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Mormonism, Mitt and Me

Musings on Mormonism and what was said 51 years ago.

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.

Andrew October 18, 2011 at 10:02 PM
Thanks for your thoughtful article. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often referred to as Mormons), I appreciate your comments. Having lived in Switzerland, Spain, California, Arizona and Utah, and having met members of my Church in those areas, I concur that the vast majority of people of my faith are striving to live the "Two great commandments" - Love God and love our neighbor. Thanks for sharing your experiences with our Church members in your area!
David October 19, 2011 at 03:12 AM
You wrote a very good article and it is my experience too in rubbing elbows in Sommerville with some Mormons that they're great folks. Jesus felt comfortable hanging out with the sinners who were very much humble rather than those religious types who were lifted up in their pride. I suppose I'd rather hang out with Mormons in hell than those yelling at me that I'm going to hell.
Gwen Soper October 20, 2011 at 12:54 PM
Great article. Our young family lived in Belmont for a couple of years. We learned what incredible parents Mitt and Ann must be because of the kindness of one of their newly married sons, Matt. After we moved to Belmont he helped us at a critical moment. A month after we moved there our six-year-old daughter ended up in Intensive Care at Mass General Hospital for a week-and-a-half. BTW, we attended the same LDS congregation you visited. One afternoon it was my husband’s turn to be at the hospital with our daughter. I dashed home from the hospital to be with our other children (being vigilantly cared for by other LDS church members we hardly knew while my husband and I were switching posts). I was exhausted from worry and sleep deprivation. It was dinnertime. I looked in the fridge and didn’t have it in me to pull a dinner together. I felt desperate. At that very instant, the phone rang. It was Matt Romney, whom I hadn’t even met yet. He said, “I just found out I’m your new home teacher* and that your daughter is in the hospital. I’m bringing you dinner. I’ll be there in 20 minutes.” I couldn’t even talk. I had to hold the phone up high toward the ceiling so that he wouldn’t hear me crying. We will never forget what he did for us in what truly was a crucial moment. *Home teachers are two members from your congregation assigned to visit you monthly to teach and strengthen you, and see if there is anything you need. Every family or single adult has them.
Rebecca Richards October 20, 2011 at 03:23 PM
Lisa: Another thoughtful, well-written article. In my college teaching I've had several Mormon students in my classes--all of whom were caring, hard-working young adults. These students also helped educate me (and their fellow classmates) on what it means to be a Mormon--debunking some stereotypes and offering some new-found appreciation on what matters to them. And as you importantly pointed out--a candidate's religion simply doesn't belong in a political campaign. Well-done. Rebecca
ottavio Forte October 20, 2011 at 03:51 PM
I have never met a bad Mormon, never. When bigots do not know what to pick on a political candidate, they pick on religion or other non-relevant issue.
Johanna Swift Hart October 21, 2011 at 12:55 PM
You make a lot of great points in this article, Lisa. I absolutely agree that religious bigotry against Romney needs to be called out and deplored, and that Mormons are generally the nicest neighbors you could ever ask for. It is also true, though, that a politician's religious beliefs and practices are relevant where they intersect with public decision-making. Look no further than the religious right's opposition to gay marriage and efforts to restrict reproductive rights. Those battles aren't based on facts or legal findings or even the will of the people, but rather on a very narrow interpretation of the Bible. It's remarkably hypocritical that the self-proclaimed Evangelical Christians, whose main purpose seems to be the creation of a religious state in America, are attacking Mitt. Although I'm not a fan of his, I don't recall ever thinking that he was trying to impose his own religious beliefs on others from the governor's pulpit.
Jeff October 31, 2011 at 02:23 PM
I agree that this is a great article, but I do want to point out an error: Mitt Romney is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Believe it or not, it’s not just a matter of spelling; those really are two different churches, the latter having broken off from the former in 1844. This small, Protestant group—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—still counts approximately 250 adherents in and around the church’s headquarters in Beloit, Wisconsin. Truth is stranger than fiction!

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