Mitt Romney’s surprising next church

Last week we looked at the story about Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid saying Mitt Romney was a bad Mormon. A reporter asked me if Mormons think Harry Reid is a bad Mormon. I’m not Mormon but I asked a few friends who are and even the ones who really loathe his politics were dismissive of the question. One told me that she’d worshiped in Reid’s ward and that nobody seemed to make a big deal about it.

And so I found this Washington Post story about where Romney will worship if he’s elected President to be fun. It turned out that the Obama family never picked a congregation to join in Washington, D.C. But back when Barack Obama was running for office, there were quite a few stories discussing which church he might join should he be elected president.

In Mormon practice, you pretty much just go to the ward you’re assigned to based on your address. And if you live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, well:

If Mitt Romney wins the presidency, one decision about life in Washington would be made for him: His church. Mormonism mandates that followers attend their assigned local congregation, called a “ward,” and folks at the Third Ward on 16th Street NW are already revved up with excitement.

Well, kind of.

They’re mostly Democrats, including the sort of Obama supporters Romney was secretly videotaped disparaging in his now-notorious remark about “the 47 percent” of Americans who don’t pay federal taxes.

But the Third Ward congregants don’t seem inclined to hold a grudge.

“I hope he doesn’t end up making that move [to the White House], but if he does, I’d welcome him with open arms,” said Corban Tillemann-Dick, 26, who works phone banks for President Obama’s reelection.

A real live Tillemann-Dick in the wild? I love it! That family is rather well-known where I’m from in Colorado. The patriarch was an inventor and the matriarch is the daughter of Rep. Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor. Their 11 kids had awesome Colorado names such as Charity Sunshine, Liberty Belle and Kimber Rainbow. They’re vegetarians and friends with Dennis Kucinich and what not.

Anyway, the story includes some nice Mormon-specific angles, such as that Tillemann-Dick hopes to become Romney’s home teacher should he be elected. The reporter says this ward is atypical:

A president in the pews would be dramatic, but the D.C. Third Ward, as it’s called, is used to drama. More ethnically and economically diverse than the typical Mormon ward, its roughly 200 congregants are drawn largely from Northeast Washington and have included deported immigrants, a teen shot dead in gang violence, refugees from African wars and youth who depend on the church for meals, tutoring for class and support to pay for Boy Scout camp.

“The standard ward is all middle class, and there is no one you can help. If you want to serve someone or help someone out, there are always people here you can help,” said Kevin Linzau, 51, a telephone systems programmer who lives in the Brookland neighborhood where he grew up.

I realize this is a quote from Linzau, but it’s obviously untrue. And not just because there’s not a place on earth that doesn’t include folks who need help. As if Washington, D.C., is the only place with financial hardship. Heck, I know it hasn’t been reported terribly well by the NYC-DC-focused media, but there have been some rather serious economic difficulties facing any number of families across the country in recent years. And the poor, didn’t someone say something about how they’ll always be with us. I mean, my father-in-law is LDS and he works on helping the many poor and out-of-work people in his ward with finding jobs.

And in general, I did wonder if the “ZOMG! Mormon Democrats!” angle was a tad overplayed. The headline of the piece was “D.C. Third Ward Mormons would welcome Romney, even though most are Democrats” and there were lines such as this:

Although the vast majority of Mormons lean Republican, most Washingtonians lean Democrat, and the D.C. Third Ward is no exception. Congregants describe rolling their eyes when Mormon tourists who drop in for services rave about the possibility of the GOP retaking of the White House. People share jokes about the first Mormon president — a converted Barack Obama.

“People [in D.C.] for the Glenn Beck rally came in here, all excited, and we were like, ‘Oh, we still love you,’?” said Robin Lunt, an attorney who lives in Columbia Heights. “I think the Romneys would be happy in our ward and definitely welcomed, but it would be very different.”

I have absolutely no idea what party the vast majority of members of my Lutheran congregation belong to. And we certainly wouldn’t ask people for it. So my question is how we know that “most” of the people in this congregation belong to the Democratic Party. Were they surveyed? How do they know? Is this something they talk about or generally know? And no matter how it’s known, shouldn’t that be included in the story?

Anyway, the story does say that “This would hardly be the first time Romney worshiped among a diverse group of Mormons,” citing his time as bishop and stake president in Boston. I’m not entirely sure that there is a lack of diversity outside of Boston or D.C., to be honest, but I guess that’s a somewhat subjective characterization in any case.

But back to some good LDS-specific stuff:

What if for security reasons Romney didn’t join the church? What if he was excused due to being too busy? Since every Mormon is assigned a “calling” or volunteer job in their church, if he did join, what would his be?

