When the news of Mitt Romney's Florida video broke on Monday evening, I was incensed -- but not for its political implications. His arrogant and out-of-hand dismissal of half the population of this country struck me at a visceral level, for it sullied the religion that he and I share -- the religion for which five generations of my ancestry have lived and sacrificed, the religion whose official mantra is "to take care of the poor and needy throughout the world." My first impulse was to rent an airplane towing a banner: "Mitt Romney is Not the Face of Mormonism!"
I was a supporter of Romney 1.0. That was in late 2007, when we had far more in common. We are both Mormons and we both served foreign missions for our church at the same time, he in France and I in Brazil. Some of my best friends had been some of his best friends for decades. Although I am a registered Democrat, his accomplishments as Governor of Massachusetts appealed to me. I contributed the maximum amount to his early presidential primary bid.
I also became an emissary to him, presenting what I felt was an attractive proposition. Helen Whitney, who had recently completed a four-hour PBS documentary, "The Mormons," was also intrigued with Romney, enough that she asked that I propose to him one hour of national coverage on PBS if he would allow her to interview him only about his religion.
"It's a good religion," she said to me, "but he is hiding from it. He needs to own it."
I delivered the proposal in person. He declined, stating that he and his advisors had concluded that the issue of his religion would simply go away. It didn't, but his candidacy did.
Early in 2008, to my dismay, Romney 1.0 became Romney 2.0 by moving far enough to the right to lose my support. He has kept moving ever farther to the right. He has made this move in a successful attempt to gain the nomination, and in an ongoing attempt to persuade no more than 53 percent of the country that he should be the next President.
The issue of Romney's Mormon faith has never gone away, although its presence has waxed and waned as other issues have come and gone. How -- or if -- he chooses to use his religion as part of his public biography is up to him, but the fact that he is the only Mormon ever to be the nominee for the Presidency of a major political party makes it inevitable that even if people do not judge him because of his religion, they will judge his religion because of him. Given the unfolding news of this week, I regret to say that Mitt Romney is not the face of Mormonism.
Romney 1.0 was that face. Having been a missionary myself, I know the formative power of two years of missionary service. Having served as an assistant to one bishop and four stake presidents -- and Romney served as bishop and stake president -- I know the even greater formative power of those offices. I understand completely what his father George meant when he said, "I am completely the product of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." That face of Mormonism is the one that calls on some of its members, particularly bishops and stake presidents, to devote as many hours gratis to their church jobs as they do to their professional jobs. It is the one that summons up extraordinary acts of love, compassion and generosity, often in response to the deepest tragedies of life -- and death.
But it is not the one that dismisses out-of-hand half the population of the United States by saying, "My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives." As a bishop and stake president, Romney worried about those very people. Indeed, he worried far more about them, and spent far more time and means in assisting them, than the others in his flock who were more fortunate.
The very basis of Mormon community, stretching back to the earliest years of Mormonism nearly two centuries ago, is that the more able have a sacred obligation to assist the less able. That sense of physical community was institutionalized in the Church's Welfare Program, which sprang out of the Great Depression as an exemplary and effective means of combining church and government assistance not only to give to those in need, but also to help them to help themselves. Any who have visited Welfare Square in Salt Lake City, as did the producers of a recent "Rock Center" documentary on MSNBC, cannot help but be impressed with what we have attempted, for over seven decades, to accomplish through what is now an international network of church facilities and volunteers.
Judge Mitt Romney as you will, and vote for or against him as you will; but do not judge Mormonism on the basis of the Mitt Romney that was unveiled to the public this week. He is not the face of Mormonism.