Mitt Romney and the Politics of … Mitt Romney

A response to Stuart Parker’s Mitt Romney and the Politics of Passing from Armand Mauss.


I found Stuart Parker’s take on Romney’s problems a combination of interesting insights and dubious observations. I tend to agree with some of what he had to say, but I had a problem, first of all, with his tendency to conflate the individual and the collective levels of analysis. I have always considered the “passing” phenomenon as occurring primarily at the individual level, rather than at the collective or institutional level, where I prefer the term “assimilation.” Within any collective category, some individuals will have the necessary traits (physical or otherwise), the resources, the opportunity, and the motivation to “pass,” but others in the same category will not. Ultimately it is an individual decision to try “passing,” well before it is ratified by the majority into which the passing is attempted. Perhaps assimilation could be considered simply a collective accumulation of individual “passes,” but in the Mormon case, as in many others, assimilation was an institutional decision; it was made and carried out by the leadership of the Church during the first half of the 20th century. The leadership has always shown some ambivalence about this process and has taken the Church back and forth, toward and then away from, assimilation since mid-century.

I don’t think Romney’s political fortunes (or those of any other Mormon so public) can be understood apart from that institutional context, but neither do I think that context is the ultimate factor in shaping those fortunes, whether for Romney, Huntsman, Udalls, Harry Reid, or any other Mormons. Instead, I think we must look first to their respective personalities, not ignoring, of course, what their religious experiences have contributed to their personalities. In Romney’s case, I have seen several claims by his close friends and family members that his persona is much warmer and more engaging in his informal encounters (especially with them) than in his political encounters and appearances. It is in the latter that the pundits have declared him “stiff,” unable or unwilling to “connect” with his audiences, or to project the necessary “authenticity” in what he has to say. I confess to sharing somewhat in that critique of Romney’s public performances, and I’m not sure I know how to explain the problem he seems to be having.

However, among the possibilities that occurred to me was that perhaps he retains a little too much of what I have come to call the “priesthood leader persona” (PLP), which I have observed across the years as a common trait in Mormon men who have spent many years in the parallel (if secondary) church career track, beginning as bishop, followed by a term in a stake presidency, then as stake president, “regional rep” (as it used to be called), or (now) area authority. In the PLP, we see an affability that is somewhat contrived and restrained in order to maintain a certain social distance; an expectation of (and comfort with) deference; a preference for titles, rather than first names, in all church social transactions, even the most informal ones; a somewhat didactic and imperious mode of addressing crowds and groups; etc. The PLP works well in the LDS ecclesiastical culture and is doubtless ingrained in a leader as he moves through the ranks and learns the “unwritten order of things” (to borrow a phase from Elder Packer’s instructions at BYU in 1996). Spending years in this culture can produce a “trained incapacity” to relate to others in an open and genuine way, at least outside a rather small and intimate circle of colleagues, friends, and relatives. I would not, of course, claim any inevitability about all this, for I have seen a few exceptions in my lifetime — but fewer yet who can discard the PLP after leaving high office, even at the stake level. In any case, the PLP is my hypothesis about Romney’s problem (one which would have been reinforced by his roles in the business world). It might also help explain the contrast between Romney and Huntsman Jr., who never became a priesthood leader, as far as I know.

At the collective or institutional level, as I indicated above, I’m not sure that the “passing” concept has any usefulness beyond the more conventional “assimilation.” I think Parker is right in seeing the downside (for the LDS public image) of the Church’s interventions in such issues as the ERA and Prop. 8, but when he resorts to explaining such political interventions as part of an effort to “pass” into evangelical Christianity, he ignores the Church’s own ideological motivations, which are entitled to the same respect as anyone else’s, even if leftist observers like Parker regard these as politically retrograde. Mormon leaders might be understood as simply taking seriously their prophetic imperative when they inject themselves into national issues which they regard as especially crucial. Otherwise, what are prophets for? The cost paid by the Church in public relations is a separate issue. If Parker wants a truly historic example of “passing” (or “assimilation” in my terms) by a “Mormon” denomination, he might look to the Community of Christ (formerly the RLDS). Presumably he would see the RLDS accommodations to liberal Christianity (including even their name-change) as more palatable politically than the LDS accommodations to Evangelical Christianity (if that’s what they were).

