Mitt Romney: Wooden Pastor or Real Boy?

On the last night of the Republican Convention, Ted and Pat Oparowski paid tribute to their “pastor,” Mormon bishop Mitt Romney, for his compassionate service during the illness and eventual passing of their young son, David. Mitt was “the vanguard of their support system.” It was but one of many moving stories about Mitt and his family shared by members of Mitt’s parish (or ‘ward’).

How many men do you know, Mr. Oparowski asked, that would take the time out of their busy schedule to visit a boy like David?

My answer is almost every single one (and women, too). Having been raised Mormon in the heart of Salt Lake City I recognize Mormonism’s tremendous organizational imprint on Mitt’s life; his experiences echo those of my parents and grandparents, cousins, neighbors, and even my own.

An overwhelmingly lay Church, Mormonism is run by families. The laity fills all posts in the parish, performs most of the sacraments, and even takes turns giving the Sunday sermon (for good or ill), and Mitt has clearly done his share.

Political commentators expect these heartfelt references to Mitt’s faith and the revelations of his pastoral work to soften his wooden image. Images are all that most of us can deal in, of course, and I can no more see into Romney’s heart than I can into his tax returns or offshore accounts. Yet I have known many Mormon bishops. And as a Mormon who sees nothing new in Mitt’s faithful fulfillment of his Church callings, I can’t help but be a tad critical.

Pastoral care and compassion for one’s fellow parishioners are the bread and butter of my Mormon community—as well as my Catholic community, and my Methodist one, and even my Zen meditation group (I’ve expanded my spiritual associations over the years).

But there is a compassion that reaches beyond the fellow brother or sister of our spiritual communities and that the Republican Party is hard-pressed to understand. So without demeaning in the least Mitt’s service rendered, it is possible to be a bit cynical about what it all means.

Mormons worship a God that is constantly judging them. They earn not just heaven, but varying degrees of exaltation in heaven based on their “performance” here on Earth. Considering themselves God’s elect (having proven “valiant” before birth in a spiritual “pre-existence” and thus having been born into the best tribe of the House of Israel, the one with the birthright), Mormons enter the world with a stellar curriculum and are expected to lengthen it daily. Performances add to that endeavor—they lengthen the CV.

Human psychology being what it is, however, we are good at constructing checklists that limit our obligations at the same time that they assure us of our worthiness. And I can’t help but wonder if Mitt’s comment about his taxes (he hasn’t paid a penny more than he is legally required, and believes that he would not be a good candidate for president if he had) doesn’t reveal a bit of this attitude. His 10% tithing may impress those outside the tradition, but it is ho-hum to me; it is the minimum obligation for upright standing before God and access to the highest heaven. What strikes me is how it cordons off what belongs to Mitt and Mitt alone—the many homes and car elevator and offshore accounts. Something about the widow’s mite comes to mind.

These thoughts nurture a healthy cynicism. It is a cynicism I first recognized as the Relief Society President (the highest office in the parish for a Mormon woman) under Bishop Tom Welch, famously known as the first Mormon who tried to spearhead the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Our executive meetings followed a business format with charts and graphs that provided attendance statistics. The goal was to increase attendance; to move the line on the graph up. The strategy was to go name by name through the list of inactive members and research their particular interests. Active members would then be assigned to become their “friend,” calling them up and feigning interest in their hobbies. Eventually, the “friend” was to guide them back to church. That’s not a bad objective, from a Mormon point of view, so the cynicism didn’t hit me until the name of my own inactive brother arose, and Bishop Welch wanted to know what information I could provide about Sam to his assigned “friend.”

“Assigned” is an important word. There is a Mormon committee that is assigned to take dinner to parish families with newborn babies, for example, so that they won’t have to worry about cooking during the first hectic days home from the hospital. Great! A member of my family used to head that committee. When I had my own baby, however, I received no dinner, even though I was living in this particular family member’s house at the time. (We ordered pizza the first night home.) She no longer had that assignment.

Cynicism creeps in as well when I consider other virtues, like honesty and integrity. The whole slogan of the Republican Convention smacked of cynicism as it was based on the purposeful manipulation of President Obama’s words (“You didn’t build that”)—and the doctored tape of his speech was played several times during the proceedings.

It was virtues like honesty and integrity that came to mind when Mitt honored his father, George. I couldn’t help wishing that George had been the first Mormon president. You knew who George was. He was transparent in ways that Mitt isn’t (concerning taxes, for example). He was a Republican that raised the minimum wage, stood up to his own party when it betrayed the African-American community and to the military when he believed it had “brainwashed” him about the Vietnam War.

So while I don’t disparage Mitt his good works in the least, I’m not convinced that this campaign narrative can breathe life into a wooden candidate.