The following essay by Ross Douthat appeared in the New York Times on August 11.
So far, Romney has said very little about his faith in this campaign, which is clearly how he likes it. Indeed, his campaign has pushed back vigorously against even innocuous press coverage of Mormon folkways and beliefs, on the theory that trying to explain a much-distrusted, much-misunderstood religion could only distract from the economic message.
But across a long summer of negative attacks, the Obama campaign has succeeded in weakening that message, and turning the conversation to Romney’s character instead. This means the Republican convention can’t just offer an extended indictment of the Obama record; it also needs to reintroduce Romney in a more thoroughgoing way. And if his faith ends up on the cutting-room floor, this reintroduction will be missing something that’s not only essential to the candidate’s life story, but also helps makes the case for his worldview.
Start with Romney the man, so often dismissed as hollow, cynical and inauthentic. His various political reinventions notwithstanding, Romney clearly does have deep convictions: the evidence is in his intense commitment to his church, as a local leader and as a philanthropist. Between the endless hours of unpaid, “love thy neighbor” efforts required of a Mormon bishop and the scope of his private generosity, the caricature of the Republican candidate as a conviction-free mannequin mostly collapses.
If Romney were a Presbyterian, Methodist or Jew, this would be an obvious part of his campaign narrative. Like George W. Bush’s midlife conversion or Barack Obama’s tale of “race and inheritance,” Romney’s years as a bishop would be woven into a biography that emphasized his piety and decency, introducing Americans to the Romney who shut down his business to hunt for a colleague’s missing daughter, the Romney who helped build a memorial park when a friend’s son died of cystic fibrosis, the Romney who lent money to renters to help them buy a house he owned, and so on down a list of generous gestures and good deeds.
The broader Mormon experience, meanwhile, could help make the case for his philosophy as well as illuminate his human core. The presumptive Republican nominee is not naturally ideological, but he’s running as a critic of Obama’s expansive liberalism, and as a standard-bearer for a conservative alternative.
Conservatism sometimes makes an idol of the rugged individual, but at its richest and deepest it valorizes local community instead — defending the family and the neighborhood, the civic association and the church. And there is no population in America that lives out this vision of the good society quite like the Latter-day Saints.
Mormonism is a worldlier, more business-friendly religion than traditional Christianity, but it does not glorify wealth for wealth’s sake, in the style of many contemporary prosperity preachers. Instead, as Walter Kirn suggested in an essay in The New Republic, Mormonism represents “our country’s longest experiment with communitarian idealism, promoting an ethic of frontier-era burden-sharing that has been lost in contemporary America.”
To spend some time in Salt Lake City and its environs, as I did earlier this summer, is to enter a world where faith, family and neighborliness really do seem to fill the role that liberals usually assign to the state. There you can tour the church-run welfare centers, with supermarkets filled with (Mormon-brand) products available to the poor of any faith and assembly lines where Mormon neurosurgeons and lawyers volunteer to can goods or run a bread machine. You can visit inner-city congregations where bank vice presidents from the suburbs spend their weekends helping drifters find steady work, and tour the missionary training center where Mormons from every background share a small-d democratic coming-of-age experience.
And then you can read the statistics: the life expectancy numbers showing that Mormons live much longer than other Americans, the extraordinary rate at which they volunteer and donate, their high marriage rates and low out-of-wedlock birthrates — even the recent Gallup survey showing Utah leading all other states in a range of measures of livability.
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