Mormons have long viewed Mitt Romney’s political rise with a mixture of pride and apprehension, fearing that the intense spotlight on their church’s most prominent member could lead to misunderstanding or ridicule of their beliefs in the public square.
But there were no signs of that anxiety when Romney attended church services on Sunday morning, his first since formally accepting the Republican presidential nomination last week.
At church in Wolfeboro, N.H., a quiet lakeside retreat where the Romneys and several other prominent Mormon families have vacation homes, fellow congregants testified that Romney was guiding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “out of obscurity.”
Romney and his wife, Ann, sat silently as four congregants took turns at the pulpit praising the couple. One of them, J.W. Marriott, the chairman of the international hotel chain that bears his name, said Romney was creating positive impressions of Mormonism among many Americans because he had lived “a good Latter-day Saint life.”
“There has never been as much positive publicity about the church, thanks to the wonderful campaign of Mitt Romney and his family,” Marriott said. “Today we see the church coming out of obscurity, and we see that 90 percent of what has been written and said, including an hour on NBC and an hour and a half on CNN, two front-page articles in The Washington Post, many articles in the national news about the church — 90 percent of it has been favorable.”
Marriott added: “That’s a great tribute to Mitt and Ann and their family for living such an exemplary life — a life of love and compassion, a good Latter-day Saint life, a life of leadership, reaching out to others and touching others, and worshiping the Lord and putting families and the church first. Now that we’re out of obscurity, everybody is looking at us and saying, ‘Are you as good as the Romneys?’ ”
In 2007, during his first presidential campaign, Romney gave a major speech about his Mormon faith. But throughout the current campaign, Romney has largely avoided the subject.
At last week’s convention, however, he and Ann spoke about the role of faith in their lives. Romney served as a volunteer bishop in Belmont, Mass., and some church members he aided during that time delivered emotional testimonials on the convention stage in Tampa last week.
At church in Wolfeboro on Sunday, some of the speakers did not give their names during their testimonials. A small pool of reporters was allowed inside the church to cover the candidate’s visit, but did not learn the names of each speaker.
One man, who was identified as an Archibald, a prominent family in Mormon history, paid tribute to Romney.
“As President Marriott said, we are coming out of obscurity,” he said. “I have friends who say, ‘Do you know Mitt Romney?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, he’s the real deal. He really is. You should support him. I think he’s a marvelous ambassador of who we are.’ ”
Another man said he was pleasantly surprised to see members of other churches embracing Romney, a Mormon, as their standard-bearer at the Republican National Convention.
“Never in my life did I think I would ever see — as I’m watching the [convention] — I would never see a Catholic get up and say that a Mormon is just as good as any Catholic,” the man said, apparently referring to the acceptance speech of vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, a Catholic.
The speakers were not overtly political in their remarks; there was no mention of President Obama, according to the pool report. But those who gave testimonials made clear that they were supporting Romney.
One woman who called herself Sister Goodall told a story of visiting a nursing home with Mormon missionaries. When they identified themselves as members of the church, she said, a nurse responded, “Oh, Mormon, oh, Mitt, oh, Mormon.”
The woman said she was surprised that the nurse knew about the church. Ann Romney, sitting with her husband, laughed.
Marriott’s testimony was the most personal. The relationship between the Marriotts and the Romneys goes back generations. J.W. Marriott was a close friend of Romney’s father, George, and they served together on a church commission to find ways to improve the public image of the Mormon Church. Mitt Romney’s first name is Willard — his parents named him after Marriott — and it was the Marriotts who introduced the Romneys to Wolfeboro.
In his testimonial, Marriott said members of his church have long been skeptical of outside publicity. In the 1990s, he recalled, Mike Wallace approached the church about doing a “60 Minutes” documentary special on Mormonism and there was concern among church leaders about what might result from the attention.
But Marriott said that he agreed to sit for a 45-minute interview with Wallace. One of the questions he said Wallace asked him was about his “different underwear.” Many Mormons wear temple garments under their clothing, and Marriott explained that they look just like a T-shirt and boxer shorts.
“I related to him how I’d been involved in a very serious boat accident, here in New Hampshire,” Marriott recalled. “I caught fire; my polyester pants had burned off all the way to my waist. But my undergarments from my waist down to my knees had not even been singed. . . . And I said, ‘These holy undergarments saved my life.’ ”
After the interview, Marriott recalled, Wallace looked at him and said, “I wish I had the faith of the Mormons.”