Mitt Romney is coy about his running mate. He’ll only speak about the topic in the broadest terms. His staff won’t talk about it at all. To be fair, they don’t know much about the subject. It’s something very personal to Romney.
I am talking about his religion.
This is the high season of speculation about Mitt Romney’s vice presidential pick (Rubio’s not being vetted!), but the other issue they keep locked up in Romney’s Boston headquarters is far more likely to affect his presidency than who his No. 2 will be. It’s obvious why Romney wants to control the coverage of both issues. He wants to announce his vice presidential pick on his terms for maximum political benefit. With his religion, he wants to control the conversation to limit the political downside.
It is a truism of the vice presidential selection process that the people who talk don't know, and the people who know, don't talk. That's not the same with religion. Fellow Mormons know what it's like to be as devout as Romney and what that would mean for his presidency. They write op-eds in the newspaper; they have blogs. Two leaders in the church spoke on Monday at the Faith Angle Forum on Mormonism in Washington, D.C. and it was clear that they think Romney's faith isn't something to hide, but is a selling point. By explaining his faith and his role in the church, Romney could show why he is not as walled off from regular people as President Obama claims. Describing how his religious values have shaped him would explain why he makes decisions with such rigor and is so restless in his pursuit of excellence.
When Michael Otterson, the Managing Director of Public Affairs for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who participated in the forum, talked about the faith, he described a religion especially compatible with the office of the presidency. "Mortal life is a test, a probationary period in eternal progression," he explained, which accounts for Mormons’ relentless work ethic, deep ties to the community, and particularly rigorous decision making. Romney, as a devout and active member, has all of these qualities because, as Otterson says, "a passive attitude of faith is no part of being a Latter-day Saint."
The Mormon faith, in this view, is not something that a President Romney would passively carry with him into office; it would be a central driver of his presidency. "If you want to offer to America the full package of who he is, if you don't [talk about his religion], you lose a very important half of what's shaped his life,” says Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of How Will You Measure Your Life? “I don't think there's a whole lot for him to be ashamed of—as you dig deeper and deeper you'll be able to show exactly who he is.”
Romney’s faith would inform a Romney presidency in two important ways: his decision making process and his capacity to show empathy for those who don't share his immediate experience. Both men described Mormon prayer not as a reason-free appeal for the divine thumbs-up or thumbs-down, but a process that calls a person to a special kind of rigor and engagement with life’s choices, before they ever seek God’s guidance. New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor, who participated in the discussion and has written on Romney’s religion, pointed to the passage in the Doctrine and Covenants that she said was cited repeatedly by Romney’s friends when discussing his decision making process. Guidance from God won’t come unless you think it through first: "Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind."
The second aspect of Romney's faith that would inform his presidency is his time as a bishop in an LDS congregation in Massachusetts in the 1980s. In that role, the equivalent to a pastor, Romney counseled members of his ward about their most personal matters. "The fact that Mitt was a Mormon bishop in a ward that had one of every conceivable type of human,” says Christensen, who has also served as a bishop. “He personally ... met with them in their home and just had a very deep sense of what was going on in that family. That is another really important attribute. He feels it, whereas other people voted for legislation that took money from these people to give to those people. That's not an understanding of humanity."
It is not surprising to hear adherents to a faith make a strong case for it, but it does highlight how far Mitt Romney has positioned himself from those with whom he shares this fundamental bond. Though these men think Romney’s faith should be discussed, Romney does not want to discuss it. That is certainly the politically wise choice. Romney wants the conversation to be about President Obama’s failures. Fascinating details about Romney’s life and religion distract from that.
A conversation about religion would almost certainly go horribly wrong: Romney would get stuck defending Mormon doctrine in a way a Catholic would never have to defend the worship of relics. When a New York Times columnist jokes about tenets of the Mormon faith in a way the paper would not likely tolerate were it about another religion, Romney is wise to decide the deck is stacked against him in the mainstream press.
Even if Romney could find a sympathetic forum, he isn’t a good storyteller. He lacks the narrative talents to tell the kinds of stories that Christensen would like him to tell about his time as a bishop. Those stories are complex and not all of them are favorable to Romney, who battled with feminists in Massachusetts and whose role as a church voice on issues of homosexuality, out of wedlock births, and a host of other social issues would put him in a thicket of nettlesome debates he doesn’t want to have.
A discussion of Mormonism would certainly be intellectually interesting and theologically useful. David Mason, a professor at Rhodes College and devout Mormon, argues that Mormonism is not the same as Christianity, which raises fascinating religious questions. But in politics, fascinating is usually synonymous with deadly. Christensen argues, for example, that the LDS church provides the best template for Christian living that exists. Discuss! No thanks, says Mitt Romney, who does not want to offend evangelical voters he’ll need in battleground states like Iowa, Virginia, and North Carolina.
But there’s more to Romney’s religion than the theological side. As Joanna Brooks, who writes frequently on Mormonism, argues so persuasively, “It is important for readers to know that Romney developed his leadership style in a non-democratic, patriarchal, hierarchical church culture where he rarely encountered open challenge.” Romney has been a leader in several different arenas: in government, in business, in helping organize the Olympic Games, and in his church. The campaign asks us to examine and approve of three of those four areas—and then walls off discussion of Romney’s religious leadership.
Mitt Romney has no interest in being an ambassador for the Mormon church any more than Barack Obama wanted to have a protracted conversation about race in 2008. In that way, both men are alike. They have both designed their political lives in ways that hide core parts of their identity. Unlike with his vice presidential pick, Romney will not be getting more specific about his other running mate any time soon.