Latter-Day Complaints

It's the fall of 1996. Mitt Romney's religion is under fire. And he's bullshit about it.

Romney wouldn't choose that particular adjective, of course. Devout Mormons don't curse, drink, or smoke. But if there's one thing that can transform the trademark 100-watt Romney smile into a cold, tightlipped stare, it's Mormon-bashing, particularly when it's being used as a political weapon.

Romney was livid during his run for U.S. Senate in 1994 when adversaries from both parties injected anti-Mormon rhetoric into the campaign. The state GOP chair demanded an apology when Republican challenger Janet Jeghelian's campaign manager denounced Romney as a “rich white Mormon.” And when incumbent Ted Kennedy's nephew, then-Congressman Joe Kennedy, suggested that the Mormon faith was racist and Romney was “a member of the white boys' club,” Romney lashed out, terming the comments “religious bigotry.” Kennedy later admitted that he didn't know the Mormon Church had admitted blacks into the priesthood in 1978.

More than two years later, after a series of anti-Mormon sentiments have been directed at him and fellow members of Belmont's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints congregation, Romney's rage is palpable once again. That's because some of the Mormons' Belmont Hill neighbors are in a litigious snit over the church's plans to build a $30 million, 94,100-square-foot temple atop a hill overlooking Route 2. For them, the church's insistence on adding six towering steeples to the temple's design is more than merely an attempt to exceed town zoning restrictions. At first, the critics offered an assortment of concerns about the steeple: It would loom over wide swaths of residential neighborhoods, they said, and cause highway accidents when the shadows it cast spawned black ice on Route 2. Then, as the legal and political sparring over the issue grew more heated, members of the church began to suspect that the issue might actually be distaste for Mormons rather than practical concerns. Grant Bennet, pastor of the Belmont congregation, explained that “clearly there are individuals who would rather not have a Mormon temple here, spires or no spires.”

The attorney for the aggrieved neighbors told the Globe that “some people perceive institutional arrogance” on the part of the Mormon Church. Alan Altshuler, Belmont Hill resident and former state transportation secretary, added that “religious symbols are usually displayed in this country in ways that respect the diversity of our religious pluralism. It's a matter of modesty and respect for one's neighbors.”

One particularly blunt affront has left Romney still visibly enraged months after it occurred. His jaw clenches as he tells how he was approached by a local woman after a public meeting between church members and their critics. “One lady, who I'm sure considers herself quite tolerant, came over to me and wanted to know why we just didn't go on back to Utah and build our temple out there,” he recalls.

Sorry, ma'am. The courts ruled for the Mormons. Six years later, the temple, spire and all, coexists peacefully with sun-splashed homes and a stretch of Route 2 notably free of black ice. While Romney did, in fact, go to Utah to run the Winter Olympic Games, he's back and running for governor. And so is the ugly undercurrent of that 1994 Senate race and 1996 temple dispute, reborn as the ugly little secret of the 2002 gubernatorial race: the use of Romney's religious beliefs as a political weapon against him.

“Everybody who covers politics has heard the opposition mutter something about Romney's religion,” reports WBZ Radio talk-show host Paul Sullivan. “You have a lot of people who might be interested in raising it,” adds veteran Democratic political consultant Dan Payne, who is not aligned with any of the Democrats running for governor. “You don't have to do much to get people fired up.”

And all you have to do to light a blaze under the normally cool-as-a-cucumber Romney is suggest the possibility that his religion will come into play in this race. “Hopefully, no candidate would ever go so low as to try and make religious issues a part of a campaign,” he says. “My religious faith is a great source of personal strength for me, and I think that's true for most people, that their faith or their personal philosophy is a guiding post for how they live their life. But I don't believe religion and politics go in the same containers. They're separate elements.”

Maybe in polite circles. But this is the governor's race, the Super Bowl of Massachusetts politics, a local version of TV's Survivor fought with sharp elbows and slime, where the only thing that matters is who gets voted off the island and the only rule is that there are no rules. And from the very first stirrings of the Romney candidacy, there were unmistakable signs that Mormon-bashing is back and here to stay through the election in November.

Right out of the box, the local news media — perhaps more from an obsession with alliteration than out of conscious religious bias — placed Romney's religious affiliation front and center. A Boston Globe item referred to him as “the moderate Mormon,” and a radio reporter called him “the Mormon millionaire.” (You'll search in vain, notes one Romney campaign figure, for references to, say, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Robert Reich as “the liberal Jew.”) Just five days after Romney's campaign kickoff, a Boston Herald headline announced, “the Mormon factor looms large for Romney.” Wrote Sullivan in his political column in the Lowell Sun: “At least it didn't talk about the 'beatitudes of Mitt.' But, hey, it's a long campaign, so it could still happen.”

