Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What did Romney's run do for Mormonism?

McKay Coppins, who was one of the best reporters following Mitt Romney this cycle, happens to be Mormon and pens a fascinating and poignant look at Romney's faith and Coppins' own relationship with his faith during the past year.

There are quite a few interesting extracts here, but Coppins first gets something out of the way -- his Mormonism helped establish a one-way connection whereby he "got" Romney, but perhaps because he got him so much, the Romney team wasn't keen on engaging.

As a lifelong Latter-day Saint who grew up in the relatively close-knit Massachusetts Mormon community that Romney once led, I felt I had a unique window into the beliefs and experiences that defined an almost undefinable man.

And that, apparently, left the campaign deeply unsettled.

Multiple people in Romney's orbit — both inside the campaign and out — would later tell me that Boston tried to keep me at arm's length for a long time because they worried my knowledge of the candidate's faith would bait them into a conversation they were dead set against having.

"The campaign really doesn't like the religion stuff being out there, so that's always a concern in dealing with you," one adviser told me, bluntly.

Interestingly, though, Coppins didn't seem to take the calculated snub too personally, perhaps because he understood the psychology behind the snub -- that it was borne of insecurity, not arrogance.

As a Mormon, I intuitively understood Romney's desire to paper over our religion's eccentricities, and disappear the darker chapters of our church's history. The Latter-day Saint longing to feel normal is practically genetic, and I sympathized with the candidate's practiced avoidance of uncomfortable questions. It was a habit I'd formed as an insecure adolescent — squirming in my cafeteria chair as friends asked me about polygamy — and a reflex I'd worked to get over when I was a Mormon missionary.

But as a journalist, I was now the one asking those uncomfortable questions. And as much as I wanted to believe Romney's aides when they insisted religion should have "no part in this election," I knew that couldn't be true. My entire worldview had been colored by my faith; was I really supposed to believe the same wasn't true of Romney?

Meanwhile, Romney might have muted the public aspects of his faith during the primary, but he was still deeply devout in private, eschewing shopping or eating out on Sundays and less legally, he was always there praying in private, "hands clenched in supplication."

Then there was the surreal moment when the Romney campaign decided to roll out fellow Mormons to talk up Mitt at the convention -- surreal not because they revealed Romney's deep humanity, but because they put publicly it in the context of his Mormonism.

At one point, as a Belmont Mormon stood on stage recounting stories of Bishop Romney, I received a text message from my dad, who I think spoke for a lot of Latter-day Saints: "This is surreal."

According to aides, Romney had recognized the historic nature of his nomination as they planned the convention, and it was he who'd insisted that Mormonism be made part of the biographical story the campaign was trying to tell.

Of course, the big takeaway on a macro scale is that Romney probably went more to normalizing conceptions of Mormonism than anyone -- possibly in history. Does that mean the public's conception of Mormonism has changed permanently, or has it changed only within the hyper political world that was always more zeroed in on this, in the first place?

Hard to tell, and it's something to add to the obligatory "So what happened?" stories that accompany every failed campaign.

And I'd guess there's going to be an interesting conversation as evangelicals grapple over what it meant to support a candidate with whom they had deep theological differences -- differences that might have been obscured in their desire to see Mitt win. When Billy Graham took Mormonism off his website's list of cults, it immediately provoked a visceral response on both sides, and the impact of that will likely circulate in both communities long after politics has moved on.

Finally, less personally, a fascinating little political twist that never happened -- thankfully, for the good of a nation that suffered through those banal Big Bird and binder conversations.

One RNC official told me they were prepared to release opposition research dealing with polygamy in Obama's family tree — including passages from a little-noticed memoir by the president's half-sister Auma — if the left tried to make hay of historical Mormon polygamy. But Chicago held its fire, and the issue never surfaced.

Who else is thankful that we were spared that, and can I get an amen?