Ross Douthat / Romney's Mormon story

He needs to tell it to us, so we can know who he really is


Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

There's an interesting dilemma facing the filmmakers who are presumably hard at work, in some well-hidden editing room, on the biographical movie that will play just before Mitt Romney accepts his party's nomination: What should the movie say about Mr. Romney's Mormonism?

So far, Mr. Romney has said very little about his faith in this campaign, which is clearly how he likes it. Indeed, his campaign has pushed back vigorously against even innocuous press coverage of Mormon folkways and beliefs, on the theory that trying to explain a much-distrusted, much-misunderstood religion could only distract from the economic message.

But across a long summer of negative attacks, the Obama campaign has succeeded in weakening that message, and turning the conversation to Mr. Romney's character instead. This means the Republican convention can't just offer an extended indictment of the Obama record; it also needs to reintroduce Mr. Romney in a more thoroughgoing way. And if his faith ends up on the cutting-room floor, this reintroduction will be missing something that's not only essential to the candidate's life story, but also helps make the case for his world view.

Start with Mr. Romney the man, so often dismissed as hollow, cynical and inauthentic. His various political reinventions notwithstanding, Mr. Romney clearly does have deep convictions: The evidence is in his intense commitment to his church, as a local leader and as a philanthropist. Between the endless hours of unpaid, "love thy neighbor" efforts required of a Mormon bishop and the scope of his private generosity, the caricature of the Republican candidate as a conviction-free mannequin mostly collapses.

If Mr. Romney were a Presbyterian, Methodist or Jew, this would be an obvious part of his campaign narrative. Like George W. Bush's midlife conversion or Barack Obama's tale of "race and inheritance," Mr. Romney's years as a bishop would be woven into a biography that emphasized his piety and decency, introducing Americans to the Romney who shut down his business to hunt for a colleague's missing daughter, the Romney who helped build a memorial park when a friend's son died of cystic fibrosis, the Romney who lent money to renters to help them buy a house he owned, and so on down a list of generous gestures and good deeds.

The broader Mormon experience, meanwhile, could help make the case for his philosophy as well as illuminate his human core. The presumptive Republican nominee is not naturally ideological, but he's running as a critic of Mr. Obama's expansive liberalism, and as a standard-bearer for a conservative alternative.

Conservatism sometimes makes an idol of the rugged individual, but at its richest and deepest it valorizes local community instead -- defending the family and the neighborhood, the civic association and the church. And there is no population in America that lives out this vision of the good society quite like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Mormonism is a worldlier, more business-friendly religion than traditional Christianity, but it does not glorify wealth for wealth's sake, in the style of many contemporary prosperity preachers. Instead, as Walter Kirn suggested in an essay in The New Republic, Mormonism represents "our country's longest experiment with communitarian idealism, promoting an ethic of frontier-era burden-sharing that has been lost in contemporary America."

To spend some time in Salt Lake City and its environs, as I did earlier this summer, is to enter a world where faith, family and neighborliness really do seem to fill the role that liberals usually assign to the state. There you can tour the church-run welfare centers, with supermarkets filled with (Mormon-brand) products available to the poor of any faith and assembly lines where Mormon neurosurgeons and lawyers volunteer to can goods or run a bread machine. You can visit inner-city congregations where bank vice presidents from the suburbs spend their weekends helping drifters find steady work and tour the missionary training center where Mormons from every background share a small-d democratic coming-of-age experience.

And then you can read the statistics: The life expectancy numbers showing that Mormons live much longer than other Americans, the extraordinary rate at which they volunteer and donate, their high marriage rates and low out-of-wedlock birthrates -- even the recent Gallup survey showing Utah leading all other states in a range of measures of livability.

Of course, a visit to Mormon country also provides reminders of why Mr. Romney has been wary of talking about his religious background. There's the Mormon Temple, whose interior can be viewed in scale-model form but not actually entered; the defensiveness that surfaces around issues like polygamy and race; the fine line Mormon society walks between a healthy solidarity and an unhealthy conformism -- and hanging over everything, the burden of defending Joseph Smith's revelation, which offers not only bold metaphysical claims (as all religions do) but an entire counter-history of the Americas, which no archaeologist has yet managed to confirm.

It's understandable that Mr. Romney would prefer to keep these aspects of his religion off the table. But by trying to insulate his campaign from the things that make his faith seem alien, he's cut himself off from things that make his life story impressive and his message compelling. If his personality seems hollow and his philosophy insincere, maybe it's because he's hidden the story of his people, and the deepest longings of his heart.

opinion_commentary

Ross Douthat is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.


Advertisement

Latest in Op Ed Columns

Where the GOP gets it right
about 15 hours ago
Sugar’s getting a bad rap
about 15 hours ago
Great news! The end is nigh!
about 15 hours ago
Game of drones
1 day ago
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here