The Romney hypothetical really tests Mormons, who are hugely proud of the fact that they have no paid clergy and a system built around equalizing the powerful with the peon. Mormonism calls for most everyone to be a home teacher and to have one, and it’s a source of great pride that politicians and chief executives teach Sunday school, tutor or serve in the nursery on Sundays. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is a home teacher and a leader of the men’s group at his Chevy Chase ward, said a regional church spokeswoman.

We get some intel from Debbie Marriott Harrison, spokeswoman for the stake, and learn that Romney would be interviewed for his temple recommend “a regularly updated credential … in order to go to Mormon temples for marriages and baptisms for the dead” from “Robert Nelson, a jolly, 56-year-old IT manager who is the ward’s bishop.”

What a great idea for a story. Perfect for the Post and with some nice color about the ward.

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  • Darren Blair

    As someone who’s Mormon?
    1. The whole bit about Mormon congregations not being diverse is overblown by the media. Save for special-purpose congregations meant to cater to specific groups (such as those who don’t speak a region’s dominant language), the level of diversity within individual congregations varies widely. While some might be almost solidly one race, others are quite diverse. In fact, in the congregation I attend (a special-purpose meant to get single 20-somethings together for fellowship) five of the members are mixed-race.

    2. The bit about the church saying which congregation you attend serves a purpose: it keeps congregations from fighting with each other for members *and* makes members have to learn to live with their neighbors, no matter who or what those neighbors are.

    3. One of the “dirty little secrets” of the federal government is that we Mormons are just about everywhere. It shouldn’t be too hard for Romney to rustle up a few Mormon Secret Service agents, Marines, or FBI agents to serve on his security detail; it’d just be a matter of the people in question being released from any positions they have in their present congregations so that they can freely serve. They’d still be counted as members of their official congregations, but it would be understood why they attend elsewhere.

    4. It’s gone back and forth as to just which party the individual members of the church favor, and at one point Salt Lake City was actually something of a hotbed for both parties; there’s even an old anecdote about Mormon leader J. Golden Kimball (a died-in-the-wool Democrat) getting an address wrong and so inadvertently blundering into a party meeting held by Sen. Reed Smoot (R-UT). When Smoot ribbed Kimball for the goof, Kimball responded with a classic one-liner and ended the matter peacefully (“How about saying the opening prayer?” “No thanks; I’d rather God not know I was here.”). My guess is that people automatically presume Mormons to be Republicans because Utah has been almost solidly red since the 1960s, not realizing that more and more non-Mormons are flooding into the state (it typically ranks highly on attractiveness for new businesses) and that there are large numbers of Mormons elsewhere in the nation.

  • Jettboy

    “I’m not Mormon but I asked a few friends who are and even the ones who really loathe his politics were dismissive of the question.”

    That doesn’t mean that there aren’t opinions. Most of the Mormons I know think that it is Harry Reid who “sullies” Mormonism. They are continually surprised he remains a member, and are shocked he is considered active. Its just that they don’t think its non-Mormon’s business.

  • Joe

    I gotta ask: What’s with the book cover? The article doesn’t seem to have much to do with it. Or is it a random image that comes up based on the topics or tags of the article?

  • “It shouldn’t be too hard for Romney to rustle up a few Mormon Secret Service agents, Marines, or FBI agents to serve on his security detail; it’d just be a matter of the people in question being released from any positions they have in their present congregations so that they can freely serve. ”
    It’d be interesting to see if that set off discrimination claims among gentile Secret Service agents.
    Darren, thanks for filling in some blanks. Don’t answer if you’d rather not, but where in the country are you? I’m in a part of central Washington that is about a quarter LDS, and almost all the members I know are staunch Republicans. (Then again, so are most of the non-members hereabouts.) We have ten wards (n a town of 20,000) and almost all of them are very ethnically and culturally homogenous. I wonder if back east the makeup would be more diverse because Mormons are more thin on the ground there.

    • Darren Blair

      I live in Copperas Cove, Texas; it’s just on the western edge of Ft. Hood.

      Around here, the church population his hit-and-miss.

      The Killeen, Texas stake (a stake being comparable to a diocese) only boasts about 10 congregations. These congregations serve Killeen, Ft. Hood, Copperas Cove, Gatesville, Harker Heights, Kempner, Lampassas, San Saba, Briggs, Central Texas College, Oakalla, and the Hughes prison near Gatesville. At one point the stake included Waco, Temple, and about a dozen smaller cities in their wake; Waco was made its own stake in response to the increasing logistical difficulties in getting everyone together due to membership growth over the preceding decade, and it took Temple and the other cities with it.

      The local attitude towards us Mormons varies quite widely.

      On one hand, some people just don’t care; they’ll see the missionaries but otherwise might not even realize we’re in the area. As such, these people usually greet us with surprise and disbelief when they find out we’re Mormon, especially since we generally don’t fit any of the preconceived stereotypes (there are folks who think we have horns. I kid you not). As you can imagine, there’s a fair amount of ignorance about us locally; the sheer number of anti-Mormon books that I find in yard sales and at local book sellers (the “comparative religion” section of the local Family Christian is almost exclusively “why everyone who isn’t Evangelical is going to burn”, and whoever purchases books for the local Barnes & Noble seems obsessed with polygamy) is testament to this.

