older couple called the Boots, got to the house of a Cambodian woman named Kan Sam Sen, they looked pretty good to her. This was 1990, a decade and a half after Sen’s husband had run through a minefield in Khmer Rouge territory, clutching their young daughter, escaping the advancing militias; a decade after he had been horribly beaten in a refugee camp; and about when it was dawning on the family that his brain would never really recover. The refugees had been village people, and in their neighborhoods in Lynn, they were struggling to adapt to urban life. Village affiliations had disintegrated, replaced by gang affiliations. Could they talk to her about Jesus Christ’s testimony and what it has meant to them?, the missionaries asked. At first Sen was reluctant, she had to get to work, but eventually she said sure, yes, they could come in, and then they were there every Thursday evening.

The branch the missionaries directed her to was a rented space in downtown Lynn that had once been an IRS office. The missionaries did not speak perfect Cambodian, but each Sunday they would be there, by the front of the church, translating Scripture crudely for the immigrant audience. It was a church mostly composed of teenage boys, whose mothers had perceived Mormonism in part as an on-ramp to being American and in part as a convenient social prophylaxis, a gang that was the opposite of a gang. From the beginning, Sen had wanted something else, too: permanence, attachments. The Boots gave her a picture-book version of the Book of Mormon, so she could follow along. She was soon a fixture in the congregation. “You will have brothers and sisters in the church,” the missionaries told her, meaning not just the other Cambodians but the white Mormons, and to Sen this promise of community was as important, nearly, as salvation.

Every church re-creates itself in each generation, a kind of call-and-response between its doctrine and its congregants. In Boston during the eighties and nineties, when Mitt Romney was the church official in charge of more than a dozen congregations, Mormonism was engaging modern America—ethnic diversity, feminist claims, identity politics—and trying, however uneasily, to make some accommodation with it. Romney sent a management consultant named Paul Dredge to run the church in Lynn and a podiatrist named Doug John to minister to its young men. Romney sent them to try to train some of the refugee teenagers as leaders, capable of one day running a church steeped in the habits of the American middle class—the endless bureaucratic meetings, the emphasis on voluntarism and leadership, the youth programs based on scouting. “I think part of the interest in the church was, what is this American thing about, anyway?” Dredge remembers.

What Dredge and John encountered, in Lynn, was an almost cosmic mismatch. John realized, right away, that scouting was probably a nonstarter. “The setting they were living in wasn’t exactly Boy Scout stuff,” he tells me. The most charismatic kid turned out to be a gang leader. John took the boys to the Green Mountains, in Vermont, and to dances with other Mormon kids—rich cheery blonde girls from Arlington and Belmont—but “most of the time they stood around and talked to one another. I’m not sure dances were something that was normal for them.” What vexed Dredge was that no matter how many basketball games or Cambodian-food festivals he staged (at one point he helped intervene in an arranged marriage so that his congregants could find a love match), he couldn’t seem to convert the congregants’ social interest in the church into a spiritual commitment.

Romney was not vexed at all. Lynn was at times a thankless post, but he routinely sent the most competent Mormons in the area to help. “If you get only a handful of members,” he told Dredge, “that is still a good result.” Romney himself came to Lynn often, and when he did, it was with a blast of fellowship—greeting the congregants by name, packing teenagers into a van for a basketball game, showing them by his presence that they mattered too. Romney once organized an International Night, structured deliberately so that the Chinese scarf dances would outclass the American square dances, and the Brazilian food would put the American carrot-and-raisin salad to shame. “His idea was, maybe they aren’t going to be as good at public speaking, or at organizing, or give these profound intellectual interpretations,” says one of Romney’s aides in the church, “but here is something where they are actually superior, where they could shine.”

A rummage sale to raise money, following the 1984 fire of Romney’s church in Belmont. Photo: AFP

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.

A young Romney working as a missionary in France.Photo: AFP

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.”

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.

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.”

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.

Mitt’s Stake