When Romney Was a Mormon President

By Max Perry Mueller | 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.”

“The Father of The Ward”

In 1981, Mitt Romney, then 34, became leader of the Belmont ward. Regional Mormon leaders hoped to groom the ambitious scion of a storied Mormon family for higher church positions. Mormon wards do not have professional clergy, but instead rely on “bishops.” It’s a position Romney describes in his book No Apology as a “lay pastor.” While still working full-time at Bain Capital, Bishop Romney spent between 15-30 hours a week planning worship services, managing budgets and counseling his congregants. He was also responsible for interviewing members, deciding which Mormons were fit to enter the sacred Mormon temple.

By many accounts, Mitt Romney was a religious leader who valued pragmatism over ideology. According to The Salt Lake Tribune’s Peggy Fletcher Stack, who in 2007 first reported on Romney’s time as a regional Mormon leader, Romney allowed divorced men to maintain their leadership positions, a decision then at odds with church policy. At times he clashed with Mormon scholars and political activists, but there is no record that he ever officially disciplined them. (Meanwhile in Utah, members publishing critical scholarship of the church were being excommunicated en masse.) According to Philip Barlow, who served in a church leadership position under Romney, Mitt spent most of his time on ladders fixing leaky roofs, schlepping boxes out of moving vans for a new ward family or weeding the garden at the ward’s “welfare” farm. “He was very active and ‘hands on’ that way,” recalls Barlow, now a professor at Utah State. “He didn’t sit around and think about how busy he was, but was apt almost to jump out of his chair and go address things when he learned of someone needing assistance.”

In 1986, after serving as bishop for five years, Romney was promoted to Boston Stake president, overseeing all the Mormon wards in the area. He served in this capacity for the next eight years, stepping down only to run for Senate in 1994. As stake president, Romney presided over several thousand members, including a growing numbers of Haitian and Latino converts. Romney’s French skills—a by-product of his two-and-a-half year LDS mission in France—came in handy with Boston’s large Haitian population, which he helped integrate into Mormon ward life, finding them housing, jobs and healthcare.

The same business acumen that made Romney a self-styled “turnaround artist” at Bain Capital, and later as head of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, also helped make him a savvy church growth promoter. According to Christensen, Romney paid specific attention to the wards in Boston’s more blue-collar, racially diverse neighborhoods, like Revere and Chelsea. In the late 1980s, only a dozen or so Mormons regularly met in these communities, gathering for worship in a member’s living room. After Romney set attendance goals, the Revere community eventually grew to some 200 regulars and President Romney rewarded them with their own Mormon meetinghouse, built in the city’s center. Romney was innately competitive, even as a minister. As Barlow says: “He wanted the cause he was serving to succeed, was not readily defeated by circumstance, not quick to retreat when things grew inconvenient or difficult.”

Despite his leadership successes, Romney left behind a mixed legacy of service to Mormon women. The LDS Church is institutionally patriarchal: women do not hold the Mormon priesthood, a pre-requisite for most of Mormonism’s most sacred rituals. In some ways though, Romney was progressive on women’s rights within the church. In 1993, he convened a meeting of more than 200 Boston-area women, many of whom were calling for greater authority for women in the church. Romney opened the meeting with a prayer. But he asked Helen Claire Sievers, a Belmont ward member, to lead the discussions. “There were about 60 suggestions and he implemented every single one that I would have implemented,” says Sievers, who now directs Harvard’s WorldTeach program.

Romney knew certain church policies could not change; women’s ordination was out of the question. But he had no problem altering practices and traditions to give women more public roles in church, like letting women bring the monthly message of greeting from the regional LDS “high council” to wards’ Sunday worship services. In the LDS Church, Sievers points out, “it’s clear that men run the show.” Under Romney’s tenure, however, she says, “the authority of men wasn’t as in your face.”

Yet by other public accounts, Romney failed women in his wards. In The Real Romney, journalists Michael Kranish and Scott Helman describe how, in 1983, Romney pressured a 23-year-old single mother, Peggie Hayes, to place her unborn son up for adoption. Hayes remembers Romney saying, “This is what the church wants you to do,” threatening excommunication if she did not obey. She refused and eventually left the LDS Church. In 1990, another ward member anonymously published an article in Exponent II, a Mormon feminist publication, alleging Romney pressured her to forgo an abortion. In the article, the mother of five writes how, in her 40s, she found herself hospitalized, due to life-threatening complications from a first trimester pregnancy. When Bishop Romney visited, he “regaled” her “with stories of his sister and her retarded child and what a blessing that child had been to the family.” She recalled that Bishop Romney suggested she keep her baby, contradicting the advice of her physician and other church leaders. She went on to have the abortion and subsequently left the church.

