Philip Barlow

(Text only) A professor Mormon History & Culture at Utah State University, Barlow worked with Mitt Romney in the leadership of their Massachusetts Mormon ward. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 19, 2012.

(Text only) A professor Mormon History & Culture at Utah State University, Barlow worked with Mitt Romney in the leadership of their Massachusetts Mormon ward. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 19, 2012.

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    So let's just start at the beginning, and tell me how you first came to know Mitt Romney.

    Well, you know how a Mormon ward is organized geographically, so I moved back to Cambridge, Mass., to go to graduate school in the late '70s and became aware of him then, and then switched wards to the ward next door and became in his ward.

    And then in 1982 I was called by him indirectly, as Mormon protocol goes, to be his counselor when he was appointed the new bishop of that ward.

    Describe to me a younger Mitt Romney, back in those days. What was he like?

    As the nation knows by now, Mitt was a handsome man. His wife, Ann, was a beautiful woman, and the children were beautiful children. So they were a photogenic group, high-energy.

    Cambridge, the ward that we were in and that general area that we were in, was full of a large mix of people, of course -- salesmen and schoolteachers and things -- but also Harvard Business faculty and MIT scientists and White House fellows and Olympians, and even among that lot Mitt stood out as a high-energy, ambitious accomplisher for good causes. So people were aware of Mitt. I was very aware of Mitt before I had much to do with him and started working with him.

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    Was the Romney name something that was significant to you at the time? ...

    ... Everyone was aware of George Romney, in particular. His mother, also, was a prominent figure, but because George ran for the presidency and ran American Motors, we were quite aware of that legacy.

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    MormonismRomney as a Leader

    Explain to me the role that Mitt Romney was asked to take on as bishop of the ward, and what the responsibilities were that came along with that.

    A Mormon bishop is a pastor. There's no professional clergy within Mormonism, so he's not getting paid, and it's not a full-time job. And he, like everybody else there, was a very busy man professionally, of course, and in his family life. But to be a bishop means to take a dozen or 15 hours a week, donated, to be the pastor of the congregation organizationally and spiritually, and as a counselor.

    So he would take time with individual families when they have questions or having to make some important decisions in life, or they're having a marital crisis or loss of job or a daughter has been diagnosed with cancer, as a pastor would in many situations.

    And organizationally, the bishop is in charge of the worship services, of planning the worship services, of staffing the congregation. Because Mormonism is a lay operation, that means everybody more or less in the congregation has a calling or a job, a task, to look after, but they have to be called and authorized for those callings, to look after the young women's organization or the young men's organization, the children's organization, or the elaborate visitation process or the welfare concerns. So there's quite a bit to it that he's looking after.

    Although Mitt was extraordinarily efficient and half-genius in diagnosing problems and working through them, still, he's, like any other bishop, having to navigate those chores.

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    You say he was quite genius in that sense. Explain to me what you mean by that, and the way that you observed him and how closely you worked together.

    I started working with Mitt in January 1982. Since he's become such a public figure, and I am asked, I had cause to check out the exact date.

    We met not only during the several hours of Sunday church services, but we would go out a time or two a month in the evenings, visiting different members of the congregation. And then, in addition, most every Saturday for two and a half years we met in his Belmont home for a couple of hours on a Saturday morning, for planning, for talking over needs of individual organizations within the ward, or individual needs of people and families. And so I got to know him.

    I say he was something of a genius in diagnosing and seeing through problems. I remember actually writing home to my mother, in an era before the Internet, clearly being impressed with his abilities along those lines by telling her, as far as executive ability goes, I think this guy could be president of the United States. So we've had a laugh or two about that as we've watched his public career unfold.

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    Romney as a Leader
    A 'hands-on' bishop

    Give me a sense of what his strengths were as a leader, and how he led others.

    He was a very busy man and accomplishing a lot in the professional world. I was studying religion and didn't have my fingers on the pulse of the business world, but one heard the echoes enough to know that he was a rising superstar in that arena. I heard that from a lot of people who worked in the field, not necessarily even at Bain & Company.

