Romney’s Mormon faith runs silent but deep
Politics • The faith is ‘at the center of who he really is,’ says fellow church member.
Published: May 22, 2012 12:05PM
Updated: May 22, 2012 12:06PM

BELMONT, Mass. • When Mitt Romney embarked on his first political race in 1994, he also slipped into a humble new role in the Mormon congregation he once led. On Sunday mornings, he stood in the sunlit chapel here teaching Bible classes for adults.

Leading students through stories about Jesus and the Nephite and Lamanite tribes who Mormons believe once populated the Americas and tossing out peanut butter cups as rewards, Romney always returned to the same question: How could students apply the lessons of Mormon scripture in their daily lives?

Now, as the presumptive Republican nominee for president, 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.

But dozens of the candidate’s friends, fellow church members and relatives describe a man whose faith is his design for living. The church is by no means his only influence, and its impact cannot be fully untangled from that of his family, which is also steeped in Mormonism.

But being a Latter-day Saint is “at the center of who he really is, if you scrape everything else off,” said Randy Sorensen, who worshipped with Romney in church.

As a young consultant who arrived at the office before anyone else, Romney was being “deseret,” a term from the Book of Mormon meaning industrious as a honeybee, and he recruited colleagues and clients with the zeal of the missionary he once was. Mitt and Ann Romney’s marriage is strong because they believe they will live together in an eternal afterlife, relatives and friends say, which motivates them to iron out conflicts.

Romney’s penchant for rules mirrors that of his church, where he once excommunicated adulterers and sometimes discouraged mothers from working outside the home. He may have many reasons for abhorring debt, wanting to limit federal power, promoting self-reliance and stressing the unique destiny of the United States, but those are all traditionally Mormon traits as well.

Outside the spotlight, Romney can be demonstrative about his faith: belting out hymns (“What a Friend We Have in Jesus”) while horseback riding, fasting on designated days and finding a Mormon congregation to slip into on Sundays, no matter where he is.

He prays for divine guidance on business decisions and political races, say those who have joined him. Sometimes on the campaign trail, the Romneys retreat to a quiet corner, bow their heads, clasp hands and share a brief prayer, said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who has traveled with them.

Clayton M. Christensen, a business professor at Harvard and a friend from church, said the question that drove the Sunday school classes — how to apply Mormon gospel in the wider world — also drives Romney’s life. “He just needs to know what God wants him to do and how he can get it done,” Christensen said.

SACRED TENETS, SECULAR REALM

When 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. (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.

While Romney has expressed some views at odds with his church’s teachings — in Massachusetts, he supported measures related to alcohol and gambling, both prohibited by the church — other positions flow directly from his faith, including his objections to abortion and same-sex marriage and his notion of self-sufficiency tempered with generosity. The church, which often requests recipients of charity to perform some sort of labor in return, taught Romney to believe that “there’s a dignity in work and a dignity in helping those who are in need of help,” his eldest son, Tagg, said in an interview.

Or take 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 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.

“He is an unabashed, unapologetic believer that America is the Promised Land,” said Douglas D. Anderson, dean of the business school at Utah State University and a friend, and that leading it is “an obligation and responsibility to God.”

In Romney’s upbeat promises that he can rouse the economy from its long slump, fellow Mormons hear their faith’s emphasis on resilience and can-do optimism. He believes that people “can learn to be happy and prosperous,” said Philip Barlow, a professor of Mormon history at Utah State who served with him in church. “There is some depth and long tradition behind what can come across in sound bites as thin cheerleading.”

Similarly, he said, 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,” Barlow said.

He and others say that wholesomeness is deeply authentic to Romney, whose spiritual life revolves around personal rectitude. In Mormonism, salvation depends in part on constantly making oneself purer and therefore more godlike.

In the temple Romney helped build in Belmont, as in every other, members change from street clothes into all-white garb when they arrive, to emphasize their elevated state. As a church leader, he enforced standards, evaluating members for a “temple recommend,” a gold-and-white pass permitting only the virtuous to enter.

A MAN OF RULES

Romney is quick to uphold rules great and small. During primary debates, when his rivals spoke out of turn or exceeded their allotted time, he would sometimes lecture them. When supporters ask Romney to sign dollar bills or U.S. flags, he refuses and often gives them a little lesson about why doing so is against the law.

Doing things by the book has been a hallmark of his career in public life. When Romney took over the Salt Lake City Olympics, which were dogged by ethical problems, he cast himself as a heroic reformer. As governor of Massachusetts, he depicted himself as a voice of integrity amid what he called the back-scratchers and ethically dubious lifers of state government.

In church, Romney frequently spoke about obeying authority, the danger of rationalizing misbehavior and God’s fixed standards. “Most people, if they don’t want to do what God wants them to do, they move what God wants them to do about four feet over,” he once told his congregation, holding out his arms to indicate the distance, Christensen remembered.

He often urged adherence even to rules that could seem unfair or overly harsh. One fellow worshipper, Justin Brown, recalled in an interview that when he was a young man leaving for his mission abroad, Romney warned him that some parameters would make no sense, but to follow them anyway and trust that they had unseen value.

Church officials say Romney tried to be sensitive and merciful; when a college student faced serious penalties for having premarital sex, Romney put him on a kind of religious probation instead. But he carried out excommunications faithfully. “Mitt was very much by the rules,” said Tony Kimball, who later served as his executive secretary in the church.

Nearly two decades ago, Randy and Janna Sorensen approached Romney, then a church official, for help: Unable to have a baby on their own, they wanted to adopt but could not do so through the church, which did not facilitate adoptions for mothers who worked outside the home.

