Mitt Romney's Role as Mormon Bishop Shows His Extremist Religious Beliefs

One winter day, far along into her pregnancy with her second child, 21-year-old Peggy Hayes received a phone call from Willard Mitt Romney. He wanted to talk to her, he said. Could he come over?

Hayes, the divorced, unmarried mother of a 3-year-old daughter, was struggling as a nurse’s aide in a working-class suburb of Boston. She had little in common with the successful Bain executive, but the request wasn’t as odd as it might seem. Hayes was a Mormon. Romney was her bishop. Romney walked into her small apartment, made small talk and then commanded her to give her baby up for adoption after it was born. He was her bishop, and as she knew, Mormonism disapproved of single motherhood. Hayes said no.

“Well, this is what the church wants you to do, and if you don’t then you could be excommunicated for failing to follow the leadership of the church,” Romney said, according to Hayes in an interview with Boston Globe journalists Michael Kranish and Scott Helman. Romney denied he made that threat, although he did not dispute the incident.

Somehow this tale didn’t make it into the Mormon Moment at the Republican National Convention.

Is Mitt Romney a captive of the religious extremists who control the Republican party, or is he one of them? The answer can be found in a subject Romney has been loathe to discuss: his Mormonism.

Now we know that the tin man has a heart. Romney is “a loving father, man of faith, and a caring and compassionate friend,” we learned in Tampa, in genuinely moving stories from Mormons Romney pastored. But there’s another side of Romney’s story that begs to be told. In the wake of Todd Akin’s rape comments and the GOP’s adoption of an extremist platform, voters deserve to hear about how Romney has imposed Mormonism’s retrograde doctrines about women, gays and sex on the people he has authority over.

Given Americans’ limited knowledge about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, let’s begin with an introduction to Mormon mores, where sin-wise “unchastity is next to murder in seriousness.” The Mormon Church forbids any and all sex outside of heterosexual marriage, including “necking and petting”; masturbation; pornography; homosexuality; and abortion in almost all circumstances. Gays who act on their “inclinations” are banned from entering Mormon temples, where many of the most important family events and sacred rituals—marriage, funerals, baptism of the dead—are celebrated. Traditional gender roles are encouraged, and often enforced. Mormonism bars women from the priesthood, enjoins them to have many children, and frowns on mothers working outside the home. In a nation of declining middle-class incomes, there’s not much the hierarchy can do to force mothers back into full-time motherhood and wifedom. Still, the LDS Church doesn’t employ Mormon women with young children or cover birth control for its employees.

In Mormonism, mothers may be exalted, but women sure aren’t equal.

To be sure, the LDS church isn’t impervious to change. It did, after all, end polygamy and eventually allow African American men into the priesthood. Yet when it comes to stepping into the 21st century on women’s equality, gay civil rights and sex—as many ordinary Mormons would prefer-- the Mormon Church has dug in its heels.

And this is where Romney comes in.

In 1981, the 34-year-old Romney was already a fabulously successful consultant at Bain & Company when the LDS hierarchy tasked him to be a lay bishop. The Belmont ward, where Romney’s family worshipped, was a hotbed of Mormon feminism—a sign, from Salt Lake City’s perspective, that the congregation needed a Mr. Turnaround. Romney ultimately spent nearly 14 years as a Mormon clergyman, becoming the highest Mormon Church leader in the Boston region. He resigned in 1994 to run for the U.S. Senate against Ted Kennedy.

Chosen as a kind of enforcer-in-chief, Romney betrayed a zeal far beyond the call of duty. Bishop Romney tried to stop a mother of four whose health was seriously endangered by her pregnancy from having an abortion. The church allows abortion in cases of rape, incest, and danger to the life of the mother, provided a male LDS authority gives permission to the pregnant woman. Romney's superior had already told the woman to proceed for the sake of her health; Romney intervened. Romney refused to allow an infertile couple to take advantage of the LDS adoption service until the wife agreed to quit her job and be a stay-at-home mother. Other reliable reports of Mitt’s years as a Mormon clergyman have him excommunicating adulterers, calling homosexuals under his authority “perverse,” warning a middle-aged divorced woman that she was not allowed to have sex, and telling a leading Mormon feminist, “You’re not my kind of Mormon.”

Perhaps this is why Romney has been as cagey about his Mormonism as he is about his Cayman Islands tax shelters.

Mormon theology—its view of God, the afterlife or Joseph Smith’s revelation—is not at issue here. The issue is whether a President Romney would be able to separate his actions as president from Mormon doctrines about how to live on this planet.

The record from Romney's four brief years in elected office is not comforting.