Even in light of Niemoller’s plaintive plea, experience indicates to me that “moral authority” comes not from being on the apparently “progressive” side in any short-term political controversy but rather from the verdict of history in the long term. Correctly or not, Mormon leaders of recent decades have understood their resistance to legally mandated equality across the board for the sexes and homosexuals as resistance against the erosion of the family as a foundational institution of both the society and the Church. Whether their thinking on this has been truly prophetic or only retrograde might require a couple of more generations to determine. Time has not always ratified the politically “progressive” in our history. For example, in both the U. S. and Canada, it was once considered politically acceptable to deal with our indigenous aboriginal peoples through genocide, followed eventually by the more “progressive” ethnic cleansing, or forced assimilation. Does that chapter in the history of our countries disqualify us forever from condemning the genocide and ethnic cleansing now occurring in other parts of the world? Similarly, if Mormons once shared in the racist national consensus about black people, and lagged, by a decade or so, in keeping pace as that consensus changed, will Mormons never be entitled to criticize religious bigotry? And so on . . .


  1. We are told to putteth off the natural man and become like Christ. In other words don’t be who YOU are, be someone else, in fact be perfect which of course is impossible but try anyway. While this is a great gospel goal it creates a lot of dissonance for many and cannot be accomplished while retaining our authenticity unless we were psychologically healthy to begin with or we resolve our psychological issues along the way. So instead many of us look at the LDS role models around us, fortunately we have many good ones and we emulate them. In other words we’re faking authenticity in an oddly LDS way and those who are authentic know it.

  2. Great write-up, Armand. PLP is now forever associated with the behavior you describe in my mind.

  3. Why are you singling out the US and Canada for “genocide” when the Spanish eliminated far more indigenes in the new world? White-washing indeed.

  4. This is a much better reflection on Romney than Stuart’s piece. Thanks for contributing this.

    I agree that if Romney is inauthentic (I don’t agree that this is the case), then it is a result of what you have described as the PLP rather than “passing” as Stuart described it.

    One criticism I have seen frequently raised from sources intimately familiar yet highly critical of and/or downright hostile to Mormons seems to have some merit in describing Romney’s difficulty connecting and seems closely related to your own PLP observation. That is that the heirarchical nature of Mormonism and its culture of deference to priesthood leaders has made Romney into someone who cannot relate to an audience that already “sustains” him and all his ideas and decisions. The criticism is that in Church culture, we have developed a way of life in which we believe that it is wrong to question Church leaders, challenge their ideas by bringing up counterarguments or contrary suggestions, hold them accountable for mistakes etc. So someone who has over decades worked within this framework of presiding without ever needing to truly persuade (though one could see that as a contravention of D&C 121) or compromise has become someone incapable of fitting into the power structures of the “real world”.

    I think that unfortunately there might indeed be something to this criticism though it is certainly problematic as a theory. And I actually don’t think it applies to Romney.

    Romney is kind of awkward in front of big crowds at political speeches. That is not the same as inauthentic or fake. Can’t someone just be awkward in such circumstances because that’s their personality? A harmless weirdness that is just who he is, independent of Mormonism or his callings or his background. He’s not gregarious. It doesn’t have to be a religious thing and wouldn’t be if he were Methodist, Baptist or Episcopelian.

  5. oops, meant to say “someone who cannot relate to an audience that ?DOES NOT already “sustain” him and all his ideas and decisions

  6. As I’ve listened to several NPR interviews with high level US military officers over Iraq and Afghanistan in the last few years I’ve noticed an analogous MLP to Romney’s PLP. I think john’s phrase about “presiding without ever needing to truly persuade” perfectly describes this. Their authority as a general is completely embodied in their rank as a church leader’s authority is completely embodied in their calling.

  7. Clark Goble says:

    Part of me agrees with a lot you say. Part of me still thinks the “passing” phenomena is real and probably is part of Romney’s personality. But most of me thinks that the way politicians are portrayed often has little to do with their actual personality. Rather it’s the very nature of politics and the fear of making a mistake.

    Compare Obama before running for President versus when he ran for President versus after he was President. Pretty different portrayals of personae. Compare Bush II when he was running for governor versus running for President versus when he was President. There’s so much pressure and so much penalty for mistakes that I think it transforms everyone.

