BOSTON In the back office of his Weston, Mass., headquarters a quarter century ago, Mitt Romney, the chief Mormon authority in the Boston area, told the leader of his Spanish-speaking congregation that he would not directly pay for lawyers to help the growing number of illegal immigrants in his church.
Then he instructed his subordinate on how to circumvent the Mormon church’s new hard line against such assistance and subsidize their legal aide.
“In those issues I cannot help you financially to pay for lawyers,” Romney said, according to Jose Francisco Anleu, a Guatemalan immigrant. “But what I can do is allow you to give them food assistance from the bishop’s warehouse,” a church welfare pantry. The money saved could be used to “pay lawyers.”
He reminded Anleu that he could use church funds to cover rent, utilities and health care for his needy members. The money came from Anleu’s budget, but, as Anleu noted decades later, it was a budget sustained by Romney’s office.
A close look at Romney’s leadership in his church shows how his actions sometimes clashed with his political positions, which include advocating on the campaign trail for a policy of “self-deportation.”
Romney’s decades as a lay church leader – first as bishop and later as stake president, which gave him dominion over all the churches in and around Boston – shaped a man as orthodox and committed to his faith as any presidential nominee in history. It is an experience that demonstrates Romney’s mastery of the institution and confidence in his authority.
“Mitt’s responsibilities in the church had either been teaching or supportive,” said Gordon Williams, who as a Boston stake president acted as Romney’s mentor and patron. “When you are a bishop, you are the lone person in the wilderness, all the responsibility is yours now.”
On the presidential campaign trail, Romney has only rarely and vaguely mentioned his church leadership.
But in the largely invisible universe of his church, Romney consistently acted as a community organizer with a genius for milking hours out of the workweek and talent from his aides. He wept with spiritual fervor and believed in a traditional brand of Mormonism that sought daily divine intervention, according to many of his fellow churchgoers.
But he also favored tangible action over introspection and told Patrick Graham, a confidant at Bain and Co., that he planned to give half his money to the church. He faced difficult cultural issues in his congregation, such as a push for more of a church role by devout Mormon feminists, first with a tin ear and then with an open mind.
From Boston to bishop
Romney arrived in Boston in 1971 as a first-year student enrolled in Harvard University’s business and law schools. Over the next decade, as he studied and graduated and worked for top consulting firms, he also immersed himself in the church.
Blessed with one of the most renowned names in Mormonism and eager to fulfill his ecclesiastical and spiritual destiny, Romney beat a decadelong path through the intellectually dynamic Longfellow Park Chapel, where antiwar liberals, brilliant academics, John Birch Society members and fellow business students all worshiped together under a rose window.
Romney’s church service in the 1970s – when he served as a bishop’s assistant, a religion teacher to teenagers and a networking member of a council of church elders – put him in a position, at the relatively young age of 34, to answer the calling of bishop and take hold of the physical and figurative keys.
As bishop, Romney held his flock to a high standard. He expected congregants to fill out the Tithing and Other Offerings slips available outside his office, next to the envelopes addressed to “Bishop Mitt Romney.”
Romney’s reputation as an effective but literal-minded businessman led some in the church to consider him more interested in practical answers than the big questions.
Romney’s first weeks as bishop shook that certitude. After a spate of counseling sessions with members suffering financial problems, he came into one meeting of his senior advisers shaking his head.
“I had no idea that people lived like that,” Romney said, according to Phil Barlow, one of his counselors.
Barlow, a graduate student at Harvard studying religion, considered his own appointment an acknowledgment by Romney of his lack of intellectual curiosity. Others saw a signal of openness toward members of the flock who had once fallen away in his appointment of John Udall, a recently “reactivated” Mormon of a prominent Arizona family, as his other counselor.
Nolan Don Archibal, a former member of the Cambridge congregation who went on to become executive chairman of the board at Stanley Black & Decker, said Romney picked up the phone to help the unemployed members of his congregation find work. He acted as a marriage counselor and a mentor to troubled teens and provided a willing ear to lonely widows. He called on those in his flock struggling with a crisis in faith to publicly meditate on their problems at sacrament meetings.
He arranged for one member with money problems to sit down with Steven Wheelwright, a Harvard Business School professor who went on to run Brigham Young University at Hawaii, to develop a personal budget and a path to a better job, according to Bennett.
On one occasion, he dropped Barlow off at his home and the two discussed the array of challenges their congregation faced.
“The one that bothers me the most that I’ve thought a lot about over the years,” Romney told Barlow, “is how genuinely to help the poor.”
In the fall of 1986, a high-ranking member of the Salt Lake hierarchy visited Weston for 10 hours of interviews with potential successors to Williams, the outgoing stake president and a Harvard Medical School faculty member. To the surprise of many, the church realized Williams’ hope and chose Romney.
As Romney took on the role of spiritual leader, as much as 30 hours of church business a week piled onto his plate. In order to fulfill his church obligations, he generally avoided overnight travel for Bain, though he would sometimes swoop into high-council meetings at the last minute, taking his seat at the head of the table with his back to the chalkboard.
He also gradually shed his reputation as an enforcer of the doctrine of the faith. He compromised with the Mormon feminists who wanted more speaking roles and recognition of accomplishments in the church and, after initial inattentiveness, commanded his bishops to root out domestic abuse in their wards, according to several women who witnessed Romney’s progression.
On to politics
On March 20, 1994, Salt Lake City released Romney from his obligation as stake president as he ran for the Senate against Ted Kennedy.
Still, Romney could not keep away from the church service that was so intrinsic to his personal identity and spiritual destiny. After a Sunday sacrament meeting, Romney loitered behind in the Belmont chapel outside his old office, where Grant Bennett, his former counselor and Bain colleague, had become the new bishop.
“Bishop,” Romney said, “I want you to know that I don’t have a calling and am very willing to do whatever you ask me to do.”
Bennett appointed him as a Sunday school teacher. During one of those Sunday lessons, Romney welcomed Leo and Marilyn Lee Brown, congregants of his old Longfellow chapel, who were in town for a visit. Leo Brown said Romney then taught a lesson about the perils of war, pointing the class to the Book of Mormon chapter depicting a battle between the scripture’s great tribes.
“I and my people did cry mightily to the Lord that he would deliver us out of the hands of our enemies,” Romney read from the scripture. “For we were awakened to a remembrance of the deliverance of our fathers.”