On trying to recognize a Mormon from afar

I belong to a current events discussion group. Once a week, we get together in the back room of a bar and talk about the week’s news. It’s generally non-partisan — they are an international and politically diverse group united largely by the fact that they all read several news sources a day, mostly in several languages. Many work or have worked as diplomats.

A few weeks ago, we were talking about the American presidential race. One participant turned to me and said, ‘As a Mormon, what can you tell us about Romney that is hard to understand otherwise?’ (Of course everyone knows I’m Mormon as I sip my Coke Zeros in the presence of beer and cider enthusiasts week after week.)

It’s a tempting question, and in a way was meant as a gift: in the group, the opportunity to explain the inexplicable from an informed position is rare and coveted. But I drew a complete blank.

The trouble is this: Romney’s Mormonism doesn’t explain him to me in any way whatsoever. I suppose his tendency to espouse conservative positions makes him seem more like the High Priests in my dad’s ward, but that’s less his Mormonism and more the state of the Republican Party.

I’ve watched the campaign fairly carefully, and I’ve consciously watched Romney for some sort of General Conference cadence or a Build Relationships of Trust moment, but at no moment have I uttered, ‘Ah!’ or ‘O-ho!’ and given my computer screen a knowing wink.

I’m not casting any aspersions on Romney’s status as a Mormon, and I’m sure that if I met Brother Romney in the right circumstances we would trade Mormonisms in typical foyer-speak, but I’m not getting anything clear on my Mormon radar.

It would probably be pretty easy to cobble together a bit of punditry. Take, for instance, Romney’s defiant refusal to release his tax returns. His ‘I have nothing to hide so I won’t show you anything’ position might seem roughly parallel to the stance the church takes on its own dealings and history from time to time. I can see that, and it’s a tempting piece of fruit, just hanging there. But really, is that Mormonism? In my experience, does the institutional tendency toward secrecy really trickle down into the lives of the members? I’m not talking about the temple or anything: are Mormons as a general group of people worldwide more likely to refuse to share information about themselves or the work that they do? Do I?

Romney has lots of experiences that might have created his sense that he need not explain himself in this manner: being the son of a public figure, working in the highest levels of the world of finance, being involved with a public event like the Olympics. And to what extent is that decision even his own rather than his advisors?

It’s entirely possible that Mormonism, despite its conspicuous cultural and lifestyle markers, does not define our lives as much as we might think. Maybe it is one element of what makes us who we appear to be in our workaday lives, but only one element, and not always the most significant.


  1. Thanks, Dean – I don’t read enough comments regurgitating the tax returns issue on EVERY OTHER SITE on the internet. Very appropriate and original insight for this discussion as well.

    I’ve been asked this once or twice, and in my responses I have tried to explain what the experience of lay ecclesiastical leadership in the Mormon church is like. This is one part of Romney’s background that you don’t see broadly discussed, but to many Mormons this informs a great deal about how we think about Romney’s character. We are familiar, to one degree or another, with the experiences bishops and stake presidents have helping families in need, spending late nights in the bishop’s office counseling and grieving with ward members, caring and worrying for somebody who has lost a job or is experiencing poor health, answering late night phone calls, and sacrificing coveted personal and family time to carry out these duties. I’ve known a great many bishops who were stiff and cold and awkward in public, but behind closed doors ministered in the gospel with compassion and character. That kind of service is relevant to the question of Romney’s leadership.

  2. Jonovitch says:

    (^^^ Well, I guess Dean’s brilliant contribution was deleted by an admin, due to its complete lack of relevance to this topic. Go figure.)

