Big Brother Speaks: Christian Kimball on Mitt Romney

My older brother Chris has been reading my blog. He sent me an email disagreeing with some of what I said in my post “Will Mitt’s Mormonism Make Him a Supply-Side Liberal?” (and in these storified tweets) about Mitt Romney. I thought what he had to say was interesting, and asked him to give me a version that I could post, which he did.

Though Mitt is a hard person to really know, Chris certainly knows Mitt much better than I do. Chris was in the same Mormon congregation as Mitt for a while and interacted with Mitt in that context. (My own limited contact with Mitt occurred when I visited Chris and attended church with him.) In addition, Chris began serving as the ecclesiastical leader of a Mormon congregation in the Boston area not long after Mitt stepped down as head of all the Mormon congregations in the Boston area, and so had a good chance to hear about what Mitt’s church leadership style had been like. 

Local Mormon Church leaders serve while keeping their day jobs–day jobs such as Mitt’s work at Bain Capital and Chris’s work as a tax lawyer and tax law professor. Like ecclesiastical leaders in other denominations, Mormon church leaders spend a significant amount of their time in a “social worker” role, talking to and helping people in trouble. I found what wikipedia had to say about Mitt’s service as head of the congregations in the Boston area illuminating, and consistent with what I have heard from friends in the area:

During his years in business, Romney held several specific positions in the local lay clergy, which generally consists of males over the age of 12.[13] Around 1977, he became a counselor to the president of the Boston Stake.[102] He served as bishop of the ward (ecclesiastical and administrative head of his congregation) at Belmont, Massachusetts, from 1981 to 1986.[103][104] As such, in addition to home teaching, he also formulated Sunday services and classes using LDS scriptures to guide the congregation.[105] He forged bonds with other religious institutions in the area when the Belmont meetinghouse was destroyed by a fire of suspicious origins in 1984; the congregation rotated its meetings to other houses of worship while it was rebuilt.[99][104]

From 1986 to 1994, he presided over the Boston Stake, which included more than a dozen wards in eastern Massachusetts with about 4,000 church members altogether.[68][105][106]He organized a team to handle financial and management issues, sought to counter anti-Mormon sentiments, and tried to solve social problems among poor Southeast Asian converts.[99][104] An unpaid position, his local church leadership often took 30 or more hours a week of his time,[105] and he became known for his tireless energy in the role.[68] He generally refrained from overnight business travel owing to his church responsibilities.[105]

He took a hands-on role in general matters, helping in maintenance efforts in- and outside homes, visiting the sick, and counseling troubled or burdened church members.[103][104][105] A number of local church members later credited him with turning their lives around or helping them through difficult times.[99][104][105] Some others were rankled by his leadership style and desired a more consensus-based approach.[104] Romney tried to balance the conservative dogma insisted upon by the church leadership in Utah with the desire of some Massachusetts members to have a more flexible application of doctrine.[68] He agreed with some modest requests from the liberal women’s group Exponent II for changes in the way the church dealt with women, but clashed with women whom he felt were departing too much from doctrine.[68] In particular, he counseled women not to have abortions except in the rare cases allowed by LDS doctrine, and also in accordance with church policy encouraged single women facing unplanned pregnancies to give up the baby for adoption.[68] Romney later said that the years spent as an LDS minister gave him direct exposure to people struggling in economically difficult circumstances, and empathy for those going through problematic family situations.[107]

I think a reasonable way to intepret this is as more evidence that Mitt is not, at his core, ideological.

It would be very easy for me to be wrong about Mitt. I know that my reading of the Mormon scriptures cited in “Will Mitt’s Mormonism Make Him a Supply-Side Liberal?” –prompted by brilliant church lessons from my other distant cousin, Tony Kimball, in the Boston area–made me more concerned about the poor than I would otherwise be. And my exposure to Mormon political culture predisposed me toward helping the poor in ways that make as little use of the heavy hand of government as possible. I am only guessing where Mitt is coming from.

