What Matters About Mitt Romney

By Stephen Stromberg
Saturday, February 17, 2007

In 1967, a moderate governor of Michigan ran for the Republican presidential nomination and, for a time, was a favorite among many in the party. His support for the civil rights movement also gave him valuable crossover appeal. But after reversing course on the Vietnam War, his campaign fizzled.

What did not ruin George Romney's aspirations was his faith.

Like his son Mitt, George Romney was a devout Mormon. Religion, as the truism goes, is far more influential in American politics today than it was in the 1960s. Forty years after his father ran, Mitt Romney's faith has elicited a cover story in the New Republic, a front-page feature in the New York Times and obligatory mentions in otherwise standard coverage of the formal kickoff of his campaign this week. Romney, it seems, might be the first presidential candidate since Al Smith whose campaign suffers seriously because of his regular attendance at Sunday services.

Writers often note that evangelical voters, now considered consequential in Southern Republican primaries, distrust Mormons. It is too easy, however, to claim that the two Romney candidacies' differing challenges simply reflect the altered composition of Republican primary voters since 1968. In a recent Post-ABC News poll, 35 percent of respondents said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who is Mormon.

Regular cover stories in news magazines, such as Time's "Mormons, Inc." in 1997, highlight the role Mormonism now plays in the popular imagination and reflect a widespread fascination with the church. Having grown up Mormon in West Los Angeles, I know that many Americans outside of evangelical communities are uncomfortable with Mormonism. Somehow, my particular religious identification, hardly my defining characteristic, was adequate grounds for my high school nickname -- Stormin' Mormon -- and the basis for seemingly endless grilling on the faith's eccentricities. The church's history of polygamy, for example, is off-putting to many. But Mormonism can provoke extreme reactions for deeper reasons.

After decades of explosive growth, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is no longer a relatively small, quirky, American-bred offshoot of Protestant Christianity but an increasingly influential institution that erects large temples in major cities, sends most of its young men on two-year proselytizing missions and operates big businesses across the country. The Mormons, critics say, are secretive and strange, and they are controlling more and more of your world.

The church's growth in power and prominence reflects its highly organized structure -- headed by a prophet who Mormons believe speaks for God -- that not only encourages but demands unusually active participation from congregants. To some outsiders, this can make it seem conspiratorial. On the lower- and middle-management levels, the church does not employ a professional clergy. Instead, everyday members are integrated into the institutional hierarchy and balance this responsibility with their professional lives. Romney himself has served as a stake president, an office loosely akin to that of a Catholic bishop. This fusion of laity and clergy means that rank-and-file Mormons are bound to the pronouncements of church leaders in a way that Catholic parishioners are not -- indeed, rank-and-file Mormons often are the ones implementing church policy.

Mormon culture also precludes the sort of passive association with the church that many Christian denominations in the United States tacitly allow. Members are either "active" or "inactive," and to remain in the former category, one must regularly attend Sunday services -- which run for three hours -- and accept a role such as choral director or Sunday school teacher or stake president. To be Mormon is to be an exceptionally committed participant in the community. This demanding communitarian streak strikes some as cultish, leading to the fear that Romney would be a tool of the church's First Presidency.

But regardless of how uncomfortable some of these characteristics make some feel, it is unproductive to focus on Romney's Mormonism. A candidate's faith, like that of an L.A. high school student or anyone else is ultimately a complex and personal phenomenon, even in the context of a highly centralized religious organization. My experience in Mormon congregations across the country has taught me that it is impossible to tell precisely how individual Mormons will apply their religious principles to their professional lives. And beyond encouraging hard work and honesty, the church itself is hardly definitive on the subject. Consider the divergent examples of other well-known Mormons -- those of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), say.

No one but Romney can know how his beliefs might affect his judgment. Instead of focusing on his faith, it would be much more worthwhile for voters to judge Mitt Romney on his evolving political agenda -- as Republicans did when George Romney ran in 1967.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. His e-mail address isstrombergs@washpost.com.

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