    I have to add to what Michael said in his comment. Most “outsiders” don’t have a clue what it means to be a bishop or stake president. The greatest bit of insider information, I think, is explaining what that means. For example, here is an excerpt from a conversation I had on Facebook with a friend of mine:

    – – –

    As for the type of person Romney is and what he cares about, I will defend his character til I’m blue in the face. If anything, he is a saint, and I say that with complete confidence, based solely on knowing that he held two specific leadership positions at church (“bishop” of a congregation, and “stake president” overseeing about a dozen congregations). Most people don’t realize what kind of compassion, spiritual attentiveness, and sheer selflessness are required to simply function in those positions — it is the very definition of “pure religion and undefiled”. Whether it was for widows, single moms, fatherless children, the poor and destitute who are struggling financially or spiritually, I can guarantee that he gave unceasingly of his time, talents, thoughts, prayers, possibly even money, and whatever else he had to give — day after day, week after week, for years on end, with no thought of ever being “repaid” for any of it, other than the perhaps the spiritual blessings he believed would come from it. The amount of time alone that is required for those leadership positions is akin to adding another part-time job to your schedule, for 5-10 years at a time, and not a single bit of it is for pay. These are not jobs you aspire to; you don’t get voted in. The men who take them are basically assigned to do them, and they say “yes” without hesitation.

    If that were all I knew about him, I’d be completely satisfied about his character. But I’ve also read the widely verified accounts of him (as governor) and his son rushing to the middle of a dark lake at night on jet skis to save a terrified family and their dog from a rapidly sinking boat. Or of a similar rescue of kayakers years before. Or of him (at Bain) closing down his company and immediately flying himself, the board of directors, and the entire staff to NYC to look for a friend’s missing teenage daughter, printing hundreds of thousands of full-color flyers, getting it on the news, and for two days personally walking the back alleys and seedy hangouts to try to find her. Or of him removing a hornet’s nest after the homeowner fell off the roof. Or of him carefully listening, one by one, to 250 women at church, writing down all their suggestions and enacting a lot of changes based on them. These aren’t the stories of a radical, heartless megalomaniac. They are the stories of an honest, caring, good man. And the best part about all these stories is, you’d have to force him to talk about any of them, because he doesn’t offer them up on his own. *That* is character.

    You might disagree with his policies or his business practices, but Mitt Romney is a good person. He is certainly not the caricatured heartless Tin Man some people make him out to be. In fact, not only does he have a heart, he’s got a brain and courage to boot.

    – – –


  3. Michael, I thought the same you did about Brother Romney’s service as a church leader. I suppose the other interesting element of him (at least until this week) is his restraint in addressing areas of faith and his loyalty to the church. I think that restraint is uniquely Mormon (when compared, for instance, iwth some evangelicals I know), at least among some Mormons.

  4. I am going to steal a comment as well. You can click here, I am cutting and pasting from

    Author: Mike S
    Comment: #34
    In Buddhism, one of the precepts of the Eight-fold path (fundamental tenets) is Right Livelihood.  The concept is that we should make our living doing ethical things that are good for our communities and which don’t violate our beliefs.  And this doesn’t necessarily mean “legal”, as there are many “legal” things which are not ethical.  For example, a true Buddhist wouldn’t sell alcohol, wouldn’t sell weapons, etc.  But even more importantly, they should specifically do things which have the greatest benefit to others.

    In contrast, it is interesting the compromises we make as LDS members to justify what we do in business.  As I listed in comment #6, even the Church itself supports businesses that are directly against its own teachings.  For years, Marriott made money on porn (since removed).  And the number of mental hoops we jump through to justify our business dealing is staggering.

    For example, even Mitt Romney made much of his money doing things that I personally find unethical, although quite legal.  These financial maneuverings are based on greed.  They don’t build communities, jobs, or anything else.  Here is an example from recent article:

    In a typical private-equity fragging, Bain put up a mere $18 million to acquire KB Toys and got big banks to finance the remaining $302 million it needed. Less than a year and a half after the purchase, Bain decided to give itself a gift known as a “dividend recapitalization.” The firm induced KB Toys to redeem $121 million in stock and take out more than $66 million in bank loans – $83 million of which went directly into the pockets of Bain’s owners and investors, including Romney. “The dividend recap is like borrowing someone else’s credit card to take out a cash advance, and then leaving them to pay it off,” says Heather Slavkin Corzo, who monitors private equity takeovers as the senior legal policy adviser for the AFL-CIO.