I think Mitt’s Mormon background provides two other clues to understanding Mitt. First, the Boston area has several of the most liberal congregations in the Mormon Church. (I was an active Mormon when I was attending Harvard as an undergraduate and graduate student.) The kinds of moderate views that Mitt expressed on social issues in his early campaigns would not be unusual views for a highly educated Mormon in the Boston area.

Second, Mormonism has a strong emphasis on honesty in its training of children. I think this early training in honesty has helped make Mitt a bad liar. When he lies, it is often quite obvious. To me, the most dangerous liar is one who is good at it. Mitt is not that. The problem with Mitt’s untruths–in addition to what they say about his character–is that once they are ignored, we have relatively little to go on to figure out what kind of President of the United States he would be.  

This was a longer introduction than I originally intended. Let me at long last give you what my big brother Chris has to say.  Chris cautions that this is his personal opinion. Chris is not representing or speaking for any other person or organization. Chris: 

I think you are wrong about Romney in certain respects. Even though I have no real knowledge of his personal beliefs, what I do know and surmise is somewhat different.

First, on the particular issue of care for the poor, I think the more likely view on his “heart of hearts” true belief is that he cares but believes strongly in a self-help and private help (family, church, private charity) approach with little or nothing from government. To the extent it matters, Mormon patterns and belief in the 20th century trended that way (as contrasted with a communitarian approach in the 19th century). I don’t believe Mormon views (culturally – one can debate the Book of Mormon approach) have ever been consonant with a strong government involvement. The exception might be in a theocratic structure, such as the intermountain West in the State of Deseret period (pre-Utah statehood).
Second, thinking of policy more broadly, I suggest the following breakout is helpful, considering the areas where a U.S. President might have some influence:
1. Domestic Economic
In this arena the president has very little control. Most of what gets done is by and through Congress. Romney might get more done (than Obama) because Republicans in Congress would be less obstructionist, but only if he were moving in the direction that the Republicans want. (Not to say that “getting more done” is an unequivocal good–if it means getting the wrong things done it can be a bad.) In short, whether or not his apparent policy statements in the Domestic Economic arena are his true belief or are pandering, and whether or not they make sense (in my opinion tax and spending is nonsense, so far), he would probably have to live with his statements. The likelihood is that his statements become reality whether (in his “heart of hearts”) he likes it or not.
2. Domestic Human Rights (immigration, gay rights, rights of corporations vs individuals, voting rights, reproductive and other issues affecting women in particular, etc.)
In this arena I think Romney means most of what he says. I suspect that the campaign has forced him to take a somewhat more extreme position than he really believes, but I read that as a matter of degree not direction. To the extent we’re looking for Mormon influences, the modern (21st century) church is a mixed story but the 20th century Mormon views and discourse, that have the most influence on Romney, would be consonant with what he’s saying. And personally, I disagree with just about everything he says and claims in this arena. 
3. Foreign Policy and Defense
This is the arena where the president can really do something, and in many cases almost unilaterally. There is no reason to think that Romney’s history, experience or education has prepared him for foreign policy and defense. In this area Romney seems to be ill informed, lacks any subtlety, and arguably doesn’t even get the policy statements right for the neoconservative audience he is speaking too. Further, to the extent I can extract a policy view from his statements (sometimes substituting or updating country names) my guess is that he means what he says–perhaps a bit naive, but true belief. My own opinion is that those expressed views are not just wrong-headed but frightening in a person who is asking to be Commander in Chief.
I’m very negative on Romney, as you can see. I am positive about Obama, which is a different discussion. That is not anywhere close to a 100% endorsement–he has made a lot of mistakes, but he has also done a lot right. And I trust him particularly in the foreign policy and defense area, which is what I look to first in choosing a President. (In assessing the President’s performance, particularly in the domestic economic arena, I do adjust my expectations by (a) an allowance for an “anything to hurt Obama” obstructionist Republican House, and (b) my belief that the recent recession involves a step-change in housing prices and values, and in employment, the causes and pressures for which have a longer history but which we have experienced as sudden changes from which I do not expect a recovery but rather a new normal.)