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Romney’s Mormon Faith Takes Center Stage

Grant Bennett and Laraine and John Wright, close friends of the Romneys and fellow members of the Mormon community in Belmont. They are in Tampa for the convention. (Lisa Tobin/WBUR)

TAMPA, Fla. — To this stage in the race, the Romney campaign has made a point of downplaying Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, his work and leadership in the church, and just how fundamental it is to his life. But on Thursday evening, that changes when a close friend and church colleague from Belmont, Grant Bennett, addresses the convention.

Bennett is here in Tampa with a contingent of Romney friends, including Laraine Wright, a church member and close friend of Ann Romney. We met with both of them this week.

Grant Bennett: My wife and I met the Romneys in 1978 when we moved to Boston to go to graduate school. We met them our first Sunday at church and we’ve been friends ever since. We have served together in various capacities in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We also moved to Belmont and have simply been friends.

Laraine Wright: Our relationship with the Romney family, as with Grant, is longtime friends. We’ve known Mitt and Ann for 35 years in Belmont. Our children grew up together. Their children were either at my home or my children were at their home.

Grant, tell us what you’re going to be talking about.

Bennett: Well my invitation was very simple and very direct. It was to simply talk about serving with Mitt Romney in the church. That is an unexpected but wonderful invitation and I look forward to doing it.

For years, Romney and his campaign have essentially played down his Mormon faith. So, to start with, I want to ask why you think, now, in a very public way, it’s being talked about?

Bennett: You certainly need to ask Mitt that question, but it’s certainly very much an important part of who he is and who Ann is and I’m just delighted that they’ve made the decision to speak about it a little more openly.

Is the community OK with this, is it happy or at all uncomfortable with the fact that it’s sort of finally going public?

Bennett: Certainly the media attention at times can be overwhelming, but in fact it’s an absolutely wonderful thing. For whatever reason, the church has since its beginning had to battle misperceptions and inaccuracies and mistruths about both its history and its doctrines.

And, in fact, the added scrutiny that the church is under at this point is an opportunity to really tell our story.

Laraine, along these lines, explain how you think the leadership qualities you saw in Mitt in his role in the church might translate into the job he very much wants now on Pennsylvania Avenue?

Wright: That’s the type of person he is — it’s a problem, we can figure it out, and he just will take that lead. So whether it’s in the church or in private life or all aspects of his life, he definitely takes on that leadership role.

Bennett: Can I share an experience that ties into what you just said, Laraine? So years ago, in our second-story window going into our bedroom, we had an air conditioner in the summer.

And some hornets built a nest between the air conditioner and the edge of the window. I borrowed a neighbor’s ladder, put it up, and as I was spraying the hornet’s nest, they flew back, I fell off the ladder, broke my foot on the asphalt driveway.

The next day was Sunday. Mitt noticed that I wasn’t at a church meeting. The meeting ended, he swung by in his Sunday attire — his suit — and wished me well and hoped that I got better. That was about 2 o’clock in the afternoon.

Well, at 9:30 at night, the doorbell rang — my wife almost didn’t get it because it was dark — but it was Mitt. He was in a pair of Levi’s, a golf shirt, he had a mop bucket and a couple of hand tools, and he said, “I noticed when I came by earlier that the hornets were still there. And you’re in no condition to get rid of them, let me do it for you.”

As Laraine indicated, this guy likes to fix things.

Why do you think he’s reluctant to talk about this kind of thing?

Wright: I think it’s cultural. I think in our church, we do service — you don’t talk about it, you don’t wear it on your sleeve, you just do it.

Bennett: In the context of Mitt’s service in the church, he has done enormous good for many, many, many people. In many cases, people came to him in confidence and asked for help and guidance and counsel. I think that much of the good that Mitt has done won’t be told publicly because he’s certainly not going to break any of those confidences.

In campaigning, he’s focused a lot on American exceptionalism. I’m wondering if you can help us understand how you think his philosophy regarding American exceptionalism ties back to faith.

Bennett: There is a connection there. In its simplest terms, one of the core doctrines of our faith is the importance of the ability to choose, the importance of freedom. The freedom found in America has allowed not only our church to have a location where it could grow and flourish, unfettered by government intervention, but of course any other religion as well.

But, essentially, I think the core link between the church and the idea of American exceptionalism ties into the fundamental importance of freedom.

Can you give us examples of some of the other pillars of Mitt Romney’s faith that you see reflected in his politics?

Bennett: I’m going to decline to comment from a political perspective, but let me comment that another core value is we believe deeply in serving others and, fundamentally, one can’t give what one doesn’t have. And what I mean by that is that the core teaching in the church of self sufficiency, self reliance, that puts us in a position where we can serve others.

In the church, there are lots of sermons that are given on living within your means, that are given on what we call provident living. I hear some of those themes as I listen to him speak.

It’s been a long campaign. The Romneys have certainly been in the spotlight. Have you been frustrated at all in feeling that because of what the public sees, they’re not getting what these folks are really like.

Bennett: There’s certainly a frustration.

Wright: The thing that people don’t realize — after Ann’s speech, Tuesday night, we were privileged to go into the back area and be with her boys. And, literally, Tagg was crying, Ben was crying — I mean they were so overwhelmed by their mom. They just love her so much. And that’s what people have not truly seen, is that this is a family that is very close-knit.

To see those boys — these tall, handsome adult men — just dissolving because they’re so proud of their mom and just love her so much, I was very touched by that.

Grant, how did you find out that you were going to be speaking?

Bennett: Tagg Romney called me. And he said dad had asked him to give me a call and ask if I would talk about serving together in the church. That was it.

Nervous?

Bennett: There’s a little bit of nervousness, yes. I’m petrified.

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