So what's the harm in pointing out that Romney is a Mormon? After all, it is somewhat novel for Massachusetts politics. Mormons are far more common elsewhere: There are more than 5 million of them in the United States — roughly the same percentage of the population as Presbyterians and Muslims — but only an estimated 21,000 here in Massachusetts. “They seem somewhat exotic to us,” observes Dan Payne.

Uh-oh. Exotic is right next door to weird and right around the corner from downright threatening. Veterans of the 1994 Romney campaign believe fear and suspicion of their man aroused by his opponents' Mormon-bashing cost him a substantial number of votes in that race. “Do you think people really know more now than they did in '94?” asks state Democratic Party official Jane Lane. “I find that they don't, and they don't understand what that religion is all about.” Lane insists Romney's religious beliefs are “taboo,” a subject “we definitely wouldn't touch.” But Romney has plenty of enemies who make no such promise. “It will still be out there,” says an adviser to one statewide Democratic campaign. “The guy's got nine lives — one for each wife.”

Ah, yes, polygamy, the favorite slur of Mormon-bashers. Too bad for the Romney-haters that it's been more than a century since the church dropped its practice of plural marriage and that the candidate is in his fourth decade of utterly monogamous matrimony. But it's not Romney the man that his political adversaries are after. The goal of insinuating Mormonism into the campaign is to demonize Romney, to at least neutralize his charm and reformist appeal by shifting the focus to his church's social doctrine — or, in some cases, a distorted version of it.

Joe Kennedy's 1994 “white boys' club” remark was a ham-handed prototype of the tactic. The smear, hastily withdrawn after Romney likened it to the anti-Catholic bigotry that plagued John F. Kennedy in his 1960 run for president, nonetheless left a stain on the image of the first-time candidate. Afterward, Ted Kennedy's poll numbers surged. “It may have helped Kennedy solidify his voter base,” noted Robert Siegel of National Public Radio. Eight years later, Romney was still worried enough about the old canard to insert into his GOP convention speech a reference to how his late father, former Michigan Governor George Romney, “walked the streets of Detroit with Martin Luther King in support of civil rights.”

This time around, the early line of attack is Romney's position on abortion. According to his written response to an abortion-rights group questionnaire, Romney supports a ban on partial-birth abortions but otherwise opposes any curtailment of existing abortion rights, including the anti-abortion movement's attempts to impose mandatory counseling and waiting periods. It's a posture similar to that of moderate Massachusetts voters and significantly to the left of the official Mormon Church stance, which adamantly opposes abortion except in cases of rape or when the health of the mother is at risk. “I respect and will fully protect a woman's right to choose,” said Romney in his convention address. “The truth is, there is no candidate in this race from either party who would deny the women of our state abortion rights. So let's end an argument that does not exist and put to rest these cynical and divisive attacks made simply for political gain.”

Fat chance. From the moment Romney entered the race, the Democrats have tried to hang him with his church's position on abortion, passing off his stated opinion as a bait and switch by a Utah con man. Democratic candidate Shannon O'Brien, who voted off the abortion rights reservation at times during her years in the legislature, asserts that women can't “trust” Romney on choice because he wrote a letter to a Utah newspaper saying, “I do not wish to be labeled pro-choice.” Payne notes, “A number of mentions of his close relationship to his church and their positions on issues like abortion, and people will start to get a different view of him.” Adds a Romney campaign official: “Abortion, abortion, abortion. They keep talking about it because that's how they open up the Mormon thing.” A Democratic campaign strategist confirms: “It doesn't have to be brought up explicitly. You just have to insinuate it.”

And if innuendo doesn't get the job done, you can count on blunt public ruminations like those of the Reverend Joseph Marchese, an administrator and faculty member at Boston College who insists that Romney's faith will be an issue only if he fails to “create some clarity around his religious beliefs.” Marchese adds that Romney would benefit from distinguishing his political views from the conservative views of the Mormon Church.

After all, the Mormon Church does not allow women priests. “There are no Catholic women priests, either,” notes Sullivan. “Are the Catholic candidates going to have to answer for that?”

Probably not. And the fact that the most sainted figure in Massachusetts politics, the late President Kennedy, famously condemned religious bigotry in a 1960 speech that noted “today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you,” doesn't seem likely to deter Romney's enemies from trying to turn his religion against him this year, just as they did in 1994.

Call it the ultimate home-court advantage. Notes Sullivan: “There just aren't enough Mormons around here to fight back.”