    I think Romney wanted to try and be a politician but wasn’t that great of one. He came off as pandering, flip-flopping and wanting the job too much. So now he’s trying to not make mistakes which makes him come off as aloof and uncomfortable. While I don’t think it’s the only thing that makes him uncomfortable clearly he’s worried about making a gaffe. (Which hasn’t prevented him from making quite a few gaffes – if anything it probably guaranteed he would make gaffes)

    Now some people seem to have the amazing ability to just be the natural politician regardless of context. Reagan and Clinton come to mind immediately. But I think it’s a pretty rare skill. I’m also not at all convinced that skill indicates much about how well one would manage government (although it probably helps tremendously for getting support for what you want congress to pass).

    I think we too often look for the single cause. When in likelihood there is a ton of things going on.

  8. The PLP hypothesis is interesting. I agree with Clark that there is likely more than than one cause for Mitt’s stiffness. Stepping back a little, I think the longing for an emotional connection with a president is frankly nuts. I don’t care if the president can believably claim to “feel my pain.” In my book, people who have highly-developed manipulation toolkits should be trusted less, not more. Also, this is the United States, politics is not religion, and we are electing the manager of the executive branch of government, not a cult of personality. In short, three cheers for “uninspiring” competence!

  9. I think Romney is an introvert who happens to be a politician. To be honest many great leaders (not saying Romney is one) have been introverts and many people said similar things about them, for example Ghandi. (By no means am I comparing Ghandi to Romney, I am comparing the perception of Ghandi at the time to the current perception of Romney).

    I also think that Romney is a people pleaser. He wants to make everyone happy. Think about it, that is what he has done his whole life. An investor like Romney is a deal making. His method of deal making is to please both sides to find a win. In the business world, I think this worked out great for him. In the political world this is now considered horrible.

    I actually think that stating that Romney has some sort of PMP is an overstatement. He has spent a great deal of his life being a leader and more of it has been spent as a business leader. Many CEO’s have a similar personality trait. I really don’t think Romney is passing on anything, he is just trying to please all sides, which can turn out really bad in politics.

    I really don’t know how much Mormonism has had an effect on Romney this election cycle. Last election it was huge, this time people are concerned with his healthcare in Massachusetts (which was praised by Republicans in the last election and is the cardinal sin in this one).

    That said when I read the personal stories of Romney (the one’s he would never tell) I really tend to like the guy. Some of his stories like the one of him helping his partners daughter are likely unprecedented acts of kindness and leadership not seen among any presidential candidate ever (except maybe for the presidents who were war heroes). I think he can relate to people, their just can only be 5 of them in a room and no cameras. If he could talk to every voting American in private without cameras, I think he would win.

    Also, being wealthy for so long and not being in a Church leadership position that exposes him to poverty in a long time also doesn’t help him socially.

  10. The PLP mirrors the CLP (Corporate Leadership Persona). Whether you think one begets the other or that a certain personality type is typical of Priesthood Leadership at the higher levels they are not unrelated. Having studied the leadership styles and personal stories of a large number of CEOs from the 70s through the 2000’s I’m convinced that the stilted style comes as much from his role as a CEO of leading a major consulting and then LBO firm as his responsibilities as a priesthood leader. He’s a Harvard JD-MBA, a BCG man, an LBO specialist who grew up the youngest son in the home of a political and corporate giant. It was said he led as a Governor like a CEO – one way of interpreting that is that he handled it like any consultant would. Break the issues down, gather the data, coordinate with just the people who can help you accomplish the specific tasks, and push out orders expecting they’ll be accomplished. Often men who succeed in business struggle when it comes to moving into politics specifically because you can’t just order things be done but instead have to lobby and glad hand your opposition to win them over.

    In my mind it has little to do with passing or assimilation. It has much to do with being a man of his generation, being raised in a home of privilege and carrying roles of leadership for an extensive part of his life (in school, work, and Church). Look, George H W Bush was a stilted man too and he came from a very similar background to that of Romney with regards to wealth, education, and employment. He just doesn’t have that Mormon angle that everyone wants to tackle with Romney. In fact, you might look at the two sides of a similar coin when examining George W and George H W Bush. President 41 was a stilted silver spoon prep while 43 was a laid back easy going affable man of the people. You almost have the inverse when you compare Mitt to his father George. The junior more stilted while the father a man of the people who was able to connect well with others.

    Sometimes you just have to wonder if the stilted talk isn’t just his personality as a politician and everyone else is seeing him through their own lens of experience by which they can relate to the man.

  11. Stiltedness is an inhibition of one’s inner being and therefore inauthentic, I guess the debate is over the origin of this trait in Romney.

