As Mitt Romney spends the next leg of his campaign courting evangelical voters in South Carolina, his Mormon faith is expected to re-emerge as a subject of serious scrutiny. But concerns won’t belong exclusively to theologically suspicious Baptists: a newly revealed episode from the candidate’s time as a lay leader in the LDS church could raise eyebrows among women’s advocates.
While serving as bishop of a Mormon congregation near Boston in the early 80’s, Romney once threatened to excommunicate a young single mother if she did not give her soon-to-be-born son up for adoption, according to a passage from a forthcoming book, “The Real Romney.” excerpted this week in Vanity Fair.
The anecdote, which Romney has disputed, sheds new light on a compelling part of the candidate’s religious life—one that serves, politically, as a double-edged sword. On one hand Romney’s time spent as a minister of his faith gave him the unique opportunity of serving low-income Boston neighborhoods, undercutting the narrative that he’s an out-of-touch millionaire. On the other, his role as a representative of the church sometimes put him in a position of standing up for politically unsavory teachings.
Peggie Hayes had converted to Mormonism as a teenage along with her family, and told the book’s authors, Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, that for a long time she found comfort in the faith’s teachings. After returning to the congregation as a 23-year-old divorced single mother, she soon got pregnant with a second child. Knowing she was in need of financial assistance, the Romneys arranged for her to do odd jobs for members of the congregation.
“Mitt was really good to us,” Hayes told the authors. “He did a lot for us.”
But while Hayes considered Romney a friend, he was also her bishop—which meant it was his job to pass along sometimes-harsh church counsel. The tension between the two relationships came to the forefront one day when he came over to her apartment, and encouraged her to turn her son over to the church’s adoption agency when he was born. (The church’s position is that if a happy marriage between parents of a newborn seems unlikely, adoption is preferable to single parenting.)
Hayes was offended by the suggestion, and told Romney she would never give up her son. But, according to Hayes, Romney told her, “Well, this is what the church wants you to do, and if you don’t, then you could be excommunicated for failing to follow the leadership of the church.”
Though she was defiant, the authors write, “In that moment, she also felt intimidated. Here was Romney, who held great power as her church leader and was the head of a wealthy, prominent Belmont family, sitting in her gritty apartment making grave demands.”
Hayes acknowledged the seriousness of excommunication: “This is not playing around. This is not like, ‘You don’t get to take Communion.’ This is like ‘You will not be saved. You will enver see the face of God.’”
According to the book’s authors, Romney would later deny that he ever threatened excommunication, and a review of the LDS church guidelines shows that the church does not often excommunicate members in situations like this. As bishop, Romney didn’t have unilateral authority to excommunicate Hayes—that decision would have been made by a council of regional lay leaders after discussing the matter with her—and failing to give up a child for adoption is not considered a grave sin.
But in the end, Hayes left the church anyway—not because of that conversation with Romney, but because of what happened soon after. When her new son was nine months old, he needed risky surgery, and a frightened Hayes called Romney and asked him to confer a blessing on the baby. But instead of coming himself, Romney sent two church members Hayes didn’t know.
“I needed him,” she said. “It was very significant that he didn’t come.”