Crazy, huh! The New York Times seems to be intent on telling us all about this fascinating new bit of biographical information. All right, all right — I’ll dispense with the sarcasm. I’m just trying to get the airing of the New York Times grievances out of the way, and I confess it’s hard to get past the weird degree of arrogance involved in seeing the New York Times weigh in on a topic that’s already been well-covered by other outlets for the sole reason that the Paper of Record believes it is, in fact, still the paper of record.
Anyway, Times reporter Jodi Kantor weighed in a few days ago with a big picture look at the influence of the Mormon faith on Romney. It’s not bad, and parts of it are genuinely perceptive. However, there were a number of factual errors that the Salt Lake Tribune’s ace religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack was quick to point out:
For instance, perhaps someone should have told The New York Times’ Jodi Kantor that “deseret” is a noun in LDS-speak meaning “honeybee,” not an adjective suggesting “industriousness.” Mormons such as Mitt Romney generally don’t “belt out” or even sing the Protestant hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” White temple clothes don’t necessarily indicate an “elevated state.” And Nephites and Lamanites are not in the Bible.
Facts aside, I confess I was a bit chuffed by how the article was framed right off the bat:
Now, as the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Mr. Romney speaks so sparingly about his faith — he and his aides frequently stipulate that he does not impose his beliefs on others — that its influence on him can be difficult to detect.
Romney’s Mormonism is difficult to detect? Really? It’s my impression that Romney’s inescapable public perception, for better and for worse, is that he’s the Ur-Mormon. As for speaking about his faith, he gave a major address about it when he ran in the last election and he’s spoken openly about his faith throughout a fairly extensive career. As for the fact he’s not eager to address it at this moment, could it be related to how every week publications with occasionally suspect political agendas write, say, long pieces dissecting distant, totally irrelevant episodes from the church’s history as if that’s relevant to Romney’s secular vocation? It’s understandable that he wouldn’t want to provide these people any more rope. By contrast, the coverage of the president’s religion has been such that I doubt one in 20 voters could name the specific Christian denomination of the church he attended in Chicago, and also recall that the New York Times, the same outlet now falling back on questionable pretenses to pretend it’s difficult to detect Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, went six whole months during the last election cycle before quoting Obama’s long-time pastor as saying something incendiary that might not sit well with the voting public. (Ok, so maybe I still had a few grievances to air.)
Moving on, I don’t think this bit was necessarily intentional but it does expose the difference between understanding church life and viewing everything through a political prism:
Mr. Romney’s penchant for rules mirrors that of his church, where he once excommunicated adulterers and sometimes discouraged mothers from working outside the home.
The characterization that Romney “discouraged mothers from working outside the home” as function of his “penchant for rules” is loaded. The Mormon church, while it has fairly conventional ideas about marriage roles, has no prescription on women working outside the home. I’m pretty sure that if you asked Romney about this, he would say that as a Mormon bishop he gave women counsel about how to best uphold Mormon family values by weighing their individual circumstances and financial pressures. That’s very different from telling women to follow the rules.
Ok, now the good. Kantor does a very good job grasping the how Mormons port their values over into the secular realm:
When Mr. Romney’s former Sunday school students listen to him campaign, they sometimes hear echoes of messages he delivered to them years before: beliefs that stem at least in part from his faith, in a way that casual observers may miss. He is not proselytizing but translating, they say — taking powerful ideas and lessons from the church and applying them in another realm.
Just as Ronald Reagan deployed acting skills on the trail and Barack Obama relied on the language of community organizing, Mitt Romney bears the marks of the theology and culture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Mr. Romney declined to be interviewed.)
Mormons have a long tradition of achieving success by sharing secular versions of their tenets, said Matthew Bowman, author of “The Mormon People,” citing Stephen R. Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” which he called Latter-day Saint theology repackaged as career advice.
Kantor also highlights a Mormon belief that isn’t picked up on much, and for once, it is relevant to his worldview as a secular politician:
Or take Mr. Romney’s frequent tributes to American exceptionalism. “I refuse to believe that America is just another place on the map with a flag,” he said in announcing his bid for the presidency last June. Every presidential candidate highlights patriotism, but Mr. Romney’s is backed by the Mormon belief that the United States was chosen by God to play a special role in history, its Constitution divinely inspired.
There’s also this perceptive bit about how Romney’s image problem is that he doesn’t have an image problem. Mormon culture is so much about striving to be wholesome, that it appears fake:
Similarly, he said, Mr. Romney’s squeaky-clean persona — only recently did he stop using words like “golly” in public — can make him seem “too plastic, the Ken side of a Ken and Barbie doll,” Mr. Barlow said.
He and others say that wholesomeness is deeply authentic to Mr. Romney, whose spiritual life revolves around personal rectitude. In Mormonism, salvation depends in part on constantly making oneself purer and therefore more godlike.
But again, there’s a great deal of ink expended explaining that one of Romney’s defining characteristics is his fondness for following the rules, and how this is a direct extension of his faith. Maybe there’s an argument to be made that Mormons are sticklers for strictures moreso than most. But I don’t think Kantor always makes the case very well:
He often urged adherence even to rules that could seem overly harsh. One fellow worshiper, Justin Brown, recalled in an interview that when he was a young man leaving for his mission abroad, Mr. Romney warned him that some parameters would make no sense, but to follow them anyway and trust that they had unseen value.
Telling a 19-year-old kid about to depart on a Mormon mission in a foreign country to follow the rules is pretty basic advice to dole out to teenagers who think they know more than they do. It’s true that Mormon missionaries have limited contact with their families and are supposed to abstain from popular entertainment and other distractions from their religious focus. But if the rules for Mormon missionaries “could seem overly harsh,” I wonder what Kantor thinks of what they do to teenagers in the Marine Corps.
Still, I give Kantor an A for effort. There’s a wealth of reported details and quotes from many sources. The section on the end about how Romney handles anti-Mormon prejudice is not just good, it’s surprisingly empathetic. If you want to read a piece on Romney’s religious life that has even more detail, I recommend this sprawling CNN piece I kicked the tires on back in November.