I approached Newsweek's cover story on Mitt Romney with dread. Would this be still another media demand that Romney deliver a J.F.K. speech that promises to build an unscalable wall between his faith and his public service? The good news is that the 5,100-word article by Jonathan Darman and Lisa Miller is better than that. J.F.K. is not invoked at all, but the article returns often to the theme of Romney's reluctance to discuss his faith on reporters' terms.
The article's lede is a good illustration of this. The reporters have found Romney's childhood meetinghouse (the term used by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), and they inform Romney that it's still a church. Romney doesn't seem to care much, and I'm not sure anybody should blame him. His former meetinghouse is now the Unity Church in Pontiac. The LDS and Unity are both churches, of course, but their theology has about as much in common as the carbon footprints of a Toyota Prius and a Hummer.
OK, Romney doesn't offer any misty water-colored memories of his childhood in that meetinghouse. So what?
I think the reporters are trying too hard to argue that Romney's faith will be a stumbling block. By Newsweek's telling, Romney is in trouble either because he doesn't love his faith enough to talk about it freely or he takes his faith so seriously that he's a possible extremist.
Darman and Miller write:
Mindful of the sway of evangelical Christians over the GOP base, he has positioned himself as the candidate with conservative principles and strong faith, even adopting evangelical language in calling Jesus Christ his "personal savior" (vernacular not generally used by members of the Mormon Church).
Really? This would be news to LDS missionaries who use that same language when visiting in the homes of evangelical Protestants, or to LDS theologians such as Robert Millet who have engaged in a years-long dialogue with evangelical theologians.
Giving a broad picture of LDS life, Darman and Miller write:
At 12, boys become "deacons"; they prepare and eventually serve the sacramental bread and water at worship services. Around that time, children can also do "proxy baptisms," or baptisms for the dead. (These are mostly done on behalf of Mormons' own ancestors, but they became controversial about a decade ago when it was discovered that they were also being done for dead Holocaust victims. The church ceased the practice, wherever possible.)
Here we have the imprecise they, which leaves readers unclear on what the article means by "the practice." This statement from the church's headquarters in Salt Lake City suggests that proxy baptisms continue, but that the church has urged members to "submit for temple ordinances the names of their own ancestors, and not the names of deceased celebrities or Jewish [H]olocaust victims."
Here is Newsweek's description of how Boston media handled Romney's race against Sen. Ted Kennedy:
From the start, Romney made clear that questions about his faith were out of bounds, and from the start, his faith was all anyone wanted to talk about. The Boston papers were filled with tales of his secret Mormon life. As bishop, he'd counseled a Mormon woman not to have an abortion. As stake president, he'd called homosexuality "perverse." (Romney denied making this comment.) The tales fed the notion that there was something sinister inside Romney, that beneath the mild-mannered moderate lurked a secret extremist.
Replace the words Mormon with evangelical and stake president with elder or pastor and you could have a story about thousands of church leaders, at least regarding pastoral counseling about abortion. Thousands of church leaders also stand on the conservative side of disputes about homosexuality, and their argument usually is more sophisticated than using the word perverse -- which, as Newsweek reports, Romney denies saying.
Otherwise, Newsweek's article is an admirable example of how to write a lengthy and informative profile without much obvious cooperation by the subject. One fine paragraph tells of how Romney's father honored the faith of Tito Cortella, an exchange student who lived with the family when Mitt was about 12:
George also enforced his belief that his Mormon children had to be integrated into the world and respect people of different backgrounds. Cortella remembers his Roman Catholic mother's being apprehensive about sending her son into the bosom of a Mormon family -- until the first Sunday he spent at the Romneys' house. "It was about 11 o'clock in the morning," Cortella says. "Mr. Romney said, 'You come with me.' He took me to the Catholic church not far from the house. He said, 'From now on, every Sunday you will come to this church,' and he was getting mad if I was not going." In an even starker example of the senior Romney's live-and-let-live policy, Cortella says the Romneys allowed him to smoke cigarettes in his room.
Newsweek cites polls indicating voters' lingering misgivings about electing a member of the LDS as president -- which leaves me eager for the primaries to begin. If Romney were to win his party's nomination, I think Republicans' pragmatism may well override their doubts about voting for him in the general election. If Romney does not win the party's nomination, I suspect the reasons will be far more complex than voters' suspicions about his faith.