    Though he would have the pressures and time constraints associated with something like that, in our meetings he was organizationally efficient, and we can talk more about that. But he was also very hands-on when the need arose.

    I remember being impressed, as I felt desperate for time, moment to moment in my life, facing general doctoral exams and obviously he was busy. But one Saturday morning early on we were in the midst of our two-hour Saturday morning meeting, and it came to our attention that there had been a storm in, I think it was Somerville, a suburb of Boston, and someone's home, a single woman's home, had been damaged.

    And while Mitt could have marshaled an army of people, because Mormonism is exceptionally organized, if nothing else, to go address that, on that occasion he said: "Brothers, I'm not doing anything more important after this meeting than that. Are you?" And the implication was, "I think we'll go address that immediately, shall we?" So that was an example.

    We popped up, he threw us a work shirt, and he put on his holster with hammer and screwdrivers and such in it, and we drove over there and addressed it immediately.

    And while that sounds like a sort of mundane example, it was representative of how he operated. He was an efficient delegator, but he was never remote from the hands-on, getting your feet muddy, helping everyday people.

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    MormonismRomney's Core Nature
    Mitt: 'I had little idea that people live like this'

    Well, it begs the point of sort of. One of the things you hear on the campaign trail today is him being out of touch and not connecting or relating to the common man.


    Help me understand how his experience as a bishop and what you observed would inform otherwise.

    Well, with the rest of the nation, I've seen him make comments that seemed ill-advised -- making a $10,000 bet on the spot when you're extremely wealthy. You can forget how that would come across to ordinary people.

    But I also roll my eyes at the endless commentary that I observe about him being out of touch, because in the years that I worked with him, that's what a Mormon bishop does, and he was not only not an exception, but exceptionally good at hands-on involvement.

    I do remember saying early on, within the first month or so of being a new bishop, coming, and we met in his home, and I remember him a time or two shaking his head, saying, "I had little idea that people live like this." And that comment did not reflect, as far as I could make out, that he was so much out of touch or above, because he's in an elite social class, but just the experience that more or less every Mormon bishop has at getting so involved with people's lives. ...

    So he was touched, he was moved, and I saw him and participated with him, involved intimately with people of all sorts of economic and social and ethnic backgrounds. Out of touch, oblivious, to that part of the world he is not. 

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    MormonismRomney as a Leader

    Talk to me about the way that he was received by the Belmont community and the members of that ward.

    Mormonism works by geographical definition. If you're in these boundaries, you're really strongly urged to attend that congregation or that ward. So, unlike many religious organizations where you might go where the pastor's sermons appeal to you the most or the people appeal to you most, in Mormonism the culture and the policy really is that you operate where you are and it's not a popularity contest. So the people tend to be very supportive of the bishops.

    He was an effective, strong leader, a quick diagnostician of problems and immediate action. He was generally admired and well received, like his predecessor, and, as far as I know, like his successor.

    But the only thing I am particularly conscious of that was in the air ... [was] the height of the '70s, '80s feminist movement. So there was nationally, as well as within Mormonism, what does this mean? The world has discovered that women matter. And there's a patriarchal order and tradition within Mormonism, so Mormonism had its own inflection of, how do we deal with this new reality? And Mitt was no exception, I was no exception to that. I presume every male in America was no exception to that entirely.

    And Boston had some strong feminist Mormon women who were on the cutting edge of exploring what that meant, ... and they were founding a new periodical of Mormon feminism, and having discussions.

    Mitt looked like the perfect poster boy of CEO patriarchal Mormon perfection, and so there was a natural tension. So I think he had to navigate those waters. But by and large, he was accepted very well. ...

  8. Ψ ShareDoing Michael Jackson's moon walk

    You talk about the infamous story of being in his home one morning and seeing him do a little dance.


    Tell me that side of Mitt Romney. Tell me that story and what that revealed to you about the man.

    In the Cambridge ward, there's a lot of ordinary folks like me, and there's a lot of superstars in various arenas of sports and medicine and scholarship and science and business. Amid all that, Mitt sort of stood out as an elegant, eloquent, didn't seem pretentious, but again, I was aware, people were aware of him when he was in the room.