  12. Worthy speculations.

    I know a whole bunch of white LDS and non-LDS lawyers and engineers in their 50s and 60s who have a similar affect as Romney, none of whom have been notable as priesthood leaders. Perhaps steady guys who grew up embracing the post-war consensus are still a little shell-shocked from the 60s, dunno.

    But I wonder if cultural or environmental explanations are the whole story. The disagreement with the post that comes to mind is the implicit notion that awkwardness and formality outside a small, intimate circle are learned behaviors. I think we should be open to the possibility that these kinds of character traits can be innate in some instances, perhaps biological in origin. Introversion and extraversion at least appear to have a close connection to hormons and brain chemistry and therefore probably have a partly biological origin.


    This is interesting to watch, forty some minutes of Romney with Charlie Rose. I would say that often Romney is taking the opportunity to recite talking points, which is not normal conversation and therefore somewhat inauthentic by nature, or whatever, but for the most part he comes off as neither uncomfortable nor stilted. He seems quite comfortable talking, as I would assume someone would be who has his history of being out in front of things. It makes me wonder how much the perception of his in-authenticity is grounded in the feeling that says that it is impossible to hold his views and have a real human heart. (For instance, I’ve known a handful of CEOs, and I would describe none of them as anything less than fully authentic. Authentically an A-1 butthead in one case, but authentic all the same. The man who was CEO of the company where I almost got rich was one of the most authentic people I’ve ever been in proximity to – a man who is worth probably a couple hundred million, at least.) The same kind of feeling that says that one cannot oppose gay marriage unless one hates, for instance. (Said as someone who both opposes Romney’s politics and passively supports gay marriage.) In short, I wonder how much of this is simply an inability to see past our own world views, mixed with a personal discomfort about where our religion is situated in the public mind.

    A very interesting aside, I had no idea his mother had run for the US Senate.

    The last segment where Rose subtly calls him on whether or not his public views on immigration match his real feelings on the matter is the only point where he seems to be uncomfortable.

  14. Armand Mauss says:

    I recognize the similarity between the PLP and the CLP, and I think my post indicated that the one can certainly reinforce the other and probably has in Romney’s case. Yet I see the PLP occurring far more broadly than in business tycoons reared in wealth and privilege. While many Mormon leaders come from the business world, many others do not. Some come from medicine, dentistry, engineering, academia, etc., and recently especially from CES. I see the PLP in priesthood leaders from all occupational backgrounds, but some cases are more severe than others, and some seem unaffected by PLP at all (God bless ’em!). I think of the PLP concept as ideal-typical, not universal.

  15. “In short, I wonder how much of this is simply an inability to see past our own world views, mixed with a personal discomfort about where our religion is situated in the public mind.”

    This is interesting… is it Romney’s behavior causing the perception problem, or is it a problem others have with their perception of him due to their own personal world views? Or maybe even a combination of the two…

  16. Excellent! I asked just this question, about the relation between passing and assimilation on the other thread!

  17. #15 – Rebecca, as I said in the other thread, I think there is a lot of that involved here – combined with the pressure to relate to “the every (wo)man”. He isn’t an average guy, so when he tries to relate it comes off seeming fake – but a whole lot of people who believe Mormons are compulsive liars to begin with see him as fake without qualification, imo. That preconception magnifies every statement he makes.

    Again, I think this is shown in the fact that the only states in which he can’t compete are those dominated by evangelicals and the poor – many of whom really do despise him because he’s am ultra-rich Mormon. (Why else would his payment of tithing be any sort of issue for a group that is highly religious, for example? Of course, it’s because that tithing is seen as funding a highly dangerous cult.)

    Finally, most people have a difficult time accepting nuance in areas where they want certainty, so anyone who governs according to the will of those who elect him (like I believe is Romney’s core paradigm) will have a difficult time seeing someone as authentic who has governed one way with one group and now says he will govern another way with another group. To me, that’s not inauthentic; it’s a specific political paradigm.

  18. All I know is that Mitt Romney acts like every stake president I’ve had since reaching adulthood: creepily inauthentic hyperconcerned about appearances, etc. There no one of them in all my adult life in the LDS Church that I would want anywhere near the Oval Office.

    This is one Mormon who won’t be voting for Mitt. I can barely handle stake president types at church. Who wants to deal with them in the politiical sphere.

  19. Glass Ceiling says:


    Wow. If that’s the most important thing on your mind when you go into the voting booth in November, please do us all a favor and just skip it.