      On the other hand, you have people who *do* know that we’re in the area and who want us gone with all speed. It was an uphill battle just to even get the building permit for the chapel here in Cove; the mayor was Mormon but the city council were solidly anti-Mormon. From there, the building has been vandalized, entered, and even desecrated so often that the caretaker has the cops on speed-dial.

      I’m both the finance clerk for my congregation *and* one of the stake public affairs people, so I have to confront both situations above and beyond what I’d normally do in my daily life. [1]

      The main thing that we have going for us down here is that, while only a small part of the local population, our individual members are often in fairly prominent positions, such that they could either exercise hard power (such as the guy who’s in charge of a local economic development board) or soft power (such as the numerous teachers we have) in order to help dissuade the more virulently anti-Mormon from pursuing anything rash. I myself work as a courier for one of the local newspapers, and have gone to length to try and get the staff more aware of Mormon issues; sadly, the editor of the paper doesn’t always listen (I actually raised the prospect of a regular article series from a Mormon POV; you’d think he would have leapt on it given Romney and all…) and the assistant editor has a history of mangling articles in order to put her own name in the by-line.


      [1] I’ve been doing apologetics over the internet since ca. 2000. I’ve made more than a few enemies, including two people who threatened me with physical violence.

  • Sorry, by “central Washington” I meant the state, not D.C.

  • northcoast

    Joel, your sentence in parentheses was an obvious clue.

  • Jay

    I gagged on the part about “deported immigrants, a teen shot dead in gang violence.”

    Did the teen attend the church after he was shot dead? Did the immigrants attend after they were deported? (Perhaps they attended via teleconference?)

    This is right up with the (even more common) journalist mistake of saying “former President Bill Clinton signed welfare reform on August 22, 1996.” (No, actually, former presidents aren’t allowed to sign legislation — the correct term is “then-President”.)

  • pagansister

    In all honesty, I could care less where Romney might attend IF he is elected. (and I hope he isn’t). It makes no difference to me whether a president attends church/temple/mosque or any other place of worship or stays out of any or all places. I do find it interesting that the LDS tells it’s members where to attend by address.

    • Darren Blair

      Where I live in Texas, Protestant congregations spring up like mushrooms after a rain storm.
      If a person doesn’t like the minister, their fellows, or anything else about the church they’re in, all they have to do is go down the road a ways. In fact, at one point my town *literally* had two Baptist churches sitting on adjacent plots of land; it wasn’t until the city went “imminent domain” and claimed the land for a highway bypass that one of the two relocated.

      In contrast, it’s understood that if you’re a Mormon, you have to deal with your co-religionists. Period. And yes, some times I have to keep telling myself that, like when the elder’s quorum president (a young military officer with a “holier-than-thou” attitude) screws something up *yet again* or I have to play “membership clerk” because the actual membership clerk is behind on his paperwork again.

      • JoFro

        A lot like the average Catholic Church then eh? Both Mormons and Catholics have to deal with their co-religionists, heck even in the same temple or church, even if they disagree with their politics. Can’t just leave and form your own denomination

        • Ted Seeber

          This is truly something both have in common. By the economic ideas of GK Chesterton and Dorothy Day, it is good for society for the rich to have to deal with the poor on a weekly basis. I wonder how Romney will react to the 47% who go to the Third Ward but aren’t politicians.

          Something tells me, just from city layout, that it might be a *bit* more diverse than his ward in Boston, and it’s certainly going to be more diverse than any Mormon or Catholic Congregation West of the Rockies (my very liberal parish in Portland had an African American pastor for a time- but he was pro-life and the arguments between the more orthodox and more hetrodox members of the parish caused him after two years to ask the Archbishop to move to an assistant pastor position in a neighboring parish).

        • pagansister

          True, a Catholic can’t leave their parish and start a “new church”, but I don’t think they are required to attend the church in their parish—as a couple of friends chose to attend a church outside their parish, because they preferred the Latin Mass to the Mass in English.

          • Ted Seeber

            This is the general rule, but it isn’t enforced anymore. Most Catholics just go to the *closest* parish, or in urban areas, do a bit of parish shopping.

            I drive past two Catholic parishes to go the a third most Sundays.

  • It would have been interesting if she’d asked the bishop about whether Romney’s actions in office would affect his temple recommend. My guess is they probably wouldn’t, but given all the hooraw that we’ve seen about Catholic bishops and pro-abortion politicians, I’m surprised the question didn’t come up.