    I was a young graduate student at the time, and so being conscious of all that glitter about the Romneys, the subject of Michael Jackson came up incidentally somewhere, and maybe even Mitt said something about it while we were, before our meeting started, perhaps, he alluded, and I raised my eyebrows, as though he were so conscious of popular culture.

    And he didn't bat an eye and said, "Oh, yeah, I love Michael Jackson." So I said, "Oh, wow." And he said, "Oh, yeah," and he got up and he glided smoothly backward in a Michael Jacksonesque, or the moonwalk that Michael Jackson popularized, and started oozing out "Billie Jean" with it.

    And it occurred to me that, "There are dimensions to this man I haven't captured yet." It just sort of punctured the image of the high and mighty perfect businessman.

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    Give me a sense of what it was like to be in the Romney home. You were there, you said, every Saturday morning. What was that like to walk into those doors and be around Mitt and the family?

    They're a lovely, gracious family. I'd occasionally see a boy wrestling with another boy on the ground, or Ann graciously offering us some treat or another before our meeting started.

    It was not a mansion, but a gracious home, brown shingle home there on the hill in Belmont. And I'm a humble peasant boy from the West and didn't have too many spare quarters as I eked my way through graduate school, so I was aware of a certain elegance there. But it wasn't a pretentious place. It was just a warm, gracious place. It seemed prosperous but hospitable and lovely. ...

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    We hear from the people that we've spoken to, who know him from the community, sort of like the story you told of him going to someone's home and being available, that community service was very important to him -- being a good neighbor, taking care of others. And yet it's not something he's comfortable talking about himself. You don't hear those stories from him. Why do you think that is the case?

    I'm not capable of psychoanalyzing him as an individual. There's doubtless some things that pertain just to him about that.

    But so far as how it works within the church that he's a part of and the culture that he's clearly a part of, to have frequent commentary about all of that would seem like bragging, undercutting the nature of the authenticity of the service.

    Mormon culture flows in that direction. Everybody from the time before they can speak are urged to understand that salvation, exaltation in Mormon parlance, is a relational theme. I may be a perfect person and my wife has all sorts of flaws, and though I've never sinned or done anything wrong, that isn't going to get you to where you're aspiring to get in this life or in the eternities, because a marriage is a relational thing, a family thing, a generational thing and a social thing, with neighbors, whether they're Mormon or not.

    Well, Mitt's part of the culture, where doing good for others isn't merely a cliché, but really, that's the flow of existence and consciousness.

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    His Change of Heart on Abortion

    ... There are the stories that you hear in the press about sort of some of the more difficult decisions he would have had to deal with, and some of the more controversial in terms of advising women, especially, when it came to abortion or other difficult choices in their life. Talk to me about that side of it, and the difficult sort of challenges he faced in those moments, and what he would have needed to confront as a representative of the church?

    Yes, well, I've read the stories criticizing Mitt -- and, by the way, his politics are somewhat different than mine, so it's not that I'm trying to sell his candidacy.

    But as far as his character and navigating the difficult decisions that he would have to make, I've seen the stories. I know and have been in the homes of the women making those accusations. I like them. One of them remains a good friend.

    But we're clearly not getting all of the story. We're not getting Mitt Romney's side of such stories, because those are considered, in the church, confidential matters. One would be out of place, out of bounds, by commenting on the specifics of situations like that.

    But Mormonism has a conservative, but, in my estimation, not a rabid policy toward abortion, and Mormons debate when two cells and their developments become a human being. That's not clear. But because it's not clear, the risk of taking a human life just because it can't speak for itself induces them to have a very conservative position. We don't know when that life is a human, and we ought to be very careful with that. Mitt would, as far as I know, share that conservative understanding of when an abortion might be appropriate. So unless the mother's health is at stake, for instance, generally the advice is against that.

    Mormonism also has -- and Mitt was a typical Mormon in that sense as far as I can make out -- a very keen regard for human agency, that is, human individual decisions. So, one, it's your job to make the call, but as far as church counsel goes, generally it would be: Abortion is a bad idea. Let us help you with an adoption agency. Or there's a vast support network. So he would've approached things like that. ...

