The text for this course is this excellent article by Linda Feldmann in the Christian Science Monitor yesterday– “Mitt Romney, proudly, quietly Mormon.” Now, Feldmann hits all the familiar canards- the Kennedy speech, the polls on Americans’ hesitancy to vote for a Mormon, the quotes from a prominent evangelical or two. But what is refreshing about this article is the author’s willingness to treat Mitt Romney on his own terms. That doesn’t mean she gives him a free pass. It means that this writer, singular among all others that have covered this issue, believes Mitt Romney to be a human being, rather than a religious automaton.
The result of that belief is a story that shows Mitt Romney the Sunday School teacher, the counselor to the downtrodden, the administrator of church groups, etc. It’s a character that is flawed but three-dimensional, and a member of a faith that has an impact on lives beyond just teaching a few hard-to-believe things that Joseph Smith did. What so many have missed in trying to explain Romney’s faith is that he interacts with Mormonism as an actual person. That means that he went to church to worship more often than he contemplated Joseph Smith’s method of translating the Book of Mormon. It means that when he was Bishop, his duties required immense amounts of time and commitment, which defined him far more than LDS ideas about the site of Jesus’s future return to earth. It means that Mitt Romney is a man shaped by his religious experience, far more than by his religion’s theology. And amazingly, that religious experience is actually not odd at all.
Why is this so hard for many people to understand? It’s likely just a question of visibility. People can easily look up a few of Joseph Smith’s more controversial teachings. It’s harder to report on how Mitt Romney lives his life as a devout worshiper of Christ. That would involve, well . . . a 20 minute interview is what it required for Ms. Feldmann to get the story right (and kudos to a campaign smart enough to see the advantage of unmuzzling their man on the topic). Or, a reporter could ask a local Mormon what it would mean to be a Bishop, Stake President, Sunday School Teacher, or Home Teacher in the LDS Church. It’s actually a pretty easy thing to explain.
The surprising effect of reading an article like this one from the Christian Science Monitor is the realization that Mitt Romney lives his religion in a way that is similar to many millions of other Americans. He has tried to serve others, teach truth, raise a family based on Biblical values, and make a contribution to those around him. He is motivated– yes, even in his candidacy– by the desire to pay back something from the largesse he has received. And, most striking of all, he understands, from his own time as a Bishop, (i.e., volunteer pastor), that everyone has real challenges and needs comfort and help.
The contrast between this article and all of the others that tried to deal with the same topic indicates how badly American media understands religion. That it took a religious publication to actually wonder what Mitt Romney gets out of his religion is proof of that idea. But it ought not be so hard to understand. Ask yourself: Am I more a product of my beliefs about how the earth came into existence, or of my daily and weekly service to others? Does my belief about what heaven is like define me more, or do my daily attempts to get there? While most people would answer in favor of the latter choices, the press seems to have been banking on the former ones in the case of Mitt Romney. It’s encouraging to see one publication who has seen through the ruse. And it’s refreshing to see someone acknowledge that Mitt Romney actually cares about, and tries to live, his religion. Given how badly understood religious life has apparently become, maybe that’s the real story.
P.S. The Feldmann piece has anticipated RomneyExperience’s next project- explaining what it means that Mitt Romney was a missionary, Bishop, and Sunday School teacher in the Mormon Church, among other things. Watch for these features coming soon.