In 1982, the newly appointed Bishop Mitt Romney rang the doorbell to my North Cambridge home. I was barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen on that late weekend afternoon. The visit was unexpected, but not totally surprising. In previous months, local Mormons had suddenly begun phoning and coming to my home to urge me to return to the church. Rattled by uninvited attention, I felt harassed and unnerved. Having no desire to resume contact with the church, I finally asked one caller what I might do to compel the local Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) members to leave me alone. I was told to write a letter asking to have my name removed from the rolls. So I did, thinking that would end all contact.
I had decided many years earlier to leave the religion of my childhood. As a great-granddaughter of Mormon pioneers, surrounded by a large, active Mormon family, this had not been an easy thing to do. Luckily, though, I was also the daughter of a liberal-minded family known for its critical thinking about Mormon-ness. Following an unorthodox wedding at the age of 20 to my Jewish husband, I had little direct involvement with Mormons other than family.
Until, that is, that long ago afternoon when I was confronted by the local bishop. Not knowing who he was or his future trajectory into politics, I still knew fear. There is a certain clean-cut, white-shirted, stiff-shouldered demeanor that I recognized on some primal level, and I knew upon answering the door that I was looking at two early-middle-aged Mormons in authority. “Sister Gerson?” the man to my right inquired brusquely. “I’m Lani Gerson,” I replied, feeling as if I were being set upon by soul-snatchers. I wanted to shut the door quickly and hide. The man introduced himself as Bishop Mitt Romney of the Cambridge LDS ward and the man with him as a member of the bishopric. Romney served me with a letter, not unlike a sheriff with a summons, informing me of my trial of excommunication scheduled for the following Saturday.
How could I be tried for excommunication when I had long ago quit the church? Throughout our brief encounter, “Brother” Romney expressed no curiosity as to why we were facing each other. He stood braced at the doorway like a high school jock, smirking at the world. Did he care to know why I had quit the church? Did he question his own authority to take action against a person he had never met? Did he wish to engage in a conversation about religious beliefs? The answers clearly were: NO, NO and NO.
And, how would I have answered those questions? Would I have told him that, as a child, I heard the stories of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Angel Moroni and the golden plates buried in a hillside of upstate New York as quite wonderful fairy tales? Would he have understood the confusion I felt when I realized as a six year old that the adults around me believed these stories to be true? How to explain to believers the rational thoughts of an inquisitive child – let alone that of an adult?
Would he have had a response to my story of the time I stormed out of church as a teenager when a Sunday School teacher, the local dentist, called Martin Luther King a communist, unworthy of the Nobel Peace Prize?
Romney’s surreal visit left me quite shaken, but with my soul intact. I knew I would not attend my “trial,” feeling the church had no authority over me – but at the same time, I understood the anger and disgrace my parents would feel on my behalf. I phoned them immediately and they were outraged. In an effort to “defend” me, they contacted several authorities in the Mormon hierarchy and were told by one that “young Romney” was a bit of a zealot and was overreacting to my desire to be left alone by the church. Most Mormon bishops look the other way when members of the church depart. Excommunication is usually reserved for flagrant acts of blasphemy or for transgressions including adultery, something Romney would know. Bishop Romney, like many Mormons, simply could not understand why others might wish to quietly leave the fold or follow another path. For him, punitive action apparently seemed necessary. After all, he’s the guy who later said he liked to fire people.
My parents may have succeeded in persuading Bishop Romney to cancel my trial and excommunication. I never heard from church officials again. My parents and grandparents are no longer alive, but I do know they would be voting for someone, anyone other than Romney.
I offer this story as an insight into Romney’s character. I, for one, worry about a candidate who enjoys firing people, is prone to shape-shifting, appears blinkered by his religious zealotry, and lacks curiosity about the experiences and beliefs of others. Do we want such a person governing our multi-racial, complex and constitutionally secular nation? And besides, there is also the business with the dog!