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    Romney's Core Nature
    The authentic Mitt

    You wrote a wonderful article talking about Mitt as bishop, and there are two questions that you say surround Mitt Romney. One is, is he authentic? And two is, what about his weird religion? ...

    Yes. Well, it's very difficult to know what you're seeing when there's a national spotlight on you. I'm not sure how I would have come across with the world's microphones in front of my face, and it's going to be interpreted differently in Pakistan than it is in Florida.

    Mitt, like anybody else, has to make a decision to, "What will my message be?," and to stay on message and, by doing that, and not wandering all over the place in one's comments, that, by itself, can come across as inauthentic.

    But I think Mitt's problem is that he's so naturally photogenic and he's so naturally elegant or eloquent in his manners, that it can come across as laminated, and maybe he's guilty of that. I'm not speaking to that.

    But there's a problem of perception, because when I was out at his Cape Cod home with Ann and Mitt hosting a few friends in the congregation on the beachfront, when he has his shirt unbuttoned and in his swimming shorts and he's flipping hamburgers or driving the boat, trying to knock people off of the tube or the skis, there's still a certain elegance there. He might be laughing, he might be making a goofy joke, but there's, behind that, a kind of a natural smoothness.

    So to ask him to look more muddy, more down home, is to ask him to be more inauthentic so that he can appear more authentic to the world. We're asking him to pull his personality and distort his personality so that he can act more casual or something that he naturally is.

    When he's on camera and I watch him from afar, he's not so different from the Mitt I worked with on a daily basis. He has a faint Mitt Romney smile of good nature or confidence. If he's being challenged, he welcomes and enjoys debate; he enjoys competition. But his expression is not so different in private than public, and I take that to be authentic. Whether we enjoy it or not, like it or not, it's who he is.

    There is that sort of, you know, Donny and Marie, "golly gee," you know, that is kind of a part of him. Explain that side of him and how that all connects together.

    Yeah. Well, again, some of that is Mitt, some of that is Romney-ness, some of that is genetics, some of it is American, but a lot of it comes from Mormon culture. Donny and Marie Osmond, especially in earlier years, used to be a public face for that. Steve Young, the San Francisco 49ers hall-of-famer quarterback has some of that.

    So that may seem corny. It would be cool to some people if he could throw in some "hells" and "damns" in his language and sprinkle it with more color, but Mormon culture doesn't encourage that. As the New Testament has it, "Let your yeas be yea and your nays be nay," and oaths are not necessary or helpful.

    So it's clean. It's squeaky clean. It may seem boring. I'm the only Mormon where I work in the Department of Religious Studies and History up at Utah State University, and I'm getting ribbed all the time for being too squeaky clean, or can we sneak a little alcohol in Barlow's water drink at the cocktail party or something. So Mitt's naturally subject to that, only with national exposure. But it's authentic, and it's OK. ...

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    A Father's Influence
    A history of resilience

    In that same article you reference the relationship between Mitt and his father, and the lessons that you think he learned watching his father's political career. Talk to me about that. What do you think he learned observing his father?

    I know of his observations of his father a bit firsthand, that is, from Mitt's occasional reflections on one or another of his parents. I also know through scholarly means that he and his team studied what happened in his father's campaign and learned some things, like don't forget either wing of the party, and pay attention to that conservative wing of the Republican Party. You're not going to win the nomination without that, and George ran into that difficulty. So he clearly is a student of political history and the political history that's closest to him, and the campaigns of his parents.

    More personally, I remember him saying how George would always take one of his children, each one of the parents' grandchildren, on a summer trip. And I can't remember if it was an entire summer or a month, but some fairly long period of time. They would make it a point, when they were a certain age -- and I don't know if that was 12 or 14, but at a certain age -- and that's quite a commitment given a Mormon family and the number of grandchildren involved, to devote a good part of -- that would have meant for many years a good part of each summer that Mitt's parents attended to them like that.