The abortion conundrum has carried over into Romney’s politicking. In the last ten years, Romney has made a very public transition away from a moderately pro-choice stance to positioning himself instead as an “adamantly pro-life” culture warrior. In a debate during his run for Senate in October 1994, Romney declared, “I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country.” It was, he said, a position he came to as a teenager when a family member died of complications from an illegal abortion. As a gubernatorial candidate in March 2002, he also supported abortion rights. “That’s the same position I’ve had for many years,” he was quoted as saying in a Boston-area newspaper. Yet in 2007, as he geared up to run for president, Romney said he had changed his mind on abortion, in part because he learned more about stem cell research. Even though his wife suffers from multiple sclerosis, as governor, Romney refused to give legal protection for Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute to research on a line of embryos.  He declared, “Lofty goals do not justify the creation of life for experimentation or destruction.”

Such shifts propel charges that Romney is inauthentic, perhaps even phony. Compounding this characterization of Romney’s insincerity is his much discussed failure to connect with voters on a personal level. But Romney’s “woodenness” does in fact reflect something particular to his Mormon faith. His efforts to present himself in public, to use Maureen Dowd’s characterization, as the perfect American with the “scary-perfect wife and scary-perfect kids,” represent a long-established tradition for Mormons. Instead of directly challenging commonplace (if often inaccurate) images of polygamists and naïve missionaries, Mormons deflect them with a counter-image of the Mormon version of iconic American-ness. This is especially true of the Mormon elite who have attempted to gain political and economic respectability among the American Brahmins.

Relatedly, Mormons are fundamentally a missionizing people. Most eligible LDS youth dedicate two years of their formative late teens and early twenties to mission work. The missions don’t end when these young people return home—Mormons are always expected to represent their church and their fellow saints. For Mormons like Romney, presenting themselves to be the best of America (Ivy League pedigree, preppy dress, perfect coif) is both a defense mechanism and a recruiting tool.

Yet for the Romneys, the Belmont Mormon community has been a space where they can let their guard down. In 2008, Barlow recalled that during a church meeting 30 years ago, then-Bishop Romney, “the elegant management consultant,” performed a “creditable Moonwalk,” as he “oozed a rendition of ‘Billie Jean’ while gliding, with apparent ease, backwards.” Last year at a worship service among family and friends in Belmont, Romney gave his “testimony” of faith in Jesus Christ as his personal savior.

For the past two Sundays, Mitt and Ann have attended worship services in Belmont, this time with security detail in tow. On April 22, while Tagg led Sunday school again, Mitt contributed to the lesson’s discussion, as well as joined his fellow Mormon men in the priesthood meeting during the final third of the three-hour long service. “I got the feeling that [Mitt] was relieved to be speaking about something other than politics and in a friendly atmosphere,” one Belmont saint told me. “Both Ann and Mitt were all smiles.”

On my visits to the Belmont ward, Tagg, the only Romney son who still lives in Belmont, has been equally at ease within the community. So at ease that during his Sunday school lesson last summer, he frequently teared up while explaining what Christ’s sacrifice on the cross meant for him. And like his father before him, Tagg, also a successful private equity manager, is not above pitching in to maintain the meetinghouse. Last November, he was part of a Saturday evening cleaning crew during which, according to one report, Tagg was found cleaning the bathrooms.

Christensen too has memories of “Brother Mitt” that challenge the popular charge that candidate Romney is inauthentic. Christensen likes to tell the story of how one evening, when he and his wife found themselves exhausted from the demands of church, work and a young family, Romney, then the Boston Stake president, showed up at their door. “He said, ‘I was driving home and just knew that I needed to come by to tell you that God loves you very much.’” Recalling this intimate moment with his “brother in Christ,” Christensen becomes emotional. He laments the fact that this side of Romney, the compassionate and intuitive religious leader, “doesn’t come across on the campaign trail.”

A (Mormon) Pastor in the White House?

This presidential election cycle, Romney’s carefully curated self-image is of the fiscally conservative businessman, an economic fixer. Yet it’s also important to recognize that Romney, perhaps more than any other serious candidate for the White House, is a seasoned religious leader. As Romney runs in the general election, a consensus is growing among political pundits, GOP insiders and religious conservatives that Romney’s success depends upon his willingness to embrace his Mormon faith. In The New Republic, Randall Balmer encouraged Romney to “open up” about his faith. At Politico, Lois Romano interviewed numerous Republican operatives for a piece titled, “GOP to Romney: Own Your Mormonism.”

In recent weeks, Romney has cautiously begun to open up about his faith. At a town hall event in Wisconsin, after avoiding a contentious theological question on race from an audience member, Romney said, “We’re just not going to have a discussion about religion.” Later, he backtracked, saying: “This gentleman wanted to talk about the doctrines of my religion. I’ll talk about the practices of my faith.” He then described his time as a pastor, when he had “the occasion to work with people on a very personal basis.”

That personal narrative is what voters crave. In his fight to win over skeptics, and those suspicious of his Mormonism, Romney would do well to translate his religious experience in this way. That night in Green Bay, Romney had a clear message. “People have burdens in this country,” he said. “You understand that every kind of person you see is facing some challenges,” challenges that Romney has witnessed most intimately, not as a businessman or a politician, but as a Mormon pastor. The challenge for Romney is to make this experience as the president of the Boston Mormons an asset as he runs to become the president of the United States.

© 2011 Religion & Politics