September 27, 2012


Mitt's Stake : For almost ten years, Romney led the Mormon church in Boston, shouldering the needs of his community. Is this the same man now running for president as a champion of individualism? (Benjamin Wallace-Wells,  Sep 23, 2012, New York)

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."

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.

Posted by at September 27, 2012 5:20 AM

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