    I remember he told me, and that's been out there in the media a little bit, this phrase, but he told me one time a story, laughing at himself at his own stubbornness, getting in an athletic contest with a track star. They were going to race and Mitt had no right to win this race, and it was a long thing, like a quarter-mile- or a half-mile-type race. But Mitt was not going to be defeated or die, and so he ran, he won, and then he got very sick after. But he was just laughing and said Romneys were built to swim upstream, getting at his own, "I don't like to be defeated" sort of a nature. ...

    It's not unlike the Jews, though the history is shorter and more diluted than the wretched persecutions that the Jews have gone through over the centuries. But there's something at least analogous, in a diluted form, in Mormon consciousness about surviving, about starting from scratch, and "We can do it," about not wringing your hands in the face of difficulty or challenge. And I think Mitt Romney, as I experienced him and the wider culture surrounding and informing him, would not look approvingly on "poor me" or wringing hands in the face of difficulty, but "Let's get to it. We can fix things." ...

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    Let's switch to the other questions, the "weird religion" question. What is it about Mormonism that people find so mysterious?

    Well, people find Mormonism more than mysterious. Mysterious is a polite term for people often find Mormonism off-putting or tribal and too isolated within themselves, or just plain weird. There's angels to account for, and gold plates, and famously, these days, magic underwear to account for.

    The problem with all of that is that any organization of any size and importance is readily ridiculed and caricatured if you don't know about it, religion especially. ...

    But the garments, for instance, that faithful Latter-day Saints, committed Latter-day Saints, who have been through the Mormon Temple experience ritual, or endowment, as they call it, they wear garments next to their skin that is not so different than other underwear, but it has symbols attached to it that allude to commitment, living commandments as exactly as possible, to keeping God in mind in all your actions and things like that. That's very religious, but it's not too spooky or absolutely different than others.

    The idea that it's underwear is just waiting for Jay Leno and David Letterman to go after it, of course, but there's nothing more spooky or odd about it than a Sikh wearing a turban or a Catholic wearing a little symbol of an instrument of torture around her neck. Any of that could be ridiculed.

    And Mormons also carry around people's perceptions of polygamy, which sounds, in an era of feminism and sexual equality, sounds unappealing and foreign, and it sounds like a sex orgy or a harem. Those are echoing in everybody's heads, rather than them bothering to explore what that meant and how it actually worked.

    And there's the conflict. The fact that Mormons were booted out of several states and out of the country means in part that the press about them, the novels written about them, the silent movies trapped by the Mormons with spooky music in the background, it means that the nation carried around a Mormon bogeyman in their heads for more than a century, and passed that on to their children, many of whom have never met a Mormon.

    I actually have more than one acquaintance who lived in various parts of the country and grew up and had people had their playmates say, "Can I touch your head to feel for the little nubs of horns?," because they were raised to think Mormons had horns. So that's part of the cultural waters that the Latter-day Saints have navigated.

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    As a fellow Mormon, as someone who knows Mitt Romney, as you look at him in a practical sense, what are the things about his faith that sort of inform who he is, that drive him, that we should -- that you see in the man?

    Well, people ask me regularly how Mormonism would affect, a Mormon in the White House, how it would affect Mitt Romney and people's wariness about, "Can we have a guy who believes in angels and gold plates having his finger this close to the nuclear option?," or something like that.

    It wouldn't work like that at all. He's not brain-dead; he's not weird. Theology isn't going to inform his presidency in any practical way. What Mormonism would mean to Mitt Romney in the White House has more to do with character, ways of seeing what the world is for, what people are for, and what good relations mean. It would have more to do with resilience in the face of challenge. It would have more to do with an authentic optimism. 

    He can come across as authentic like any candidate can, a cheerleader for this or that cause, or, "America's really in great shape and needs to be the greatest and the best." That is doubtless partly campaign cheerleading, but it's drawing on a fuel and an authentic belief that we are not helpless in front of greater forces. We really can devise strategies to recover from disaster or from problems, from defeat, to not be defeated by defeat. So the Mormon way is a supremely organized, can-do optimism, practical religion. There's theology out there, but it's really less abstract theology than practical human experience of solving problems. ...

