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Bright College Years, Sans Salinger

Before the week’s out, and while the cheers of the barely 1,000 people arrayed within the Detroit football stadium for Mitt Romney’s big speech today are still ringing in our ears, I wanted to be sure to recommend that everyone read Jason Horowitz’s in-depth Washington Post piece last weekend about Romney’s college years at BYU. This is one of the least-examined chapters in Romney’s life, the years after he returned from his mission in France. Even The Real Romney, the comprehensive new biography by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, skips relatively quickly through the BYU years. But it was a very crucial chapter for Romney. It’s occurred to me that he is not entirely unlike Barack Obama in the sense that he went, in a very short time in his early 20s, from being a smiley, go-along, get-along teenager who was not particularly intent on his studies, to suddenly becoming a very serious and ambitious young man. For Romney, that shift happened in his 30 months in France and in his several years at BYU. By the time he was out of BYU and on his way to Harvard business and law school, he was a man on the move.

What Horowitz captures especially well, though, is what a sheltered and unusual existence Romney’s time at BYU was, compared with what other college students were experiencing in the early 1970s. Romney had intended to return to Stanford, where he had spent his freshman year pre-France, but his sweetheart Ann persuaded him to come to BYU, where she was studying, rather than have them both move to Palo Alto, as he had planned. It was a fateful decision, because BYU would, as Horowitz describes, only strengthen Romney’s deeply traditional, straight-arrow mindset. While other colleges were in turmoil over the Vietnam War, not to mention riddled with sex, drugs and rock and roll, BYU was a place where subversion meant English professors finagling ways to get The Catcher in the Rye into their curricula. The Catcher in the Rye! It was a place where it was entirely normal for Mitt and Ann to settle into the life of a very young married couple and start a family. And it was a place run by college president Ernest Wilkinson, who was not exactly an avatar of Enlightenment:

After an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1964, the hard-line anti-communist returned to the university, where some students and teachers quipped about his fictitious memoir “Mein Campus.” Wilkinson, along with Willard Cleon Skousen, a former Salt Lake City police chief, John Birch Society booster and professor of religion at BYU, began running student spy rings targeting teachers and activist students.
In commencement addresses, Wilkinson, known for performing 100 push-ups at halftime of school basketball games, spoke out against birth control and “the social evils of today, such as beatniks, hippies, drug addicts, free-lovers, college rioters and others who would completely remove cleanliness, morality and all other Christian virtues from our civilization.” He said student radicals should have “their citizenship revoked.”

And while some students and faculty began to rebel against this sort of mindset, Mitt Romney was most certainly not among them. Horowitz describes, for one thing, how defensive Romney got about other colleges, including Stanford, boycotting athletic games with BYU over the Mormon church's official ban against black priests:

When Romney’s old school, Stanford, announced at the end of 1969 that it would boycott athletic competitions with BYU, Romney was incensed. “I remember sitting in a football stadium with Mitt, he and Ann were sitting next to me, and I do remember Mitt being really angry with Stanford,” said Cameron, Ann’s onetime suitor. “He felt like it was, A, naive, and, B, sort of a bigoted, narrow-minded perspective.”

Horowitz concludes by pointing out much BYU reinforced Romney’s LDS identity, noting that, for one thing, Romney and Ann decided to hold a traditional Mormon baptism ceremony for Ann’s father after he died. I had not read about this before, and it really jumped out at me. Ann’s father was famously opposed to organized religion, and not exactly thrilled that Mitt and his father George had converted not just Ann but also her two brothers to Mormonism. It's quite remarkable that they would have decided nonetheless to baptize him after his death. Horowitz writes:

At that time, Provo had no Mormon temple, a sacred space within which the faith’s most holy rituals, including marriage sealings, endowments and proxy baptisms for the dead, could be performed. Mitt and Ann had been married for eternity in the Salt Lake Temple, the towering quartz monzonite landmark in Temple Square. As students in possession of a “temple recommend,” a church-issued stamp of good standing, they traveled the hour north from Provo to Salt Lake several times with the McBrides to perform church rituals, including baptisms of the dead.
“It was usually for just regular temple work,” McBride said, “doing the proxy work for someone who is deceased.”
Mormons believe that baptism is an essential right of passage to salvation, that it was performed on the dead in the time of the apostle Paul, and that Smith restored the practice after millenniums of apostasy. They hold that the ritual offers a second chance to accept Christ in the afterlife for those who died before the restoration of the Mormon Church, as well as for those who had failed to receive Mormon baptism since the church’s establishment.
At the temple, the Romneys would enter a special room where a proxy, clad in white robes, waded into a large baptismal font resting on the backs of 12 sculpted oxen. The proxy then was vicariously baptized in the name of deceased people — often, but not always, relatives. (Ann’s father, Edward R. Davies, a lifelong nonbeliever, received the rite a year after his death.)

Romney has of course distanced himself from the controversy about Mormons doing baptism rituals for Holocaust victims. But as Horowitz reminds us, Romney’s association with after-death baptism in general is closer than many realize. I suspect we'll be hearing more on this.