    Bain ended up earning a return of at least 370 percent on the deal, while KB Toys fell into bankruptcy, saddled with millions in debt. KB’s former parent company, Big Lots, alleged in bankruptcy court that Bain’s “unjustified” return on the dividend recap was actually “900 percent in a mere 16 months.” Patnode, by contrast, was fired in December 2008, after almost four decades on the job. Like other employees, he didn’t get a single day’s severance…

    …there’s absolutely no way to look at what Bain did at KB and see anything but a cash grab – one that followed the business model laid out by Romney. Rather than cutting costs and tightening belts, Bain added $300 million in debt to the firm’s bottom line while taking out more than $120 million in cash – an outright looting that creditors later described in a lawsuit as “breaking open the piggy bank.” What’s more, Bain smoothed the deal in typical fashion by giving huge bonuses to the company’s top managers as the firm headed toward bankruptcy. CEO Michael Glazer got an incredible $18.4 million, while CFO Robert Feldman received $4.8 million and senior VP Thomas Alfonsi took home $3.3 million.

    While there are many things I like about Romney, I’m not impressed by his quarter of a billion in wealth.  There are certainly many people who look at him googly-eyed and who see nothing wrong with the financial games people play on Wall Street, but they ultimately have caused economic misery for millions of Americans so people like Romney could amass more money than they could ever spend.

    Legal?  Yep.
    Ethical?  Nope.

  5. Norbert,
    From all that I have observed about Romney during both this election season and the last, I must say that he strikes me as the quintessential American stake president: hard working and absolutely determined to both be good and do good. I, personally, feel in some ways like I already know him and trust him just based on my experience with many other stake presidents. Perhaps stake presidents in Finland are different ;-).

    I am starting to get excited that just maybe this Mormon candidate will actually be elected! I am certain that he and his administration would be a BIG improvement from the current one. However, I continue to surprised and appalled by the general confusion about and distrust of Mormons in general. I thought that we were better known than that. Whatever else happens in November, this presidential election has been great for drumming up publicity about the Church.

  6. Mitt Romney was my Stake President when I was in college. He’s a good man and a very caring person. Political views aside, he’s a good person. I didn’t watch the RNC convention speeches (mostly because both parties’ national conventions usually nauseate me), but I was happy to hear that there were personal testimonials from local members that described their interactions with Bishop Romney. I know the couple who spoke about their son who died of cancer (Ted and Pat Oparowski), and their experience is similar to that of other people I know from my time in MA.

    There always are two views on everything that appear reasonable and compelling to different people (opposition in all things), and it’s really easy to armchair quarterback without all of the relevant information of the moment. I just find it interesting that the vast majority of people who know Bro. Romney personally agree that he’s a good, honest man – even those who disagree with his religion and his politics. They might not agree with or even like him, but they agree he’s a good, honest, caring person.

    I think, Norbert, that it isn’t a secrecy thing with Mitt. I think he honestly doesn’t like to toot his own horn – that, at heart, he really is as humble as it’s possible to be in his situation in life. It’s just that being relatively humble and not a natural bragger is not exactly common in American politics, so it comes across as uncaring and aloof – especially for someone who is much more at ease “on the attack” (focusing away from himself) in public.

    If there’s a Mormon aspect to Mitt and his presidency, I think it’s his near obsession with not doing alms to be seen of men (or, perhaps, “the world”). It’s one thing for Mormons to do something on a group level (Mormon Helping Hands); it’s quite another to broadcast personal service. We draw clear lines between those two activities, and I know Mitt has served quietly and privately for decades. It’s not a matter of secrecy; it’s a matter of private discipleship.

  7. I’m not saying Romney is a bad person. His ethics aren’t the issue. He can be a good, caring person and still not be peculiarly Mormon. He can also be a bit out of touch (as he is widely perceived to be) and not be recognizably Mormon. I’m not criticizing Romney; the tax thing happened to be in the news. I just don’t feel a tribal spark of recognition.

    And I know he was a Stake President, but is there anything in his public face that you can identify as specifically Stake Presidentish? Lots of people work hard and want to do good.