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    Is there a way of separating the Mormon from the man, or is that really sort of what informs him? How do those values and that culture contribute to the full picture of Mitt Romney?

    I don't think there's a way to separate Mormonism from the man insofar as his character, his values, goes, what he finds worth doing -- even his ambition for the presidency or ambition to accomplishing in the business world or in the family world. Those aren't unique things to Mormonism, to be ambitious that way, but they have Mormon shape, Mormon coloring, Mormon inflections to them.

    It's a saying within Mormonism, coming from a Mormon Church president by the name of David McKay, "No other success can compensate for failure in the home" -- not even the U.S. presidency, not even being the richest man on the planet.

    He's ambitious in various ways, but there's a check and a balance within Mormonism, and I've seen it operate with Mitt, that kind of tries to circumscribe that. When you're home, be home. Don't bring all your work with you, but attend to those children; attend to your spouse.

    There would be some authentic -- how does that matter to the U.S. presidency? It would be an example of how to manage all the pressures and balance that we need to manage in life.

    But the capacity to bring people together in a cause is something that his way of thinking and his Mormonism informs the now-famous story about him shutting down Bain for a few days while he marched off to New York City with his colleagues, anybody who wanted to join him in the enterprise of a lost child of one of his colleagues. To go door to door in New York City, looking for clues and hunt that down, is an exceptional thing to do. But it's typical of Romney. I've seen that in less dramatic and public ways. ...

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    Talk to me about America and its importance to the Mormon religion as sort of a sacred place. ...

    America holds a distinctive and sacred, which is to say set-apart, place in Mormon consciousness. In Mormon theology, America -- even in the Book of Mormon, the founding, distinctive scripture; Mormons embrace the Bible as well, but the founding distinctive scripture of Mormonism is the Book of Mormon. And America is cast there, anciently even with a long history, as a place set apart, a chosen land for a promised people.

    Joseph Smith even alluded to the United States Constitution being, its framers being inspired, the Constitution as an inspired document -- not quite scripture, but somewhere in that league -- that needs to be grappled with.

    So that's fundamental and important from Mormonism's founding, and may affect Mitt's clear and aggressive stance toward American exclusivism.

    But it's more complicated than that. And there's a dominant gene, which I've just described, about that, and a recessive gene. The recessive gene is, in the Book of Mormon, the land is a promised land until it's not, until the people don't respond well to their privileges if their prosperity leads them to arrogance or not taking care of the poor, forgetting their God, forgetting their ethics, forgetting justice and mercy in the world, then it becomes an unpromised and unholy land. And the Book of Mormon is replete with prophetic figures who are invited to leave this corrupt place and find a new promised land -- that is, "We'll make it promised; we'll make it better. 

    So, just as the Hebrews in the Hebrew Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament, the prophets regularly lambasted them for thinking that being a chosen people meant being a superior people. It doesn't necessarily mean that. To be a chosen people in biblical theology means to be chosen for a task, for a certain role, for a certain station in the world, not necessarily to be superior. ...

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    Do you think that there is both a need for and a way that he can discuss his faith so that people can understand the way it informs him, the way it guides him? ...

    I hope there's a way that [during] the run for the presidency and if he were to be elected as president, that he could talk about his Mormon faith at some point like a Presbyterian could talk about her faith or a Buddhist could talk about his faith.

    Right now, it's clearly, even though there's rapid change, it's clearly politically toxic, because there are so many fears about Mormonism. Is Mormonism too weird, sufficiently weird that it's going to make a weird president, who's going to help enact weird policies or something? Until the culture can mature and until the American society can get to know Mormonism authentically for what it is, whether people like it or not, instead of the common misconceptions that exist about it, then, clearly, the Romney campaign team -- maybe him, himself -- thinks it's politically too toxic.

    That's unfortunate, because there are many lovely virtues and resources, an orientation for service and helping, that has clearly formed who he is, and the nation has a right to understand the influences that have informed him. The situation has been, up until now, to mention anything about Mormonism is to miscommunicate. Even if his words are accurate, what the country is hearing has to do with all of their perceptions of this movement. ...

