Originally published in The Oregonian, September 6, 2012 –
Tonight, the national spotlight will turn to Charlotte, N.C., and the Democratic National Convention for the acceptance speech by President Barack Obama and the North Carolina Department of Transportation (since, as I’m sure Obama would point out, without public roads he couldn’t get to the site to deliver his speech). For the moment, I’d like to reflect back on last week’s Republican convention, in particular on a little-noted portion from Thursday night.
About half an hour before Clint Eastwood launched his career as a stand-up comedian just as the prime-time network coverage began, the Romney campaign finally decided to bring forward members of its nominee’s church to talk about his acts of kindness, charity, fellowship and leadership as a Mormon bishop and later stake president during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
From Grant Bennett (who succeeded Romney as bishop for the suburban Boston city of Belmont) to Ted and Pat Oparowski (who lost a young son to leukemia) and Pam Finlayson (whose daughter was born prematurely), all shared very personal and touching stories about the role Mitt Romney played in their lives.
These presentations resonated with me because of a conversation I had earlier this summer with one of my best friends from high school, who was back in Eugene to visit his parents. Merrill grew up here as part of a strong Mormon family. After spending two years in Brazil on his mission, he graduated from Brigham Young University before getting his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then returning to BYU, where he has been a professor for three decades.
This summer I learned for the first time that while Merrill was in Cambridge attending MIT, Romney was his local bishop. He talked about the times Romney spent with him and with other church members helping them deal with challenges, problems and, in some cases, tragedies. This was the complete opposite of the image painted of Romney by his opponents, who want us to believe that when he isn’t happily firing people, he’s busy setting up foreign bank accounts to hide his money from the IRS.
“So why haven’t we been hearing any of this?” I finally asked.
“They’re afraid to bring it up because of the Mormon issue,” he said.
Consequently, I was pleasantly surprised when the Romney campaign finally overcame its fear and let people tell that part of his story. I don’t expect it to be a game changer; it probably won’t even be a significant vote changer. But at least for a few minutes, the campaign stopped treating his religion as an embarrassing personal characteristic, like a slight limp they hope no one notices or a bald spot not quite hidden by a comb-over.
I say this as a non-Mormon who from my Mormon friends has gained a deep appreciation for the positive values that church imparts to its members — chief among them their obligation to provide support and charity for others. I could never join that church myself because their beliefs are not my beliefs, but I am convinced that every community benefits by having more people with the personal qualities most of the Mormons I know exhibit.
I haven’t seen the Tony Award-winning Broadway play “The Book of Mormon,” which apparently both lauds and laughs at Mormon missionaries; however, I have watched the 2003 “South Park” episode “All About Mormons,” which mercilessly ridiculed the story of Joseph Smith and the founding of the Mormon church. But at the end, after the new Mormon boy’s efforts to make friends with the non-Mormon kids in South Park were rebuffed, he made the best case for his religion directed to nonbelievers that I’ve heard:
“Look, maybe us Mormons do believe a lot of crazy stuff that makes absolutely no sense and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up. But I have a great life and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town may think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it.”
That may not be good theology, but it works pretty well in picking friends — and perhaps a president.