Candidate Romney supported a women’s right to legal abortion, and opposed abstinence-only sex education; Governor Romney opposed abortion, tried to roll back reproductive rights and embryonic stem-cell research, and expanded abstinence-only sex education. The candidate dropped pink fliers at Boston’s Gay Pride parade saying, “Mitt and Kerry wish you a great Pride weekend.” Mitt the governor tried to change state law to allow Catholic adoption agencies to discriminate against gay couples. Most troubling, given the credible Washington Post report about a teenaged Mitt chopping off the hair of a gay classmate, was Romney’s elimination of the governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth. The commission had been chartered by Republican Governor William Weld to tackle the problem of gay teen suicide.

Given recent controversies over rape and abortion, one particular decision by Governor Romney merits renewed scrutiny. In July 2005, Romney cut short a New Hampshire vacation in order to veto a bill requiring hospitals to give emergency contraception to rape victims. (The legislature overrode his veto.) Romney defended his veto by claiming he had “spoken with medical professionals” who had informed him that the morning-after pill could work as “an abortion pill.” Who those unnamed scientists are and what they told Romney is unknown. But Romney’s contention is as false, if not as patently absurd, as Todd Akin’s now classic “legitimate rape” canard. The morning-after pill contains a different dose of hormonal contraception to prevent pregnancy; it does not induce abortion. Romney persists in calling emergency contraception “abortive pills.”

Mitt’s Mormonism matters because in the one elective office he has held, he governed in accord with Mormon doctrines and against the consensus values of the citizens who elected him. It matters because, by all accounts, it has been the most powerful influence in forging his values and identity. And it matters because the Mormon Church has deployed its wealth and power in the political arena for the purpose of keeping women and gays in their God-given place.

The LDS Church’s outsized role in California’s Proposition 8 is only the most notorious of the Mormon hierarchy’s political campaigns. Mormons contributed up to half of the $40 million spent by the successful campaign to repeal gay marriage in California. This was no spontaneous, grassroots effort. Most of that money came in after Salt Lake City emailed Mormons to warn that Prop. 8 was losing and ask for contributions. As Michael Otterson, the LDS managing director of public affairs, explained, the church “felt there was only one way we could stand on such a fundamental moral issue, and they took that stand.”

This wasn’t the first time the Mormon hierarchy intruded in politics to impose its sectarian views on the public. Claiming that the LDS president and prophet had received a revelation from God to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment, in 1976 the Mormon Church formally opposed the amendment and mobilized Mormon women to be footsoldiers in the anti-ERA campaign. “We fear it will even stifle many God-given feminine instincts,” wrote the members of the LDS First Presidency, Spencer Kimball, N. Eldon Tanner and Marion G. Romney, Mitt’s cousin. Using the same rationale it does today regarding gay marriage, the church deemed the ERA a “moral issue” that compelled it to act. And harshly, at that. Salt Lake City excommunicated Sonia Johnson, a prominent pro-ERA Mormon who had clashed with Senator Orrin Hatch in a Senate hearing. Years after Salt Lake City had helped send the ERA down to defeat, and as late as 2000, LDS authorities were still excommunicating Mormon feminists.

Now, nothing in these stories sharply distinguishes the Mormon Church from the American Catholic Church’s political activism and threats against elected Catholics, say, on abortion or birth control. Nor do these stories of Romney’s governorship distinguish Romney from the Mike Huckabees, Paul Ryans and Rick Santorums of the Republican Party. They do, however, call into question certain assumptions about Romney that the GOP establishment is keen to cultivate--that he is a pragmatic, technocratic conservative who is merely pandering to the religious far-right, that Mr. Turnaround only cares about the economy.

Sixty-two years ago, another presidential candidate from a minority religion told voters, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” John F. Kennedy went on to promise that no priest, bishop or pope would hold any power over him. “Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with [my views as the Democratic candidate for president and] in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”

Romney’s statements on religion and politics cut exactly the opposite way. “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom, ” Romney asserted in a major 2007 speech. If that Orwellian turn of phrase doesn’t give you chills, consider this. Moments before he said that, Romney had asserted, “Radical violent Islam seeks to destroy us,” and thus insinuated that a major world religion was little more than a terrorist front. Granted, Romney acknowledged the “separation of church and state,” but mainly to warn that the greatest threat to liberty emanates from “the religion of secularism.” This dogwhistle to the religious far-right has morphed into Romney’s oft-repeated charge that Obama is waging a “war against religion.”

Romney has now uttered the word “Mormon” in public. That’s not enough. Americans have a right to full disclosure about how his faith shapes his views on policy, how his longstanding personal relationship with the LDS Church might influence his actions as president, and how he might resolve a conflict between his presidential duties and his church over so-called “moral issues.”

Is Mitt Romney an establishment conservative or a Mormon militant? Voters won’t discover the truth unless we ask the right questions and demand that Romney not dodge them. Before it’s too late.


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