  8. I know you aren’t saying that, Norbert. I didn’t mean to make it sound like you are. The first part of my comment was a personal observation in response to a comment, not a reflection on your post. The final paragraphs addressed your post.

    Yes, I think he is remarkably, stereotypically Mormon (and, especially, Stake Presidentish) in his “public face”. I think I would look at him and wonder, if I didn’t know. I also think his unease with being the center of attention in an arena where he is expected to promote himself at a personal level is one manifestation of that. Not many politicians lack a love of self-promotion that extends to anything and everything; Mitt, however, has a hard time sharing confidences, if you will – and that, I believe, is a direct result of serving in positions that are supposed to require an extreme awareness of confidentiality and working behind the scenes.

  9. Elsie Kleeman says:

    I think his manner is Mormon. Restraint is certainly an aspect of it, but I would also describe it as subdued. Sacrament meeting carries a lot more ‘reverence’ than other denominational meetings I’ve seen. I don’t see him as aloof, just very serious. Perhaps it is because he was a bishop and a Stake President – good point, Ray,

    He looks like a Mormon – he could be on the cover of the Ensign. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but it’s there. A coworker of my husband (not a Mormon) says he can tell from a glance if a person is Mormon. He gave a very effective demonstration in the office. He attributes it to intermarriage and a small gene pool. (The gene pool isn’t that small, and my mother’s a convert so…?)

    Graying around the temples, so comfortable in a white shirt and tie, serious demeanor…very Mormon indeed.

  10. NewlyHousewife says:

    I attribute his restraint to his job than his previous callings. If he’s the guy that went in and closed factories, probably wise to not be pompous about yourself for safety. He spent more time working than being a bishop and stake president. I attribute any personal changes he has made to his callings, but overall ability to keep confidence work related.

  11. I don’t recognize anything at all uniquely Mormon about him. I suppose it really must depend on what one’s experience of Mormonism is. He doesn’t look like the typical Bishop or Stake President around here. Maybe around other parts, but not here at all.

    Having had more than one awful experience with a bishop I can’t get behind the thinking that all bishops are good so Mitt Romney is good too. I don’t know Mitt Romney as a person, and I never will so I cannot say how he acts, and what he does. His politics inform me on his character, and based on his politics *I* cannot call him a good man. Perhaps my definition of what makes someone good differs from other people’s but I cannot get behind him in any fashion. Besides, even if he were the greatest person in the world, and farted fresh-baked cookies those attributes do not a good President make so I wouldn’t take it into account at all.

  12. EOR, you are right: whether or not he was an effective bishop or stake president, or is somehow uniquely Mormon, may speak to his character or his demeanor, but not necessarily to his fitness for the presidency. Nor does it guarantee that his political views are aligned with the electorate’s.

  13. In last night’s speech, I saw some accidental Mormon slippage in this question:

    “If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn’t you feel that way now…?”

    It sounded so much like Alma 5:26 that by the time he paused at the comma, I was reciting the end with him.

    “…if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?”

  14. (Off topic, but not more so than #4)

    For the record, I believe one mark of a righteous person is having one’s integrity questioned by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone.

  15. “Even if he were the greatest person in the world, and farted fresh-baked cookies those attributes do not a good President make so I wouldn’t take it into account at all.”

    Perhaps you wouldn’t take those things into account, but the other campaign seems to think character matters to voters. If character didn’t matter, why would the other campaign and its surragates be spending millions of dollars to accuse Romney of being somehow disingenous with his taxes, of contributing to a woman’s death from cancer, of lying to the SEC and thereby committing a felony? These are the stories that have largely controlled the narrative about Romney until the convention this week. Yes, there are some pretty bad bishops and stake presidents (I have experienced a few really terrible ones myself). But on the whole my experiences as a Mormon dealing with the plurality of very good Mormon leaders make the anti-Romney narrative less plausible.

    It seems like maybe Norbert is asking what about Romney on the surface seems Mormon? You’d have to completely ignore Romney’s background to *not* “recognize” anything Mormon about him. I agree that in his speech and beliefs there is nothing uniquely Mormon…

    Well, I would’ve said that until last night’s speech with its focus on family and community. A lot of that really hit close to home for me.

