Mitt Romney’s faithful life

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.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The media for the most part promotes (by its incessant raising the issue) in its alleged news coverage the anti-Romney narrative that he is a flip-flopper.
    I well remember him running for Gov. here in Ma., probably the most doctrinaire liberal state in America.
    It was obvious to anyone here that he could not win election as governor as a doctrinaire conservative Republican.
    But at almost every chance he got he took the more conservative stance vs. the liberal Democratic candidate for governor.
    One big example–in a final gubernatorial debate the question came up of parental notification in cases of abortion. The liberal Dem was in favor of no parental rights regarding anything to do with a juvenile receiving an abortion. Romney stuck up for parental rights.
    This won the votes of many Catholics and other pro-life Christians and he won the election and has been moving more conservative ever since.
    On the other hand Ted Kennedy started out as a pro-life candidate–so didn’t Jesse Jackson–so didn’t Bill Clinton from conservative Arkansas.
    And as Clinton and Kennedy and Jackson moved onto the national Democratic scene they became more and more liberal.
    But does anyone remember the media ever carrying on about them being flip-floppers for becoming more liberal to fit in with the national Democratic party? All I remember is stories and comments on how they had “grown”-how they had “matured” –how they had become “enlightened.”

  • Jerry N

    I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who spotted the possible Buffy connection!

  • Jerry

    This piece was good and I’m thus looking forward to the promised others in the series.

  • Jettboy

    Here is another view of this article that puts it in context of at least one other similar story. The main related section reads:

    “Last week, we saw CNN do a “religion profile” of Mitt Romney. This weekend just past brought us a similar story from the same source about Rick Perry. I do not know the particulars of Perry’s life well enough to comment on its accuracy vis a vis Perry, but the story does represent a pretty accurate picture of life inside Protestantism.

    Contrasting the two stories is fascinating. The Romney story focuses as much or more on the perceived “oddities” of Mormonism than it does on Romney himself. The Perry story focuses almost exclusively on Perry’s “faith journey” – he went to this church and that church, and spent time in the desert praying, and did this event and that event. It discusses at length the move from mainline Methodism to Evangelicalism, but contrasts them in terms of worship styles, not belief. It is also interesting to examine the fact that as reported, neither campaign offered comment for the stories, but the Romney camp is painted as hostile about it, while there is no comment about the Perry camp other than its lack of participation. More interesting is the amazing amount of detail in the Perry story, despite the campaign’s lack of participation. There were lots of comments from friends of Perry, but the Romney story was full of comments from “LDS researchers.” (Funny, I’ve talked to all sorts of Romney friends inside the LDS community -they are not that hard to find.)

    In sum, the Perry article is very personal, and the Romney article is somehow impersonal. That is a deep comment both on press bias and on how Evangelicalism is different than most other Christian faith. This latter comment is a series of blog posts unto itself, so we’ll focus on the first. Taken together these stories represent another MSM attempt to paint Romney as “weird.”

    Of course some think Evangelicals are weird too. (Scholars, or course never, “tend to come under the sway of those with the biggest microphones,” or ask if the presenter is of their ‘tribe.’ Give me a break with this stuff!)”

  • Karen

    If you’re looking to capture the essence of Romney’s faith, read what he’s written about his life, his time at Bain, the Olympics, his family, his worldview, and see how his faith is reflected there. Talk with the Frenches, Evangelicals who know him very well and who have seen them from the inside out. Call or email me and you can come out and stay with or by members, if you like, and visit SLC, the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ. This is not a spurious offer but a genuine one for any reporter who really wants to understand a people first-hand. To understand his faith, you need to hear about it and feel it from those who live it. Pastiches from outsiders claiming to share what we believe and don’t, will not suffice. Thanks for being desirous of learning more about the faith of the man who is a committed politician and Christian in the purest sense of the word.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    I also thought the CNN story was extremely well done and fair, in the top 99th Percentile of what I have seen in the media the past few years.

    Ironically, the criticism by Professor Dushku of Romney advising a Mormon woman against an abortion demonstrates that Romney was not in favor of abortion years before he started running for political office. It would frankly be inappropriate for Romney himself to talk about a confidential conversation he had with any Church member, so he is not in a position to address that incident and give his version of the facts, which Dushku got only second hand.

    It is the height of hypocrisy for Romney’s critics to accuse him of having “no core convictions” and then in the same breath indict him for his lifelong adherance to his Mormon faith, despite the malicious criticism it constantly receives and the polls that show it is the main obstacle to getting more people to vote for him.

  • fred barrett

    Those who have responded to this article have hit the bulls eye dead center. Mitt Romney is most likely the most patriotic and conservative of all the candidates in the GOP line up. It concerns me when the news media attempts to paint the man as something he is not for the benefit of painting his religious faith and his church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as something it is not. All of the news media people should take advantage of visiting Salt Lake City’s Temple Square and really discover what The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is really all about. The greater percentage of the propaganda out there is nothing more than that, propaganda leading people to believe untruths and it’s sad when one sees so many formally educated at the higher level revealing to those readers who actually know the truth their ignorance on the subject of those whom they call Mormons.

  • GhaleonQ

    I haven’t seen this get a lot of play, however; it makes me wonder whether American news coverage needs a “personal testament” or lowbrow controversy to get sold.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The CNN people say that Mormons attend services in “chapels also called wards”. This is wrong. The Chapels are distinct from the wards. The wards are a group of members who meet in a chapel, but most chapels have multiple wards, and wards can switch chapels without any effect on their being a ward. The ward and the chapel are distinct and different.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Mormon doctrine clearly teaches we are required to forgive all men.

    I have a serious doubt of the accuracy of Dushku’s claims. It would be nice to see the other side of the story. The story of the abortion incident is extremely suspect to me because if there were negative consequences we would here of such, so clearly the women in question made it through safely.

    Also the issue with removing unauthorized literature and not allowing non-Church groups to meet on church property is not as Dushku makes it sound dislike for her radical group by the Church. It is that the Church does not allow outside groups to meet on its property, and church meeting houses are not meant to be display cases for various forms of literature.

    Beyond this Dusku’s claims that all higher leaders of the Church are men is disingenous at best. The General Relief Society Presidency is women who have responsibility over the whole worldwide Church, so her claim is just not balanced.