A largely Catholic country with a culture built on wine, epicureanism and harsh skepticism, France does not seem fit for an American religion whose hallmarks are teetotalism, self-denial and blind faith. The Venn Diagram of France and Mormonism consists of two entirely separate circles. And 1966 -- the year Mitt Romney arrived -- was one of the worst times for any American Mormon to try to convert French people; Romney encountered, at age 19, waves of popular opposition to the Vietnam War, French outreach to Soviet Russia and communist China and the peak of anarchist socialism in Europe. It must have been a rude awakening.
Now, an LDS mission is a shock even under ideal circumstances: As I experienced through my own mission to France, it’s a mix between monastic life, a fraternity pledge and pest-control salesmanship. A mission means getting up at ungodly hours, reading scripture in quiet contemplation and spending the day pounding the pavement and pleading with people to listen to your elevator pitch on religion.
It’s not all baguettes and fromage. After crawling back to your cramped, dirty apartment, you eat a horrible dinner, rub your tired feet, study and pray some more before collapsing for the night. You’re never alone except for trips to the bathroom; your mission companion will be at your side constantly as you go two-by-two into the world to preach the good word -- heaven help you if you don’t get along. It’s exhausting and scary work and relentless in its demands; many do not finish their missions.
For a nineteen-year-old Romney, fresh from frosh year at Stanford, the dismal modernist concrete of Le Havre must have been awful. Barely able to understand the language let alone the culture, Romney must have felt lonely and rejected – because he was, in fact, both of those things. It is unlikely that many French people became members of the LDS church because of his preaching (baptism rates in continental Europe have never been very high), but is likely that hundreds of people told Elder Romney to get lost. So what was the effect of this intense dose of rejection and poverty? There’s every indication that Romney was undaunted. His French improved, as did his confidence. He became a vigorous defender of the faith, engaging in public debate and defense of his religion. This occasionally extended to physically defending his co-religionists, as when he and his companion took on a gang of rugby players harassing a female missionary in the street. If a mission teaches you one thing, it’s how to handle rejection.
Romney’s detractors have made an effort to paint him as out-of-touch, a rich man who has never known what it’s like to work and live like an ordinary person. But during his time in France, Romney led a simple and poor existence. He had a reputation for working doggedly, for setting and achieving high goals for handing out leaflets or distributing copies of Le Livre de Mormon. He experienced physical pain and tragedy following a devastating car accident. And while the other 62 years of his life may have watered down the memories of his time in France, Mitt Romney likely spent most of his mission with the indigent, the elderly, the mentally ill and the desperate. These are the key demographics for door-to-door missionaries, and as a full-time student of Jesus Christ, Romney would have learned a great deal about caring for the needy. He more recently may have said, “I’m not concerned about the very poor,” but as a primary audience for his missionary message, Mitt Romney would have been very concerned about the poor in France.
One more reason to consider Romney’s mission: It may be the longest period of time he has ever been forced to listen to opposing viewpoints. A hotbed of communism, atheism, anarchism and socialism, 1968 France represents the opposite of 2012’s Mitt Romney. And yet Romney walked the streets of Paris in 1968 during the revolts. He debated the Vietnam War with the French and had countless doors slammed in his face because of his conservative beliefs. He engaged in long conversations in cafés and bars with people who not only hated America, but hated God and everything else Romney had come over to sell. It certainly would have made him aware of a larger, wilder world. We should not underestimate the effect of this time on him, even if it may have served to galvanize Romney permanently against such views. Picture a well-coiffed (if somewhat stiff) kid in a suit handing out flyers about Joseph Smith, as Gauloise-smoking crowds fling paving stones and cry out, “Même si Dieu existait, il faudrait le supprimer!” (“Even if God existed, we’d have to get rid of him!”).
Missions are a crucible in which Mormon youth refine their faith, and it’s where Mitt Romney first emerged as the steadfast Mormon he is today. He still refers to those days fondly as golden years, central to his education. Like many of us, Romney began his mission as a pranksterish adolescent, and emerged as a missionary leader. We can only guess as to what other parts of Romney may have been burnt away forever in that crucible, never to return.
Steve Evans is an attorney and blogger living in Wisconsin. In 2004, Steve founded the popular Mormon blog By Common Consent, where he is an editor and contributor. Steve served an LDS mission in Paris, France, where he met his first Romney -- Matt.