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    Romney's Ambition and Motivation

    Why do you think Mitt Romney wants to be president?

    I reckon no person who runs for the presidency is lacking for a certain measure of confidence and ambition. So again, I'm not inside his head to psychoanalyze that, but I'm sure there's personal dimensions. But there's such a thing as healthy ambition to serve and to make a difference in the world.

    The man I worked with was ambitious to get things done – not in front of television cameras and media reporters, but to get things done for their own sake, to make people's lives better. He's a busy man, but he's going to go drive a group of Venezuelans or Laotians from this spot to this spot so they can get to their youth event -- that's going to happen not so that I, Mitt Romney, can feel famous and people will think I'm a good guy. It's just happening without anybody knowing it, except for incidentally, because it's a good thing to get done.

    So he's operating to serve, to make human life better, as a Mormon bishop, in all sorts of personally generous ways, generous acts, that I've seen him do. And whatever private, even selfish, ambitions a person might have for running for the presidency that I can't speak to, I think there's a good measure of, how could, like taking over the Olympics there, might be political ambitions attached to that, but I'd also like to save the state of Utah's good name and I'd also like to make a good Olympics for the United States hosting these events. I think he wants to do good in the world, and you do more good in the world with a judicious use of power. ...

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    You talked about polygamy; you talked about the underwear. But talk to me about the issue of racism and what people think, and the reality there.

    It's often alleged that Mormons are racist or have a legacy of racism, and that's true in the sense that virtually all Americans were racist a generation and more ago. ...

    Mormons are distinctive in that some of the Mormons, at a popular level, started interpreting certain passages of scripture and justifying the racism. And once that momentum was there, then even leaders of the church, as well as the wider membership, carried around some racist assumptions that they intersected with their perception of the divine God, ordained that God wanted it this way.

    So that got caught up in a policy that resulted, from the time of Brigham Young, of blacks not being able to hold the priesthood like all worthy or fully committed Mormon boys over the age of 12, and men hold the priesthood, but blacks were restricted by that.

    And then, in the 1950s and '60s and '70s, when the nation was involved in civil rights and race riots and the difficulties that had reached violent crescendo in those decades, the Mormons were subject to that, and under the misimpression that they had divine license for that. And they weren't unique on that front in the culture. And they had to work through it. They did it by 1978. It was later than we wished they might have, but it really wasn't so long and different from the general culture struggling through it.

    So it's safe to say that Mormons had their version of an inherited racism that they had to grapple with. Most everyone, there were some differences in the South at the time, in 1978, when the pronouncement was made that everybody would now be able to hold the priesthood. But everybody that I knew of was just weepily, terribly relieved and happy at the prospect. ...

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    Others on this topic:
    His Change of Heart on Abortion

    ... Does it surprise you, knowing the man that you knew back in, during your time together in Boston, that he's evolved to be very conservative, someone who will reverse Roe v. Wade?

    It does not particularly surprise me that Mitt Romney or any other Mormon changes position on abortion over time as they learn more. He was a faithful, loyal Mormon, worthy, eligible to be a Mormon bishop and a state president, and have the policy of, "I frown and would draw a pretty tight circle around when abortion is legitimate," but that is outweighed by the fact that I have no right to impose that on other people's choices. One can be a loyal, believing, practicing, even an official of the Mormon Church and have the opposite view. So it doesn't particularly surprise me that he changed position. One can find ground there within the compass of Mormonism.

    I should say that Mormons are famously, in the United States, Republican. Utah is famously a very red state. But that was not so in earlier decades. It was much more balanced before about 1970, the early 1970s, between Republicans and Democrats. And when Mormonism in this country took a sharply conservative political turn was precisely on the Roe v. Wade decision and the cultural revolution that brought casual sex, the undermining of traditional families and casual drug usage into the culture. Mormons responded with a veer to the right. So it isn't that Mormonism is inherently unbalanced in its conservative orientation. That happened in a historical and cultural context. ...

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