Features & Columns
Mormon congregations are called "wards" or "branches," depending on their size. There are no full-time "priests" or "ministers," as there are in most Protestant and Catholic churches, but rather lay "bishops," chosen to serve as the spiritual leaders of their wards.
Larger amalgamations of LDS churches are called "stakes," and their leaders, also lay members of the church, are called "stake presidents," something akin, according to the official LDS website, to the position of a bishop in a Catholic diocese.
By the time of his visit to Sheldon's hospital room, Romney was a rising star in Mormon circles. In the early 1970s, while completing both his MBA and his law degree at Harvard, he served in his LDS ward as a bishop's assistant, a religious instructor for teens, and as a "church elder."
In 1981, when he was only 34-years-old, he was named bishop of a ward just outside of Boston and was serving in that capacity when he confronted Sheldon about her pending abortion.
There was no empathy forthcoming from Romney, according to Sheldon, no warmth or sympathy. Moreover, Sheldon contends, Romney cast doubt on her story about the stake president's approval. He simply didn't believe her. He threatened to call him and track him down. He didn't seem to care a lick about her personal well-being.
"At a time when I would have appreciated nurturing and support from spiritual leaders and friends," Sheldon wrote, "I got judgment, criticism, prejudicial advice, and rejection."
In essence, Romney strapped Sheldon's destiny to the hood of his Chevy and put his foot on the gas pedal, both literally and figuratively. He was so agitated about the matter that he confronted Sheldon's parents about her decision as well.
According to R.B. Scott, author of the insightful Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics, Romney's only concern was for the unborn fetus. Last year, Scott, who is also a Mormon, interviewed Sheldon's 90-year-old father, Phil Hilton, who remembered the incident quite vividly.
"I have never been so upset about anything in my life," he told Scott. "[Romney] is an authoritative type fellow who thinks he is in charge of the world."
Hilton was so offended by Romney's single-mindedness and absolute lack of sensitivity to his daughter's health that he ordered the young bishop out of his home. Hilton told Scott that he was fully prepared to "throw [Romney] off the porch if he paused for even a second." Romney kept moving.
Back at the hospital, a distraught Carrel Hilton Sheldon assented to her doctor's advice and terminated her life-threatening pregnancy. She recovered from her medical crisis, moved to the West Coast, and continued to raise her four children.
And because of her ward bishop, Mitt Romney, Sheldon eventually left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, never to return. "Here I—a baptized, endowed, dedicated worker, and tithe-payer in the church—lay helpless, hurt, and frightened, trying to maintain my psychological equilibrium," Sheldon wrote, "and his concern was for the eight-week possibility in my uterus—not for me!"
When he was confronted about the incident by reporters from the Boston Globe in 1994—little more than a decade afterward—Romney claimed no memory of the incident.
""I don't have any memory of what she is referring to," Romney would later declare, "although I certainly can't say it could not have been me." It became the patterned Romney response to other conflicted moments in his life (the bullying of a classmate in prep school was a similar incident). Mormon feminists came up with a term for Romney's calculated lack of memory: "Romnesia."
"He can seem very distant, unattached at times, almost heartless," says Judith Dushku, a lifelong Mormon and an associate professor of government at Suffolk University in Boston.
Vivacious and energetic, with sparkling blue eyes and a wide range of intellectual interests, Dushku has known Mitt Romney since the early 1970s, when they were both active in the LDS. Romney later served as her ward bishop, from 1981 to 1986, and as her stake president from 1986 until 1994, when he ran unsuccessfully for the United States Senate against Edward M. Kennedy.
Dushku was a close friend of Carrel Hilton Sheldon when Sheldon went through her experience with Romney.
"We were all terribly worried about her health," she says of Sheldon's close circle of women friends. "She had had severe medical difficulties, and the idea that she would carry the child to birth was terrifying to us. We loved her. We all expected that Mitt would support the decision of his ecclesiastical superior [the stake president] and when he denounced her and essentially shouted at her that she was wrong—that she was immoral and selfish—I thought, are you kidding me? I couldn't imagine that he would do that. I couldn't imagine anyone doing that."
Dushku sees a disturbing pattern in the Romney resume, one that can be traced as far back as his two years of missionary work in France, during the late 1960s.
"I don't have a sense that Mitt went on his mission to understand people, to engage them as human beings, but rather to excel in the eyes of the church," says Dushku. "It was about fulfilling an assignment, not about compassion. And that has been his modus operandi his entire life."
Raised in a Navy family that moved around the country, and a 1964 graduate of Brigham Young University, Dushku identifies herself as a "social democrat," so she and Romney have often found themselves on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to politics. That said, she describes the two of them of being "friends" in those early years in Boston, along with being Mormon brethren, although never seemingly on the same plane.
Dushku was a single mother of three at the time and, she says, Romney never seemed to be particularly comfortable in the company of unmarried Mormon mothers.
"I mean, if you were seated at a table with him and other Mormon men," she says, "you weren't likely to be included in the conversation. [Romney] thought that any woman that wasn't married to someone who can support them, who wasn't following church tradition in that respect, was just almost too unusual to consider in any collegial way."
Perhaps no other woman in the country—a feminist Mormon who has known Romney for nearly 40 years and who practiced in the LDS Church of Massachusetts while Romney was in various positions of church leadership there—has such a unique perspective on the Republican presidential nominee and his relationship to issues affecting women as does Dushku.
But with rare exception this campaign season—the primary anomaly being an extensive interview in Religion Dispatches with Joanna Brooks, author of The Book of Mormon Girl—her voice has not been heard in the mainstream media as part of the cumulative cacophony defining Romney for the American electorate. In many ways, he's been issued a free pass on his record as a Mormon church leader, particularly in respect to his record on women and issues that impact their lives.
The journalistic vacuum is disturbing. In a lengthy profile of Romney appearing only a few weeks ago in the New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann went through a litany of Romney's "pastoral activities" in the church: rushing over to a friend's house to help after a fire; deploying a group of Bain Capital employees to find a missing teenager; "straightening out" the "wayward son" of another stake member.
Lemann goes into great detail in an account of Romney helping a young husband apply polyurethane to his living-room floor. The spin is all in one direction. There's no reference to Sheldon or Dushku or any of the other Mormon feminists who bristled under Romney's patriarchal church leadership.
"I think some Mormons are intimidated by being put in the spotlight," Dushku says. "People are afraid to speak out against him. I know I've even felt that way. But there's another Romney that people aren't seeing—the dispassionate Romney, absolutely incapable of experiencing empathy for those in need, particularly for those who see the world differently than he does."