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Columbia historian Claudia Bushman on Mitt Romney, her former Mormon congregant: ‘He says things that make me cringe. But he’s not a bad man, he’s a good man.’

Liz Goodwin, Yahoo News
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Claudia Bushman at home near Columbia, where she teaches about Mormonism. (Liz Goodwin)

Claudia L. Bushman, a 76-year-old Columbia professor and practicing Mormon, is a feisty critic and an obedient follower of her church. Within the Mormon community, she's known for founding Exponent II, a feminist newspaper in Boston. In the 1970s, Bushman and her friends argued for greater inclusion of women in the all-male leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, angering some in the church's Salt Lake City headquarters. Bushman resigned as the newspaper's editor after church elders demanded it.

But right now, Bushman's claim to fame is that she knew Mitt Romney and his family during that same era, when they were in the same Latter-day Saint congregation--called a ward--in Cambridge, Mass., while Romney was studying for business and law degrees at Harvard. She had just turned down a request to go on CNN to talk about Ann Romney when Yahoo News spoke with her last week at her Manhattan apartment.

'He's not an unreasonable person'

It's funny that Mitt Romney is now considered awkward in public, Bushman said, because she remembers him as very suave. Hard-working, ambitious and good-looking couples turned up in the ward every fall, to attend Harvard and MIT and other schools.

He was "another one of those good-looking, promising students at Harvard," Bushman told Yahoo News. "There were plenty of those guys, just an awful lot of them."

"They really are impressive people," she said of the Romneys.

Most news coverage of Romney's time as a bishop and stake president (leading a single ward and a group of wards, respectively) from 1981 to 1994 in Boston has focused on his counseling a woman in his ward against an abortion, even though she had a blood clot in her pelvis that endangered her life.

"At a time when I would have appreciated nurturing and support from spiritual leaders and friends, I got judgment, criticism, prejudicial advice, and rejection," the woman wrote anonymously in Exponent II. The story first attracted national attention when Romney made a run for the Senate against Ted Kennedy in 1994 as a candidate who supports abortion rights. (The woman later identified herself as Carrel Sheldon in a biography of Romney by Ronald B. Scott.)

Bushman was very close with Sheldon, who worked on Exponent II with her, but she said she thinks Romney's behavior in the case was unusual. Bushman had left Boston for a teaching position in Delaware when the incident happened.

"I would say that that was not necessarily typical that he came down hard on that case," Bushman told Yahoo News. He was willing to negotiate with the group of feminist Mormons in Boston who wanted the Church to let women into more important roles and decision-making, she said.

"I had other friends … who persuaded Mitt to have a meeting where the women could air their grievances," she said. "He said, 'Well all right I'll do it, but I'll get in trouble with Salt Lake for doing it.' ... He's not an unreasonable person."

Bushman thinks Romney has changed in his efforts to win the Republican presidential nomination, staking out positions to the right of his church on abortion and immigration. "He's not a person of deep principles so much as he's a manager that figures things out," she says. "He says things that I don't think he believes. He says things that make me cringe. But he's not a bad man, he's a good man."

'It's awkward to be a Mormon'

Is it sometimes awkward to be a Mormon in Manhattan, where Bushman has lived on-and-off for more than 20 years? "Sure it is," Bushman said. "It's awkward to be a Mormon lots of places."

Before you give a talk, no matter the subject, everyone in the room already knows you're a Mormon. Before you knock at the door of a dinner party, it's the same thing, she said. Some of her undergraduate students in a small Mormon studies seminar she teaches at Columbia with her husband, the historian Richard Bushman, have yet to "come out" as Mormons to the other students, a situation she said she is watching with interest.

