As Mitt Romney’s wobbly star shows potential to become ascendant in the Republican presidential primaries, I see an increasing readiness for pundits and citizens alike to play “the Mormon card” against him. As someone who has never voted for Romney and probably never will – his policies don’t often resonate – I have no vested interest in him winning, but to see him dismissed simply because he is Mormon smacks of bigotry. Moreover, it also shows a limited experience of Mormonism, and I find it personally irritating.
But hold on, let me back up a little.
The other day, I crossed paths with the mother of one of my son’s friends who had recently hosted a bunch of eighth graders for some pizza at her home. I thanked her for having the kids over and I related that it sounded like a fun time. She then told me: “Benjy is the Mormon of the group.” Now, Benjy is not a Mormon, nor am I, but I knew exactly what she meant, and it made me happy to hear her say it.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things she could have said that would have also elated me. It would have been terrific if she’d said he was “the Einstein of the group” or even “the Gandhi of the group.” But “Mormon” is fine by me. Let me explain.
Before I moved into Belmont 16 years ago, I had never encountered a person of Mormon faith. I was raised in a state where everyone seemed to be either Catholic or Protestant, with a sprinkling of Jewish families. But here in Belmont, while on maternity leave, I found myself homebound, with a sleep-resistant infant, in a town where I did not know a soul. It was remarkably isolating. Then one day, I met Tricia. It turned out that Tricia, her husband, and baby daughter were our neighbors, living right next door. She immediately invited us over for dinner, and soon invited us into her church community: The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints.
It made sense that we would accept her kind offer and attend a service or two. What might surprise some is that we attended LDS services off and on for several years. Now why would a cynical, liberal, pseudo-intellectual, lapsed Catholic like me – and my intellectual, lapsed Catholic husband – spend so much time exploring Mormonism? I guess the answer lies in what I felt deep in my soul when I was in the company of Mormons, namely: love, warmth, generosity. There is a sense of community among the Latter Day Saints that is palpable. I had never experienced anything even remotely like it; they are a people for whom kind-heartedness runs deep.
Since Tricia was from a certain part of Belmont, we joined her in the subdivision of the LDS congregation known as the “Belmont Second Ward.” Now, that also happens to be the ward Mitt Romney attended, and even though he was Governor at that time, we still saw plenty of him at Sunday services and elsewhere. Whenever I encountered Mitt and his family at church services, I was struck at how accessible he was, how friendly. In fact, when my then-toddler threw her sippy cup across the chapel, it was Mitt who crawled under a pew to retrieve the cup. We even have a rug – it’s in our living room now – from Mitt’s son Tagg.
And all the Mormons were generous and friendly like that. When my husband was laid off after 15 years at the same job, several of these folks – Clayton Christensen among others – selflessly took time out to counsel him about some career options; another LDS member pointed him to his first real client as a freelance contractor. We’ve enjoyed the singing, the cookouts, the teachings, and many of my best friendships in Belmont were started right there in the corridors of the church building, toddlers happily underfoot.
Eventually though, our bonds of friendship and our feelings of affection for the community were not sufficient reasons to put ourselves forward as full-fledged members of the church. Both my husband and I felt that, to be in integrity with our kind hosts, a more significant commitment was required of us. But because we were not able to embrace the most basic tenets of the religion (admittedly, each of us for different reasons), in time we simply drifted away.
And that’s how it’s been for several years now.
But here comes Mitt Romney back on the national stage, and the practice of Mormonism is put front and center in the mainstream media. Why should this be? Should his religion be relevant as to whether he is qualified to lead this country?
The same criticism and bigotry that confronts Romney today confronted John F. Kennedy over a half a century ago. Kennedy was asked in 1960 during his campaign to become president whether his Roman Catholic faith would allow him to lead this country, to make important national decisions. To this line of questioning, he replied:
“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute . . . I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish . . . I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal . . . I am not the Catholic candidate for president, I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”
It saddens me that 51 years later we’re still having the same conversation. Then as now, there are much bigger things that demand our focus. By all means, grill Romney or any other candidate on the issues – there are certainly enough of them: our military presence abroad, education reform, deficit reduction, the economy, gun control, unemployment, tax increases, capital punishment, or tax breaks for the wealthy.
Of course, if Romney or any other candidate – I’m looking at you, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann! – allowed his religion to influence his decisions as President, then that is a real and serious problem; one that needs to be teased out from the de facto dismissal of him because of his religion.
But in general, as with race and gender, can’t we leave religion out of it? To knock Romney merely for being a Mormon is not only bringing in an irrelevant detail, it also reveals a notable ignorance about what it means to be a Mormon.