  16. Make that: “I agree that in his speeches and policies”. I don’t know why I typed “beliefs”.

  17. #13
    I noticed that too when I watched his speech. (Thank goodness for DVR.) Going back and watching his speech and Ryan’s speech, the biggest thing I noticed was how similar their tones and mannerisms were. Anne sounds more like a “Mormon” during her speech. (At least to my eyes and ears it seemed like she was giving a talk, with some carefully added “applause” moments.

    #14, 15
    I can see why the comment may seemed “off topic” to you. The reason I thought it relevant to this conversation is that the business practices at Bain are (I hope) not very Mormon. I have had conversations with staunch conservatives, who are members of the church, who are very uncomfortable with those practices. They worry that future Mormon candidates, who are business men or women, will face questions about their business practices, and not their political ideas.

    I believe Democrats will be able to attack LDS candidates with questions about their beliefs regarding business practices, and their morality, in future elections. The fact that Mitt was a bishop and stake president, may be even more damaging to future LDS candidates. The assumption that LDS members and leaders hold themselves to higher standards than the general populace, has generally been a positive for any LDS candidate. I hope that those business practices are not common with other members, and I believe that most members are honest, hard working and do their best to make business decisions that are beyond reproach. I think it is too bad that members are likely to individually have to prove their morality.

    I think comments #10 & 11 reflect the more moderate feelings of moderate commentary. Liberals often go farther than EOR, and say Mitt, as the post boy of Republican ideals, illustrates how immoral ALL conservatives are. I do NOT believe that all conservatives support those practices, or would make those decisions, but for independent and nonaffiliated voters, Bain’s practices are why they do NOT trust the Romney/Ryan ticket.

  18. Michael I am not responsible for what other people consider important this campaign season, much less a group of people who I am also not going to vote for so I am not exactly sure what your point was.

    I took Norbert’s post to mean that if I saw him walking down the street with no knowledge of who he is would I be able to guess that he were Mormon. The answer is unequivocally no. He looks like a businessman, I don’t equate businessmen with Mormonism although that could very well be naive of me considering the current culture of the institutional Church.

    What exactly from his background other than the fact that he is indeed Mormon screams Mormonism about him?

    My father has more children, is also still married to his wife, works a hell of a lot harder for longer, also has graying hair, loves his family and is also a Republican but somehow has managed to never be a Mormon because of any of it. Fancy that.

  19. Peter LLC says:

    He looks like a businessman, I don’t equate businessmen with Mormonism although that could very well be naive of me considering the current culture of the institutional Church.

    Yeah, I think a quick glance at our history would show that the church adopted the business executive look sometime in the mid-20th century and not the other way around.

  20. #17: “I can see why the comment may seemed “off topic” to you. The reason I thought it relevant to this conversation is that the business practices at Bain are (I hope) not very Mormon.”

    If your understanding of the business practices at Bain comes only from Matt Taibbi, then I would hope that you hope those practices are not very Mormon. But facts are stubborn things. And Taibbi and facts don’t seem to get along very well. If your understanding of the business practices at Bain comes only from Matt Taibbi, then you simply don’t understand the business practices at Bain. You really shouldn’t cast ethical judgments on something you don’t understand.

  21. #17

    I haven’t ever read this particular article, so I can’t comment on the entire content. This is most certainly NOT the only place that the critique of Bain’s financial dealings are dealt with, and the information obtained during the discovery process, in many of the lawsuits against Bain, after they had “owned” companies show that the KB Toys example is not a one time mistake.

    I really am not interested in debating whether a particular writer is biased, or whether Romney deserves the reputation that he has. The fact that large swaths of the population believe that the business practices at Bain were destructive, immoral and/ or hypocritical for someone who wants to run the country is troubling. The number of people who poll as having an “unfavorable” opinion is not ambiguous. The fact that he is LDS and a lot of conservative church members support and defend him so loudly, will have consequences for future Mormons running for public office.