  • Jettboy

    Joel, if that question did come up I am sure the bishop would have laughed and left it at that. Who is worthy to attend the Temple and who isn’t, although a Mormon could make an educated guesses if they were really a busy-body, is along the lines of priestly confidentiality. In fact, that Bishop would probably get in some serious trouble for even answering that question.

  • Ted Seeber

    WOW! Thanks for just giving me a reason to vote for Romney (where previously, I had no reason). To a distributist like me who believes in the power of Church Fellowship, a Republican President in a Mormon Ward full of Democrats is almost too delicious to pass up.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    The ward where the Romneys have lived most of the last 40 years is full of college professors, AKA liberals, who are Mormon. A nationally known publication of Mormon femnists was started by women in their ward. While Romney was head of the Boston Stake, he had responsibility for congregations with Cambodian refugees and Haitian immigrants, and people of a variety of income elevels, including your typical starving married grad students with kids.

    I lived in the DC suburbs for three years, and you can find someone of every ethnic background in the area, including Asians (like me), Native Americans (like Larry Echo Hawk, who just resigned from serving as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs), Hispanics, and of course African Americans. In a community with lots of ethnic diversity like Hawaii, the Mormon congregations there reflect it too. You can go online to check out Brigham young University Hawaii and look at the shots of the students, who are from 70 nations. Next Saturday and Sunday is the Fall General Conference of the Church in Salt Lake City, which you can watch on streaming video at There will be stake presidents from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and Polynesia in the audience, along with local folks. Those local folks include Japanese and Chinese and Mexican Mormons, black Mormons, and a lot more. And remember this: those “white” Mormon men have spent two years of their lives living among people in every kind of neighborhood in Washington DC and other parts of the US, as well as countries like Mongolia, Chile, Tonga and Nigeria. You can walk into the Conference Center, which holds 22,000 people, and make an announcement asking for someone to come up and translate into any of 90 languages, and you would get one or ten people in the audience who cold come up and do it. In fact, the proceeedings are translated into all those languages and broadcast by satellite around the world. The Mormons are not just racially diverse, they are ethnically and culturally diverse.

    As to political parties, when I was growing up in the 1960s in Utah, Mormons were almost evenly split between the Dems and GOP. The parties would trade off holding seats in Congress and the governor’s office. What changed that was the 1972 takeover of the Democartaic Party by the left wing of the party, the people who were rioting in Chicago in 1968 and raised McGovern as their presidential candidate in 1972. The Dems became so down on sexual morality and a strong military defense of America that it repelled religious people all through the South and West and turned them into Republicans. LBJ was the last Democrat to win the presidential vote of Utah.

  • FW Ken

    The requirement that Catholics attend their geographic parish was removed some years back. Even then, dispensations were available for various reasons, and specialty parishes existed, usually for language and national groups.

  • Mike Johnson

    I appreciate the discussion on this site. I wanted to clarify something about Mormons being assigned by geography to a specific congregation. This isn’t about where one is allowed to attend church services. I have attended church services in a variety of wards (Mormon version of a “medium church”) and branches (“small church”), although I do so mostly in the ward I am a member of. It isn’t about forcing attendance to one congregation, but rather about where one serves his or her fellow church members and others. Most active Mormons have callings in their local congregation–they teach classes for youth or adults, they serve in what other church might call ministries (men’s, women’s, young women’s, young men’s, children’s, Sunday School, etc.). They might serve as the organist or music conductor. They serve on the missionary outreach or in the congregation’s clerical administration. It is all lay members, including the ward bishop or branch president. Wards generally have 100 to 200 such callings, which pretty much occupy the time available for church service. When I was a single adult 20-30 years ago, I remember quite a few in my situation “ward hopping” attending different congregations trying to find one they were comfortable in. While discouraged, it frequently happened.
    Also, members of the church around where I live not only attend the local “family ward”, but some also attend a local Spanish-speaking branch or a young single adult branch. We also have American Sign Language expertise in our ward and we have deaf people from not just our stake but from other nearby stakes attending. We have people in our ward who technically live inside other wards’ boundaries, but accommodations have been made, but usually only with a good reason.
    As for Romney and if he wins the presidency, I wonder the impact on the Washington DC 3rd Ward–there might be a lot of people wanting to attend just for the chance to see a serving US president. Nobody is going to stand at the door and prevent people from coming in to worship.
    I know plenty of LDS people serving in the Secret Service. The statement that Romney could probably find people to escort him to church who are LDS is true, but I doubt anybody is going to make that a criteria for escorting to church. Instead, it might go the other way with LDS Secret Service members asking for the assignment and non-LDS Secret Service members being less likely. It would be more of an issue if Romney does temple service and only those with recommends would be admitted, but that wouldn’t be true at the 16th Street chapel.
    Presidents travel a lot. I could see him being in almost any city (in most countries in the world) over a weekend and wanting to attend church services. That might catch a ward or branch completely off guard.