What Mitt’s Mormonism Does Mean

Mitt Romney has an identity problem. Newsweek says “voters can’t connect with a candidate they feel they don’t know.” The Chicago Tribune asks “Who is the Real Mitt Romney?” Each publication goes on to try and pin Mitt Romney down, explaining the man in terms of his ancestry, career path, and, most often, his religion. (At one point, Newsweek suggests that Romney’s m.o. at his private equity firm was essentially Mormon– “make good choices because you’ll have to live with their consequences.” Right. Because Catholics and Baptists prefer to make stupid choices).

Despite their attempts to understand the man, both pieces, and scores of other stories just like them, conclude that Romney is inscrutable– an enigma wrapped in a religion wrapped in an enigmatic religion. If you examine these kinds of pieces closely, this conclusion is a bit shocking. For all the people that have set out to understand Mitt Romney as a human being via the interpretive lens of his religion, you would think someone would either find the religion helpful in some way, or that everyone would eventually abandon the approach as useless. Instead, the parade marches on, every week bringing a new story with the same formula: “Who is this guy? Let’s consult his religious beliefs to understand him. Hmm, we conclude that he’s a mystery.” Do journalists have fun asking questions they know they can’t answer, or are they just enjoying the tease?

The repetition of these inquiries reveals one thing: that regardless of whether it sheds any light, the religion angle brings lots of heat, so it’s going to remain a juicy part of the narrative. This is disappointing, because hidden under the analysis of obscure doctrines and superficial cultural flavor, Romney’s Mormonism actually does reveal something very important about the man.

A radio host surprised me a few days ago by cutting to that very issue: “Okay, if you say Romney’s theology says nothing about his candidacy, and his missionary work says nothing about his candidacy- does his religion say anything about him? It must mean something.” Finally, someone cutting to the chase.

The answer is hiding right out in plain sight: What Mitt Romney’s religion says about the man at his core is that the man has a core. Set aside what nuances we can infer from this or that strange Mormon belief or religious experience. No one can discover the subtle shading of a person’s character merely by examining their collected religious doctrine. But what you can discover is whether that character exists, and to what extent it drives the man.

Don’t laugh- the location of a core, and of a character, at Mitt Romney’s heart is no small discovery. The insinuation behind every “Who is Mitt Romney” story is that he is no one at all. As Jon Stewart asks to great guffaws “Is this guy human?” The greatest problem in Mitt Romney’s image is that people think he lacks humanity. This is translated in a thousand different ways: canned, packaged, robotic, automaton, corporate, slick, opportunistic. In short, Americans seem to be afraid that Mitt Romney the candidate has been manufactured for the job, rather than organically developed from a human life full of nitty gritty experience.

That’s where religion comes in. If anything is beyond debate about Mormonism, it is this: it’s hard. Mormonism asks a lot of its members. It requires great discipline, prioritizing, sacrificing, and sometimes sticking out from the crowd. If Mitt Romney is a robot, why is he a teetotaler after all these long years of dealing with the good old boys of corporate America? And given that same crowd’s vocabulary, why does Mitt Romney refuse to drop a damn or a hell, let alone anything stronger? If Mitt Romney is an opportunist with his eye always on the next prize to be won, why give hundreds of hours of quiet service behind the closed door of a Mormon bishop’s office, and hundreds more as a Stake President? If this man is an empty shell, what could motivate him to raise five sons with the same heavy expectations, asking each of them to live ultra-moral lives that could only be peculiar in the eyes of their peers? If this is just a power-grabbing corporate suit, wouldn’t there certainly be a trail of cooked books, loose women, or secret bar tabs out there somewhere? In short, isn’t he surprisingly, unwafflingly, principled?

Only a firm, abiding belief in something could motivate such a consistent course in life. Everyone knows a person or two like this. And everyone who knows such a person also happens to know exactly what belief system drives that person at their core. It’s not that they wear it on their sleeve, it’s that they stick out so much that you can’t help but be curious. That same curiosity is now being played out on a national stage, regarding a guy that people just can’t accept as real. But understanding his religion is the first step in seeing that that visible virtue is merely a sign that Mitt Romney possesses a rock solid personal core.

What is most baffling is when Romney’s religion is used in support of the argument that he is a personal nullity. Dan Bartlett says that voters who have a problem with Romney’s religion will demur on their prejudice, opting to use the code that he’s a “flip-flopper” instead. Others have used Mormonism to explain Romney’s shiny perfection, dismissing it all as a facade that hides the (putatively corrupt) human inside. Contra these critics, Mormonism is not the road of the opportunist. It’s a hard road, personally and politically. Mitt Romney’s ride to the white house would be immeasurably smoother if he were to distance himself from his faith. Surely his refusal to do so says something about the commitments he holds dear.

The flip-flop charges will continue, some of them true, some of them not (no, Mitt Romney has never flipped on gay rights- check the record). Unquestionably, Mitt Romney’s policy stances have changed over the years. But there are those who take the flip-flops as evidence of a deeper issue- that deep down in the center of the man, there’s nothing there. The truth is that anyone seeking evidence of a fundamental character need look no farther than Romney’s religious commitment. It fires the center of the man, giving him principles, vision, a world view and an assessment of himself and humanity that others lack. You can’t be a hollow robot and be a faithful Mormon in Boston, in the corporate world, in politics. Hollow robots conform, adapt, take on the easiest profile to win. Mitt the politician may have found a few easy positions, but Mitt the man never has.

As Romney recently wrote “I am not a cafeteria Mormon, choosing some parts to accept and reject—I am “true blue, through and through.” What he’s saying is that if forced to choose between his deeply held religious beliefs and the presidency, he’ll choose the former without hesitation. Query how many of the other leading candidates would make the same decision. John McCain recently announced, while in South Carolina, that he’s actually a Baptist now, despite his long affiliation with the Episcopal faith. Hmm. Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson pose as disciples, but carry not a single visible mark of their discipleship.

Despite all this, the media will keep reporting Romney’s religion as a collection of odd beliefs rather than the impressive, organizing commitment of Mitt Romney’s life. It’s funny that all those people analyzing “Mitt the Mormon” have missed this crucial point, opting to discuss the more sensationalistic elements of the faith instead, and eschewing any actual conclusions at all.

Makes you wonder if they’re not just the least bit . . . opportunistic?