If you watched the Republican National Convention last night, or scanned the reports about it this morning, you’ve probably heard a lot about Clint Eastwood’s truly surreal speech, which took the form of an unscripted dialogue with an empty chair representing President Obama. It was quite a spectacle—but far, far less affecting than the speakers that didn’t make it into prime time. That’s because for the first time this campaign, the Romney team brought his Mormonism out of the closet.
It was a turning point not just for Mitt Romney, but for Mormonism on the public stage. Until now, worried about conservative Christian mistrust and opportunistic partisan mockery, the campaign had studiously avoided the subject, instructing surrogates not to cooperate with the media on it. Romney would run for president while essentially running away from his religious beliefs.
But that began to change in the run-up to the convention, apparently at Romney’s insistence. On Aug. 19, the campaign allowed the press to join Romney in church. And on Thursday, the final night of the RNC, Romney’s faith finally took center stage.
First, Grant Bennett, who served as Romney’s assistant during his time as an LDS bishop, described the candidate’s unstinting devotion to his congregation. (To explain the character of the position to a wider audience, Bennett used the term “pastor” rather than “bishop,” which has different connotations to non-Mormons.)
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has an unpaid, lay clergy,” opened Bennett. “While raising his family and pursuing his career, Mitt Romney served in our church, devoting 10, 15, even 20 hours a week doing so. Like all Mormon leaders, he did so on his own time and at his own expense.”
Quoting generously from scripture, Bennett elaborated on Romney’s role: “Mitt prayed with and counseled church members seeking spiritual direction, single mothers raising children, couples with marital problems, youth with addictions, immigrants separated from their families, and individuals whose heat had been shut off.”
These words laid the groundwork for the next two speeches from members of Romney’s Massachusetts congregation, which were unquestionably the most moving of the entire convention. Ted and Pat Oparowski recalled how Bishop Romney befriended their 14-year-old son David, who was dying of Hodgkin’s Disease, helping him draft a will and ultimately delivering his eulogy.
Pam Finlayson recounted how Ann and Mitt Romney welcomed her family to their town and supported them during the difficult illness of her young daughter, Kate. “I will never forget that when he looked down tenderly at my daughter, his eyes filled with tears, and he reached out gently and stroked her tiny back,” she said. “I could tell immediately that he didn’t just see a tangle of plastic and tubes; he saw our beautiful little girl, and he was clearly overcome with compassion for her.”
For a candidate frequently criticized as distant and out-of-touch, these moving testimonials were particularly powerful. Taken together, they suggest that one reason Romney has failed to connect with voters is that he has until now cordoned off one of the deepest aspects of his character—his faith. By the time these speeches were over, pundits had largely forgotten all of the reasons they’d advised Romney to avoid his religion. As one put it, “Seriously, why do you put Eastwood in prime time and not these people?” Judging by that reaction, we can probably expect much more Mormonism in the campaign to come.
Of course, Americans do not simply elect a president based on their moral character. But what these stories of Romney’s Mormon piety have accomplished, is to mainstream the Mormon religion on primetime television. For a young religion that was kept under wraps for months as a political liability, that is quite an accomplishment. Even if Romney loses, public acceptance of Mormonism may turn out to be the lasting legacy of this election.
Related: Protocols of the Elders [Tablet Magazine]