  22. Trying to figure out whether or not Romney would “look” Mormon if we saw him walking down the street seems like a decidedly unintellectual pursuit. What is the point of this post, then?

    EOR I took your comment about farting cookies to mean that you believe character is irrelevant to whether or not somebody would make a good president. I’m pointing out that yours not a widely held opinion, especially not if we consider the behavior of the opposition camapign. Character–the essence of who somebody is, and to what extent that is informed by their Mormonism–appears to be what this discussion is all about. Am I missing something?

  23. #21

    That’s an interesting point and fodder for good discussion. But you came out of the gates accusing Romney of causing economic misery for millions of Americans and summed it up with your “Ethical? Nope.” comment seemingly based on the musings of a hack like Taibbi (which you apparently hadn’t actually read). I’m not interested in debating anything with you either. But I am going to challenge you when you make such (seemingly) ignorant judgments on someone’s character.

    (As an aside, I am pretty even-handed at this; I’m usually quick to defend President Obama when the right-wingers throw around labels like “Marxist”.)

    (As another aside, I’ve been lurking around here for years and I generally have a high opinion of you and like your commentary. I’m really not trying to single you out and attack you. I’m sure this exchange would have been less awkward if I didn’t seem so much like a right-wing Mormon troll.)

  24. It is my understanding that the post addresses the hypothesis (I guess) that Mormonism is not such a huge part of who we are as we might think it is and that is why Norbert had trouble giving any insight to his friends.

    The farting cookies comment meant it doesn’t matter if he is a nice/good guy or not it did not mean character doesn’t mean anything. One can be nice and have terrible character. I am the opposite, I am a major jerk but I have character to spare.

    But I am not sure why you keep mentioning “the other guys” to me. I am not voting for either Romney or Obama so there is not really any “gotcha” factor in bringing up how Obama acts. At least not with me. (shrug)

  25. Only seeing Romney, of course I wouldn’t assume he was Mormon – unless I was close enough to see a garment line.

    However, listening to and observing him on the campaign trail, I see “Mormon” regularly.

  26. I think you missed that the first post of mine on this thread, was someone else’s comment from another site. I included the link to where I found it, similar to the comment previously known as #2, before it was deleted. (He had taken a comment from one of his Facebook friends.)

    That comment was basically an “everyone loves Romney and there was no reason for anyone not to like Mitt.” I was using it as an example that there are people who publicly disagree.

    I wasn’t saying that I agreed with everything in the comment I quoted, just that we could all quote other people, without any context, but I thought I had at the same time provided some context within the thread that I pulled the comment from. I hadn’t realized the other comment had been deleted until I went back up to make sure that I hadn’t forgotten to put the link on my original comment.

    Todd, I am sorry I wasn’t more explicit with my reason for pulling someone else’s words. I do not agree with everything from his comment, but that view point does concern me because it is becoming a widely accepted critique, and it has enough documentation behind it to make it hang around long after this election cycle.

    I don’t belong to any political party, although I have been pretty active in (unpaid) lobbying within my county and state. I have a lot of contacts on both sides of the aisle, vote for people from both parties, (based on who I feel is the best person for the position) and I hear a lot of discussions about political tactics and strategy.

    I believe that this election will impact how people think about future Mormon candidates. The way the general public will “identify” a Mormon in a political race is going to include questioning a lot of things that LDS candidates usually have been able to take for granted. Seeing us as slightly boring, hard working, family oriented and professionally honest people is something that Democrats have usually found hard to counter. The progressive/liberal political operatives I know are giddy over all of the Bain “evidence,” that they feel will be useful in questioning the “moral high ground” that has traditionally been conceded to LDS candidates.

  27. Norbert, as I said in comment #6, I know Ted and Pat Oparowski, who spoke at the RNC convention about their son dying of cancer. We were in the same ward for six years. I was looking for the video, since I didn’t watch the convention, and I came across the following article that talks about what the author calls Mitt’s “modesty”. In a way, it’s exactly what I was trying to say in the final paragraphs of #6 and #8:


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