How Mitt Romney’s Faith Could Help Him Win

Mormons are accustomed to being the underdog and finding ways to succeed

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Stained glass by Megan Caponetto for Time. Photograph by Dan Forbes

For Mormons, America is a very special place indeed. It’s central to the story of their faith; it was home to the Garden of Eden and will be the site of the Second Coming of Jesus.

The notion of American exceptionalism is of course not a new idea. Two centuries before Joseph Smith had the visions that led to the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Puritan leader John Winthrop delivered a sermon entitled “A Model of Christian Charity” in which he projected a vision of America as a New Israel where the fate of the nation would be inextricably linked to the maintenance of the covenant between God and man. “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill,” wrote Winthrop, alluding to the Sermon on the Mount. “The eyes of all people are upon us.” The next lines are less-quoted but revealing: “So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”

Down the years, religious Americans have also found inspiration in a popular text from II Chronicles: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” (The Bible on which Ronald Reagan took the presidential oath in 1981 was opened to this verse.)

As someone who’s always been interested in the intersection of politics and religion—a subject that seems to me as important in many ways as the intersection of politics and economics—I wondered, where did Mitt Romney fall in all this? Is he a caricatured Reaganesque optimist? (Reagan, always the master of the image, added the modifier “shining” to Winthrop’s words, which were themselves drawn from the Sermon on the Mount. Only Reagan could offer an effective edit to the Son of Man.) Or is he, a son of a long-persecuted faith that has found religious liberty and expedience invaluable in its struggle to survive, more of a realist?

(MORE: Is Romney Using Mormonism as a Shield?)

The answer I came to in this week’s cover story (available to subscribers here) is more complicated than the one I expected. Mitt Romney’s faith is of a piece with his business career (in an inhospitable and messy world analytical skills come in handy) and with the political journey that’s taken him from being a moderate governor in a moderate state to being a conservative nominee in a conservative national party.

The key question in these last weeks of the campaign is whether Romney’s pragmatic instincts — instincts I believe are rooted in his faith tradition — will win out, enabling him to mount a comeback to President Obama. The history of the LDS church is clear on on one thing: Mormons are accustomed to being the underdog and finding ways to succeed.

(READ MORE: TIME’s cover story, “The Mormon Identity,” by Jon Meacham)

MORE: Read About Gloria Borger’s Upcoming CNN Documentary“Romney Revealed: Family, Faith and the Road to Power”