BOSTON — In the back office of his Weston, Mass., headquarters a quarter-century ago, Mitt Romney, the chief Mormon authority in the Boston area, told the leader of his Spanish-speaking congregation that he would not directly pay for lawyers to help the growing number of illegal immigrants in his church. Then he carefully instructed his subordinate on how to circumvent the Mormon Church’s new hard line against such assistance and subsidize their legal aide.
“In those issues I cannot help you financially to pay for lawyers,” Romney said, according to Jose Francisco Anleu, a Guatemalan immigrant. “But what I can do is allow you to give them food assistance from the bishop’s warehouse,” a church welfare pantry. The money saved could be used to “pay lawyers.” He reminded Anleu that he could use church funds to cover rent, utilities and health care for his needy members. The money came from Anleu’s budget, but, as Anleu noted decades later, it was a budget sustained by Romney’s office.
Explore the 2012 electoral map and view historical results and demographics
More on the candidate
His devout belief and abilities helped him ascend rapidly through the ranks.
Before the Republican presidential candidate ventured out into the world, the world came to him.
Mitt Romney’s campaign has turned to his youthful antics to highlight his less-stiff side, but some ex-classmates recall a prankster who sometimes took things too far.
As a student at a chaotic time for the Mormon school, he focused on family and his church.
A close look at Romney’s leadership in his church shows how his actions sometimes clashed with his political positions, which include advocating on the campaign trail for a policy of “self-deportation.” Romney’s decades as a lay church leader — first as bishop and later as stake president, which gave him dominion over all the churches in and around Boston — shaped a man as orthodox and committed to his faith as any presidential nominee in history. It is an experience that demonstrates Romney’s mastery of the institution and confidence in his authority.
“Mitt’s responsibilities in the church had either been teaching or supportive,” said Gordon Williams, who as a Boston stake president acted as Romney’s mentor and patron. “When you are a bishop, you are the lone person in the wilderness, all the responsibility is yours now.” Spiritually, Williams added, “this then requires the expansion of a different element of your understanding about how to interact with people — particularly in an ecclesiastical sense, rather than being a CEO of a company.”
This article is based on conversations with dozens of church officials and members who served and worshiped with Romney. Romney declined to comment, and his campaign declined to contribute to this account.
On the presidential campaign
trail, Romney has sealed off his experience as a Mormon prelate, only rarely and vaguely mentioning his church leadership. On Sunday, Romney, who often goes to Mormon services when on the road, read scriptures from an iPad, received the sacrament of white bread and water and sang hymns with his family as he attended church near his lake house in New Hampshire. And for the first time since becoming a presidential candidate, he invited the media to watch, indicating that he was willing to put aside reservations about the political consequences of his faith and start allowing some access to that private space.
But for decades, Romney has made a point not to draw attention to his role in the church. In that mostly invisible universe, Romney consistently acted as a community organizer with a genius for milking hours out of the workweek and talent from his aides. He wept with spiritual fervor and believed in a traditional brand of Mormonism that sought daily divine intervention, according to many of his fellow churchgoers. But he also favored tangible action over introspection and told Patrick Graham, a confidant at Bain & Co., that he planned to give half his money to the church. He faced difficult cultural issues in his congregation, such as a push for more of a church role by devout Mormon feminists, first with a tin ear and then with an open mind.