Even as he continues to hold on to steady frontrunner status in state and national polls, former Massachusetts Governor MittRomney fails to convince voters, both in his party and those constituting the crucial independent bloc, that he is a human being capable of a range of normal emotions. Fueled partly by his polished good looks, exorbitant wealth, and perhaps by his history of changing his views to suit his various constituencies, the distaste many Republican primary voters feel toward Romney has propelled dream candidate after dream candidate to consider joining the race, only to fizzle out after a few weeks of riding high in the polls (the latest of these supermen, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, decided not to run, and then quickly endorsed Romney).
Notably absent from Romney's campaign is any serious talk of how his deep Mormon faith animates his life. You need not be a seasoned political analyst to realize that Romney shies away from publicly discussing his faith because of the rabid right-wing Evangelical cohort of his party, which seemingly gains a greater role in selecting the GOP nominee with each election cycle. So it was with great interest that I read a front-page New York Times profile of Romney that detailed his history of leadership in the Mormon Church and offered some anecdotes that display his more empathetic moments. From the article:
Bryce Clark was a recipient of Mr. Romney’s spiritual advice. Late one summer night in 1993, distraught over his descent into alcoholism and drug use, Mr. Clark, then a 19-year-old college student, decided to confess that he had strayed from his Mormon faith. So he drove through this well-heeled Boston suburb to Mr. Romney’s secluded seven-bedroom home.
As the highest-ranking Mormon leader in Boston, Mr. Romney was responsible for determining whether Mr. Clark was spiritually fit for a mission, a rite of passage for young Mormon men. Mr. Clark had previously lied to him, insisting that he was eligible to go. But instead of condemnation that night, Mr. Clark said, Mr. Romney offered counsel that the younger man has clung to for years.
“He told me that, as human beings, our work isn’t measured by taking the sum of our good deeds and the sum of our bad deeds and seeing how things even out,” recalled Mr. Clark, now 37, sober and working as a filmmaker in Utah. “He said, ‘The only thing you need to think about is: Are you trying to improve, are you trying to do better? And if you are, then you’re a saint.’ ”
Another churchgoer recalls Romney's efforts to reach out to troubled youths:
He was highly motivated and “hands-on,” said Philip Barlow, a professor at Utah State University, who as a graduate student was one of Mr. Romney’s top aides as bishop. If somebody’s roof leaked, Mr. Romney would show up with a ladder to fix it. Mr. Barlow remembers Mr. Romney picking butternut squash and yanking weeds on the church’s communal farm.
When young Southeast Asian converts began joining gangs, Mr. Romney set up small storefront churches in rough areas of town, with the hope of drawing them back. When the approach did not work, he shut the branches down. Every other Sunday, he convened his high council — akin to a president’s cabinet — to discuss operational matters.
“He would run it like a business, and he would listen to us,” said Mick Watson, a Brandeis University graduate school dean and one of the councilors. “But Mitt, of course, was in charge — he was always in charge.”
Included in the article are some of Romney's critics who see his management style as somewhat dictatorial as well as self-described Mormon feminists who clash with him over his (evolving) views on abortion, but generally the piece highlights Romney's pastoral manner and efforts to serve those he led well.
There are many reasons one may choose not to vote for Mitt Romney for president, but the whisper campaign (and sometimes the talk is a bit louder) that claims his faith disqualifies him is particularly ugly. Catholics in particular should cringe at this overt bigotry, as their own faith has only recently been accepted as mainstream in the American consciousness. This single article will not end the prejudice felt by Mormons in public life, but it may humanize Romney a bit and help others see that how he lives out his faith is really not that much different from their own.
UPDATE: The Daily Beast reports on a series of emails from advisors to Texas Gov. Rick Perry that:
show an influential evangelical activist with close ties to the Perry campaign stressing the political importance of “juxtaposing traditional Christianity to the false God of Mormonism,” and calling for a “clarion call to Evangelical pastors and pews” that will be “the key to the primary” for Perry.
Read the full article here.
Michael J. O'Loughlin