The Man Who Made Romney Possible

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Douglas C. Pizac / AP

Gordon B. Hinckley, president of the Mormon church

Gordon B. Hinckley will be remembered for a lot of things within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose President and Prophet he was until his death Sunday at 97. His world travels, for instance, and the corresponding expansion of the church abroad; his modest redesign of Mormon Temples, which enabled their proliferation and thus the participation of many more Mormons outside of Utah in key Church activities. But for the rest of the country, he may be credited as the man who helped make Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy possible.

Romney, while praising Hinckley on Monday, made a point of reminding voters that "like millions of other members of my faith, I didn't get to know President Hinckley on a very personal, one-to-one basis." But were it not for Hinckley's relentless 20-year publicity campaign to assure fellow Christians that Mormons, as he insisted, were not "weird," Romney would have had a much more difficult time overcoming the impression that many have of his faith.

There was a time when a Mormon probably could not have run for President with any realistic chance of winning. In the early 1900s, says Jan Shipps, an authority on the Church and author of From Peoplehood to Church Membership: Mormonism's Trajectory since World War II, "the Mormons were truly a people apart" — clustered in the Mountain West, linked by shared history and a shared ethnicity (the latter in part resulting from polygamy, renounced in 1890). As a religio-ethnic group, she suggests, they were roughly comparable to the Jews; and as late as the 1940s, "it would have been as difficult for a Mormon to run for President as for a Jew." Hinckley had began his extraordinarily long career in the Church in the 1930s.

Gradually, Mormonism shucked off its insularity — in part by an energetic program of evangelization that eventually created more new memberships by conversion than by birth. It grew steadily, and in the 1960s, says Shipp, enjoyed a brief charmed period when Mormons were mainstream enough to produce a national political candidate, and not stigmatized enough to have his religion become an immediate issue. That candidate happened to be Mitt's father George Romney, a popular Michigan governor who made a brief run for the 1968 presidential nomination.

By the time Hinckley took over as de facto head of the church in the mid-1980s, the Mormon church's rapid growth — from a million members in the 1940s to 14 million today — was stirring the curiosity and anger of Evangelicals competing for souls. Americans began to learn about some of the more exotic-seeming Mormon beliefs and rituals: that Mormon men and women marry, not until death parts them, but in a Temple rite that also joins them in the Hereafter; and that believers aspire to a kind of godhood after death. The focus on Mormon distinctives could get obsessive and silly; in 1996 Catholic blogger Andrew Sullivan published a picture of Mormon Temple undergarments — a kind of union-suit set worn by Mormons who have undertaken an initiation and instruction ceremony called Endowment, and the recurring object of anti-Mormon exhibition and defacement over the years.

Having begun his church career defending the faith in a hostile environment — as a missionary to England — Hinckley set out to convince Americans, as he told Mike Wallace in a 1996 60 Minutes interview, "We're not a weird people." He worked steadily on what might be called refining his product's branding. Under him, the Church added a subtitle to the Book of Mormon: "Another Testament of Jesus Christ." It made it clear that the religion was to be known officially not as Mormonism but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; and as time went on the words "Jesus Christ" in the Church logo were enlarged. "He was on message all the time, he was so sharp," recollects Shipps. "Mormons are Christian, American Christians, part of the religious mainstream and the American story."

The apotheosis of the normalization campaign was probably the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002. Hinckley, says Shipps, worked closely in the Games' administration with the their president and CEO, Mitt Romney. Arriving in the wake of a bidding scandal and budget shortfalls, Romney essentially saved the Games. "It was a great civic success for Salt Lake City," says Richard Ostling, author of Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, "a come-from-behind success for Mitt Romney that made his presidential campaign feasible, and it brought Mormonism very much to the fore, as the successful hosts of a kind of national festival."

Non-Mormon faiths still have a great deal of trouble with Mormonism — most take the position that the Latter-day Saints are doctrinally distinct from their understanding of Christianity. But, says Ostling, few suggest that they are not mainstream Americans: "I think they've been culturally accepted."

Romney's faith may still be a stumbling block for many voters; but he never would have gotten as far as he has without the feisty Hinckley. "We will miss him as a family, respect him as a man of great character and courage," Romney said Monday. "But particularly his humility and ability to touch the lives of each individual is something for which he will long be noted."