Profile, Report

When Romney Was a Mormon President

By | May 1, 2012

(Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos)

“I must be about my father’s business,” Tagg Romney announces. It is a warm summer evening last July. He stands before a packed classroom of some 50 adults at his family’s long-time spiritual home, a meetinghouse of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), located in the affluent Boston suburb of Belmont. Looking every bit the part of his father’s son, with the same graying sideburns and chiseled features, Tagg is teaching adult Sunday school. And while he is in fact quoting Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, he is also—as the oldest Romney son and key surrogate for Mitt’s presidential campaign—certainly engaged in his father’s business these days.

But today is Sunday. And Sunday is a day that the 42-year-old Tagg spends in church with family. His young wife sits in the front row attending to their toddler, who insists on playing under his dad’s legs. It’s also a day spent with friends, many Tagg has known most of his life. The Romneys settled here in 1971 while Mitt earned business and law degrees from Harvard. It was Mitt who, twenty-five years ago, oversaw the construction of this stately brick building with white columns, tucked into a tree-lined street in one of the town’s most exclusive residential neighborhoods.

The day’s Sunday school lesson covers the crucifixion. Tagg, a seasoned Scripture teacher, goes beyond the plan provided by the LDS Church headquarters in Salt Lake City. He casually tosses in references to recent Biblical scholarship and cites controversial biographies on the Mormons’ first latter-day prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr. At one point, he even lets politics creep into the lesson. “What was Jesus’s response to betrayal and imminent death?” Tagg asks. “Be of good cheer!” he answers, quoting a line Jesus used to comfort his disciples. “I’m working a lot in politics these days and there is a lot of bad stuff out there,” he says. “I have to remind myself, ‘Be of good cheer!’”

This pep talk could be the Romney campaign slogan. Dogged by accusations that he is too rich, too ideologically inconsistent and too wooden to get elected president, Mitt Romney’s inevitable road to the Republican nomination was not as unfettered as Romney had hoped, or as many pundits had predicted. Before he narrowly won his home state of Michigan in late February, Romney consistently received more scrutiny of his business and personal record than did his rivals. With every week portending new controversies—and some that just won’t go away (e.g. the story of Seamus’ rooftop car ride)—Romney’s campaign has had to constantly remind itself to “be of good cheer.”

Almost always, these stories invoke Romney’s Mormon faith—something the candidate himself has rarely done in the last five years. In his 2007 “Faith in America” speech, Romney used the word Mormon only once. He instead focused on his belief in American exceptionalism, Judeo-Christian values and civil religion. In January, during an interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, the day after he won the New Hampshire primary, Romney said he was encouraged that compared to his rivals—including Catholic Rick Santorum and Protestant Rick Perry—he had received “the largest number of supporters among evangelicals.” “There are people who want to elect a commander-in-chief,” Romney continued. “They’re not worried about electing a pastor-in-chief [and] that’s not what I’m running for.”

But considering his service to the LDS Church, “pastor-in-chief” may be an accurate way to frame a large part of Romney’s presidential campaign résumé. After all, for over fourteen years, he was one of the most powerful Mormons in New England, first as the bishop of his home church in Belmont, then as Boston Stake president, the region’s highest ecclesiastical authority. Mitt Romney helped shape the Boston-area Mormon Church and in turn it helped shape him as a political candidate. In fact, with more than a third of his adult life spent serving the LDS Church, Mitt Romney’s business has, until recently, been more religion than politics.

“Belmont Is Zion!”

Belmont, Massachusetts is home to one of the highest concentrations of Mormon populations east of the Mississippi. For more than half a century, good schools, elite universities and choice jobs in banking, technology and medicine have drawn Mormons to the area. In the early 1980s, after the Mormon population gathering in nearby Cambridge grew too large, a separate meetinghouse was built in Belmont. In 2000, then-LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated the Belmont temple, the 100th in the world, making Belmont a regional center for Mormonism. At the dedication ceremony, Mitt Romney escorted Ted Kennedy—his former rival for the U.S. Senate—around the manicured grounds and through some of the outer rooms of the sacred building.  

The Romneys are not the only prominent members of the Belmont ward. On any given Sunday, there might be Rhodes Scholars sitting in the pews. One of those is Roger Porter, a former advisor to two Republican presidents and currently a prominent professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Another is world-renowned Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen. Dozens of other members are graduates or professors at Harvard and MIT, making this an exceptionally well-educated and powerful Mormon community. Still Bret Wunderli, a long-time Romney family friend, remarked that the Romneys “like the anonymity” of being among the Belmont congregants. “Fame and power outside the ward doesn’t matter inside,” he said. “They’re just our brothers and sisters.”

Yet this “insider nature” does little to dispel the well-worn stereotype that Mormon communities are insular. Belmont Mormons have worked hard to shed this perception by serving on local religious councils and other community-minded boards. “Our neighbors have sometimes said to us, ‘You benefit from living in Belmont but don’t contribute to the community,’” says Wunderli, who used to teach Sunday school to the Romney boys. “It’s not a conscious decision not to engage [with non-Mormon neighbors] … but with the demands of work, family, and church service, we just don’t have time.”

Still, the Belmont community defies other stereotypes, especially in the ways it differs from the Mormon cultural center in Utah. Last fall, in his office at the Harvard Business School, I met with Christensen, who is writing a book about the greater Boston Mormon community. The Belmont ward has become, according to Christensen, a gathering place for an elite class of Mormons. He characterizes Belmont culture as one of spiritual and intellectual “self-confidence,” which allows its members to be religiously and politically inquisitive, more so perhaps than the generally conservative and homogeneous Mormon communities in Utah. “Especially on the [Mormon] right, there is an increasing number of people who believe they have all the answers but no questions,” Christensen says. “Belmont is full of humble people—we believe we can learn something from everybody.”

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