Romney's candidacy helping to bring Mormonism into the mainstream
It is the final Sunday service before election day and Mormon bishop Michael Thomas is clearing up a few things with the congregation.
“As you all know, we do not support or direct people to support any particular candidate,” says Thomas, a slim man in his 40s dressed in a neat grey suit. “While we believe that it is important to have an input into public life, we wish to reaffirm our political neutrality.”
Formally, at least, the Mormon church does not support any candidate, even here in Boston where Mitt Romney served as a bishop – the equivalent of a lay parish priest – for several years.
But there’s no getting away from what a profound moment the Republican candidate’s election would be for this often marginalised and misunderstood faith.
Already, the US is having what some are calling a “Mormon moment”. Not only is Romney in contention for the most powerful elected position in the land, but an award-
winning Broadway musical about the Mormons has sold out, and the church has been running TV commercials featuring ordinary-looking Americans. It’s all shining a light on a religion founded in the 19th century in New York by Joseph Smith, who sought to restore what he felt was the true Christian church.
The faith has had a hard time, criticised by those who believe it promotes polygamy (it did, though not since the 1890s) or that it’s a sect (it’s the third-biggest religion in the US, with seven million members) or because of its ban on black people joining its lay priesthood (this was repealed in the late 1970s).
Here at the Mormon church – or meetinghouse, as its known – near Harvard, the congregation is a mix of well-dressed young men and women in their 20s and 30s. Mostly they are graduate students, along with a few members of the church.
The chapel is white and airy. There is no altar, stained glass or religious iconography. Nor is there kneeling or standing.
There are features that will be familiar to many: there is a blessing of bread and water, which are passed around, and hymns that sound similar to those at Protestant ceremonies. But what is most striking is the friendly and relaxed atmosphere. There is laughter and a few tears, as a stream of people head to the top of the church to discuss dilemmas or experiences where their faith has helped them.
This is a special “fast and testimony” service, held on the first Sunday of the month, when members abstain from food for a day and are encouraged to share personal stories of their faith.
One contributor, Nathalie Quinn, talks about how atonement – or confession – has given her peace and comfort. After the ceremony, she says she’s happy that Romney’s candidacy is giving the wider public a chance to know more about her faith. Most tend to ask about the religion’s restrictions – members are required to abstain from alcohol, tobacco and sex before marriage. But this, she says, is a liberating experience.
“They’re boundaries within which you can have immense freedom,” says Quinn (27), who works in marketing. “Freedom from addiction, or regrets from indulging too much.”
Opinion polls show a majority of Mormons have felt discriminated against. As a result, some commentators feel Romney’s election could do for Mormonism what John F Kennedy’s did for Catholicism in the 1960s.
“With Kennedy, people were saying if he was elected the pope will be in the White House,” recalls Ron Scott, a Mormon and author of a biography on Romney. “If he is elected, it would help bring us into the mainstream of American life and ensure our religion fits in with the wider community.”
On the campaign trail, Romney has rarely mentioned his church leadership. Grant Bennett, a friend, former co-worker and fellow Mormon, says greater knowledge of his work for the church would challenge the caricature of Romney as a plutocrat and vulture capitalist.
“When he was bishop, and still working full time in Bain, he would often stop by people’s houses unannounced if someone was in difficulty or visit them in hospital. Just five or 10 minutes, but such a simple and significant thing.”
But for a man of solid faith, how is it that Romney has shifted his stance on
fundamental issues – abortion rights; energy usage; universal health insurance; foreign policy – over recent years?
“Some call him a flip-flopper, but I see something different,” Bennett says. “It’s like with business: you change, you innovate, find a better way of doing something . . . As Mitt would say, the minute you stop changing, you’re dead.”
Mormonism is also, he adds, a story of endurance and survival. It has survived attempts to outlaw it and shift it from state to state. This may well inform Romney’s instinct for survival and pragmatism, even in the most challenging of circumstances. Whether that part of him can carry the day tomorrow will determine his destiny – and that of the nation.