Devastated, they told Romney that the rule was unjust and that they needed two incomes to live in Boston. Romney helped, but not by challenging church authorities. He took a calculator to the Sorensen household budget and showed how with a few sacrifices, Janna Sorensen could quit her job. Their children are now grown, and Randy Sorensen said they were so grateful that they had considered naming a child Mitt. (The church has since relaxed its prohibition on adoption for women who work outside the home.)

Among the Belmont Mormons, stories abound of Romney acting out the values he professed in church. The Romneys left their son Tagg’s wedding reception early to take some of the food to a neighbor being treated for breast cancer.

But many also see a gap between his religious ideals — in Sunday school, he urged his students to act with the highest standards of kindness and integrity — and his political tactics. The chasm has been hard to reconcile, even though people close to him say he is serious about trying to do so.

Mormonism teaches respect for secular authorities as well as religious ones, but “politics has required him to go against form,” said Richard Bushman, a leading historian of the church who knows Romney from church.

For example, Romney had ruled out running personal attack ads against political rivals, those close to him said. When Sen. Edward M. Kennedy attacked him as an uncaring capitalist in 1994, using ads that exaggerated Romney’s role in Bain-related layoffs, Romney refused to punch back and exploit Kennedy’s history of womanizing. “Winning is not important enough to put aside my ideals and principles,” Romney told aides.

But when he ran for governor in 2002, his campaign targeted the husband of his general election opponent, Shannon O’Brien (he had formerly worked as a lobbyist for Enron; the ads linked him to problems at the company that he had nothing to do with.)

Last week, Romney repudiated efforts to attack Obama based on his past relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. But earlier this year, he suggested that Obama wanted to make the United States “a less Christian nation.”

“I have absolutely no idea how he rationalizes it,” Kimball said of Romney’s harshest statements and attacks. “It almost seems to be the ends justifying the means.”

RELYING ON PRAYER

Though Romney almost never discusses it or performs it in public, prayer is a regular and important part of his life, say friends who have joined him. They describe him closing his eyes and addressing God with thees and thous, composing his message to suit the occasion, whether at a church meeting, at a hospital bedside or in a solemn moment with family and friends.

“Prayer is not a rote thing with him,” said Ann N. Madsen, a Bible scholar and a friend. Rather than requesting a specific outcome, he more often asks for strength, wisdom and courage, according to several people who have prayed with him. “Help us see how to navigate this particular problem,” he often asks, according to Dr. Lewis Hassell, who served with Romney in church.

Former colleagues say they do not recall Romney praying in the workplace — some say they barely heard the word “God” come from his lips — but he did pray about work from his home.

“I remember literally kneeling down with Mitt at his home and praying about our firm,” Bob Gay, a former Bain colleague and current church official, told Jeff Benedict, author of “The Mormon Way of Doing Business.” “We did that in times of crisis, and we prayed that we’d do right by our people and our investors.”

Romney also prays before taking action on decisions he has already made, asking for divine reassurance, a feeling that he is “united with the powers above,” Hassell said. Sometimes Romney would report that even though he had made a decision on the merits, prayer had changed his mind. “Even though rationally this looks like the thing to do, I just have a feeling we shouldn’t do it,” he would say, according to Grant Bennett, another friend and church leader.

Romney has also asked for divine sustenance during his political runs. The night before he declared his candidacy for governor, he and his family prayed at home with Gloria White-Hammond and Ray Hammond, friends and pastors of a Boston-area African Methodist Episcopal church.

His earlier failed run for U.S. Senate had all been part of God’s plan, Ann Romney told White-Hammond around that time. Mitt Romney had lost, but “just because God says for you to do something doesn’t mean the outcome is going to be what you want it to be,” White-Hammond remembered Ann Romney saying.

Having a higher purpose is part of what motivates Mitt Romney, many of those close to him say, and gives him the wherewithal to suffer the slings and arrows of political life. Mormons have a “history of persistence and tenacity, a sense of living out a destiny that is connected to earlier generations,” said Anderson. Romney is driven by “responsibility to his father and his father’s fathers to use his time and talent and energy and whatever gifts he’s been given by the Lord to try to make a contribution.”

And while voters tend to see Romney as immensely fortunate, those close to him say that he never forgets he is a member of an oft-derided religious minority. The chapel where Romney taught Sunday school was burned in a case of suspected arson in the 1980s, a still-unsolved crime that church members attribute to anti-Mormon prejudice.

As a candidate for governor, Romney endured crude jokes, made to his face, including about having more than one wife. After his failed 2008 presidential bid, Romney told Richard Eyre, a friend, that he wished the church could rebrand itself, replacing the name “Mormon” with “Latter-day Christian” to emphasize its belief in Jesus and the New Testament.

His response to prejudice, friends say, has always been to soldier on and to present the best possible example, knowing that others will draw conclusions about the faith based on his behavior. “In his generation, George Romney was the world’s most famous Mormon, and now Mitt is more famous than his dad,” Anderson said.

Romney told fellow Mormons at Bain & Co. that they had to work harder and perform better because they had a reputation to defend. With a similar motive, Romney sent volunteer cleaning crews each week to the churches that lent space to the Belmont Mormons after the chapel fire. Confronted with the nasty joke about Mormons during the race for governor, Romney brushed it off even as his face tensed, recalled Jonathan Spampinato, his former political director.

“Romneys were made to swim upstream,” he has told friends many times.

About a year ago, Ann Romney told White-Hammond that her husband was probably going to run for president again, and that they were both already praying about the race.

Mitt Romney was still a bit reluctant to re-enter the fray, according to White-Hammond. But she recalled the soon-to-be candidate’s wife saying that the Romneys both “felt it was what God wanted them to do.”