    Or just vote for Obama for his looks like you were going to do anyway… and like you did three years ago.

  20. Peter LLC says:

    Does that chapter in the history of our countries disqualify us forever from condemning the genocide and ethnic cleansing now occurring in other parts of the world?

    That’s a question that Americans and Canadians will have to leave to the rest of the world to answer.

  21. There’s something more going on with Romney. I used to work for a U.S. Senator who was awkward, not a great speaker in public, used words incorrectly etc. but in him it became endearing because he had an innate ability to speak through all that as a real person. You liked him because he wasn’t slick, wasn’t smooth. Even though he had been a reasonably successful businessman, that’s not the image he projected. He came across as a likable ordinary guy “just like me.” That, I’m afraid, Romney can never do. To me, he’s just a rich dork.

  22. Glass Ceiling,

    Naw. I;’ll still vote, Too bad for you. Of course, you have no idea how I voted in the last election, so that little bit was a swing and a miss.

    Actually, I initially saw Romney (the moderate Romney, from his Massachusetts-governor period before he started pandering to the extreme Right) as a viable candidate for me. But his ridiculous attempts to convince the religious Right to like him, some of which have been driven, I think, by what the post expresses above, have completely turned me off to his candidacy. What are the man’s core values?

  23. I am sure that Romney’s Mormonism and church leadership experiences have had a signficant effect on his personality and his ways of relating to the electorate, but I also believe that whatever awkwardness or inauthenticity people think they perceive is easily explained by a variety of factors that have nothing at all to do with Mormonism or his church leadership experience. All of us are shaped by our genes and other biological factors. We are also significantly influenced by our educational and professional careers. My own education and professional experience is fairly similar to his, although he is a far more successful leader and manager than I am. I don’t know him personally but I know some people who do and my entire career has been spent working with people with fairly similar backgrounds except none of them is Mormon. I see no reason at all to appeal to his Mormonism to explain the traits that people here are commenting on. He is a highly analytical strategist and from all reports I have heard, has excellent leadership and general “people skills” when operating within the business world. That is a very different world than the political realm and he has trouble crossing into that world and appealing to at least some segments of the electorate. He is making a conscious effort to do what his political analysis has told him he needs to do, but he does not come by that naturally and he is not very good at it. Nothing uniquely Mormon there.

    Although I generally occur with the comments in the OP on PLP, I believe that much of that phenomenon is the result of Priesthool leaders mimicking others. It is a cultural phenomenon, and many church leaders have a very different style outside of the church context than they do in church. I certainly do. As a result, I would be hesitant to generalize too much from that stereotype.

  24. What wonderful observations, Armand! I read the blog post and had similar thoughts about the stereotypical SP or Area Authority. Hard to imagine them eating hamburgers (or grits) in jeans and t-shirts. There’s a buttoned-up sense that accompanies the role. Additionally, when I think of “passing,” I always think of the film most of the younger ones on this blog will not have seen: Imitation of Life. Passing in that case becomes the arrogant and selfish dismissal of the past life and the whole heritage of blackness, which carries a price the daughter doesn’t understand until her mother dies. Since my co-author’s uncle DID “pass”–and that meant that he had no children and no contact with family except via telegraph–and lived to regret it as the worst decision of his life, I think of passing as a painful thing where one’s real identity is surrendered to a false image. I see Romney as accommodating or trying (often awkwardly) to fit in, but not as “passing.”

  25. “Similarly, if Mormons once shared in the racist national consensus about black people, and lagged, by a decade or so, in keeping pace as that consensus changed, will Mormons never be entitled to criticize religious bigotry? And so on . . .”

    This ending is ignoring certain not so subtle and important details of both the current and past reality of Mormonism and Mormon bigotry/racism. Mormons insist that they cannot refute their past racist actions and attitudes, only the explanations given for those actions and attitudes. So, I guess Mormons are entitled to criticize religious bigotry, and they are also entitled to insist they cannot repudiate their act of bigotry and they are also entitled to insist they should not be criticized by others in this regard. The comparison of allegedly “progressive” ethnic cleansing and the Mormon priesthood ban and the entitlement to criticize bigotry falls apart. The author of this post should know and most likely knows better.

    We Mormons are still there, in that point, where recognizing the wrong of our past has not really come to its full completion. And unfortunately, we are not lagging by “a decade or so.”

%d bloggers like this: