Being that he’s arguably the country’s best known Mormon and much has been made of the political impact of his religion, there has been comparatively little reporting on how Mitt Romney has actually lived his faith. To some extent this is because it’s easier for reporters to reduce Romney’s faith to just another variable in the political calculus. But it’s also true that reporting on someone’s religious life is a deeply personal matter, and it requires great effort and understanding to do it right.
With that in mind, I was particularly impressed with this sprawling and fascinating CNN profile of Mitt Romney’s religious life. It’s comprehensive (5,000 words!) and confronts a daunting task head on, tracking down scads of old friends and coreligionists to paint a picture of Mitt Romney’s devotion to his religion from childhood on. This is all the more impressive when you consider the reporter got zero cooperation from the subject:
Repeated attempts to speak with the candidate, his wife, his children, his siblings – and, really, just anyone – about Romney’s faith journey were denied by campaign headquarters. Even the reins it has on those outside the inner circle appear tight. A local LDS Church leader in Michigan, contacted in hopes of finding childhood friends, forwarded CNN’s inquiry to campaign headquarters – prompting yet another slap down.
“What makes no sense to me is how you continue to push forward in writing about Gov. Romney’s faith journey when we’ve made it clear in every way possible that this is not a story we want to participate in,” campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul wrote in an email.
Undeterred, reporter Jessica Ravitz obviously went to extraordinary lengths to track down people from Romney’s past. She’s able to really flesh out some periods of the former Massachusetts governor’s life that were really illuminating. Here’s how the piece begins:
A cop arrived at the roadside wreckage of a June 1968 head-on collision in southern France, took one quick look at the Citroën’s unresponsive driver and, according to one of the driver’s friends, scrawled into the young man’s American passport, “Il est mort” – “He is dead.”
The man at the Citroën’s wheel was Mitt Romney, who may have appeared dead but was very much alive – as is his bid today for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
Romney’s car was hit head on by another car driven by Catholic priest that had drifted into his lane, killing one of Romney’s passengers. That’s a heck of a compelling intro to describing adversities Romney had to overcome in his two-and-a-half years as a Mormon missionary in France. Ravitz brings all kinds of vivid and unusual details to the table — Romney and his fellow missionaries used to regularly see Bridgette Bardot walking her poodles near their mission home — but her focus on how Romney’s faith has been shaped by his missionary experience is really interesting. Ravitz notes that even as a young missionary, Romney preferred unusual tactics to engage people, as opposed to the standard Mormon missionary tactic of knocking on doors. Not surprisingly, she reports that Romney was a successful missionary and one can see where the experience would impact his approach to his later life as a businessman:
Romney lifted up deflated missionaries with silly made-up songs. He taught them to visualize all they could accomplish and challenged them to raise their expectations, McBride said.
Romney increased the conversion goal for the year by 40%, believing they could and would recharge. In the end they surpassed Romney’s goal of baptizing 200 new members into the church.
A number of the stories she recounts are also illuminating about how Mormon teachings are applied in church operations. Ravitz tracks down an old Romney friend who describes how Romney roped him into taking over the leadership of a branch of Mormon Cambodian boat people:
“Andy, you know where this comes from,” Romney answered, referring to the Mormon belief that God can reveal truths to individuals. “It’s not me. You go talk to Him and tell me when you’re ready.”
For the next three years Anderson said he oversaw the poorest people in the Boston stake. The overwhelming task “nearly killed me,” he said. But along the way he not only fell in love with the community, he learned to believe in himself and see that he could be a leader.
“I count Mitt as a friend, and it has been a real pleasure to work under him,” he said. “If he was a real pain to work for, I’d know it. I’ve worked for people in the church I couldn’t stand.”
The piece isn’t exactly perfect, however. There’s a sizable section devoted to “Women’s view of Romney,” that lingers on the supposed problems of the patriarchal leadership of the Mormon church, though the Mormon church is hardly unique in this respect. Though female defenders of Romney are quoted, much of that section is devoted to a woman named Judy Dushku making a number of charges that Romney was unfair to women while he was a church leader in Boston. (Interesting bit of trivia that goes unmentioned — unless there’s another Judy Dushku who’s Mormon and from Boston, I believe she’s the mother of Buffy the Vampire Slayer actress Eliza Dushku.) I have no problem with being critical of Mitt here if it’s warranted. However, given the nature of the specific allegations Dushku makes — Romney, in Dushku’s view, wrongly encouraged a woman to go forward with a pregnancy that risked her health, and unfairly asked a woman to forgive a philandering husband — they are kind of incendiary charges to throw out there without more perspectives on what happened.
There is also this quibble:
In the 1980s and early 1990s, he served as a ward bishop – or part-time pastor – and stake president for the Boston area.
While Mormon bishops don’t give up their day jobs, describing what they do as “part-time” dramatically undersells the effort involved. For most bishops, heading up a congregation is basically like having two full-time jobs.
I would also note the section upfront where Ravitz goes through what Mormons believe is basically accurate. However, while she notes a poll showing that only 51 percent of Americans consider Mormonism a Christian religion, she doesn’t in any way flesh out why. Not that this is a subject that needs to be dwelt on, but given how comprehensive the article is — it’s odd that this is ignored, especially since she mentions doctrinal criticisms have been raised in the political arena by Mike Huckabee and Gov. Rick Perry supporter Pastor Robert Jeffress.
Still, there is a lot more to chew on here. I could offer a lot more praise and a few more quibbles, but I suppose I need not say any more than the article is a must read. Ravitz has really done readers a tremendous service here. Even those like myself that thought they knew a lot about Romney are likely to learn scores of new details and stories.