There are more than 14 million Mormons around the world, but there's something about the Church's "recent supernatural" that gives people pause, Bushman said. Mormons believe that fewer than 200 years ago, an angel directed Joseph Smith, an uneducated New Yorker, to find sacred and engraved gold plates, which he translated into the Book of Mormon. Mormons left the East and eventually settled in Salt Lake City, Utah, practicing polygamy until the religious leadership banned it in 1890. Bushman wrote in her book "Building the Kingdom" that some Mormon men were shocked when they were told that polygamy was part of their religious duties. "I felt as a married man that this was … an appalling thing to do," John Taylor, a later president of the church, said. Brigham Young said it was "the first time in my life I had desired the grave." ("But he overcame it," Bushman said.)

The women's studies department at the University of Delaware once refused to cross-list her honors history course on women, reasoning that a Mormon was unfit to teach the subject, Bushman told Yahoo News. "How about that?" she said, still indignant 30 years later.

So Bushman reinvented herself as a local historian, instead of a women's history specialist, becoming director of the Delaware Heritage Commission in 1984. She has returned to women's and religious history since then, writing three books on Mormonism and leading an oral history project with Claremont College in California--where she's an adjunct professor--collecting the oral histories of hundreds of Mormon women.

"It's only recently that Mormons have been trusted to speak for themselves," Bushman told Yahoo News. The thinking was that "Mormons cannot be trusted to speak the truth about themselves," adding, "It's like you get to know one and he seems like a reasonable person, but he must really be a zombie in disguise, just waiting to get the chance to send the missionaries."

'It's a good thing I have two hands'

When the Mormon church campaigned to pass California's Proposition 8, a gay marriage ban, in 2008, the Church's top leader in Salt Lake sent a letter to be read aloud to every California congregation asking Mormons to do all they could to prohibit same-sex marriage. Mormons were encouraged to go door-to-door and canvas for votes. A year after the ban passed, Bushman began collecting oral histories from Mormon women in Southern California, some of whom told her that the church's involvement in passing Proposition 8 caused them and their families pain.

One woman said she was torn between her faith and her son, who is gay.

"Personally, I believe that our son's marriage will be good for him and good for society," the woman said in her interview. "His marriage will in no way undermine my marriage … or male-female marriage in general. On the other hand, I believe that a prophet stands at the head of our church who has spoken out against same-sex marriage."

She added, "It's a good thing I have two hands."

Bushman, who lived in Southern California during the Prop 8 campaign when she and her husband taught at Claremont College, said she was similarly torn, though she doesn't have a close family member who is gay.

"We didn't do anything about it," she said. "But I also didn't want to be on record as going against it." She said she remembers the campaign as a "painful" time, as some Mormons felt pushed to act against their conscience. Some people temporarily lost their temple-recommends--which are given to the faithful so they can attend certain religious ceremonies at temples that are closed to outsiders--when they loudly protested, she said.

After the ban passed, newspapers reported that Mormons donated at least half of the $40 million raised for the Proposition 8 campaign and made up the vast majority of door-to-door volunteers, even though Mormons are only 2 percent of California's population. Some Mormon donors were publicly derided as bigots and harassed after the full list of Prop 8 donors--and their addresses--was publicized by advocates of gay marriage. Someone burned a Book of Mormon outside a Denver temple, and others organized a boycott of Mormon-owned businesses, the LA Times reported at the time.

A federal panel of judges overturned Prop 8 last week, ruling that it "serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California." The Mormon church expressed its displeasure with the decision in a statement but did not urge any concrete action. Mitt Romney said in a statement that he were elected president, he would "protect traditional marriage and appoint judges who interpret the Constitution as it is written."

'That's my identity'

Bushman has never considered leaving her church, she told Yahoo News, though she has clashed with its leaders over her open criticism of the way she says "women are not valued" by the church.

Church elders asked Bushman to resign from Exponent II, saying her husband's position then as stake president of Boston made it seem as if the church's leaders in Salt Lake condoned the feminist publication. She resigned, and the publication continued unimpeded.

Bushman remembers her time editing Exponent II fondly, she said. She and her team set up their own printing press to publish a book about 19th-century Mormon women called "Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah." Many of the "under-worked smart women" who worked with her--including Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, now a historian at Harvard, then a graduate student--would bring their children to the newspaper's meetings. Bushman had six children by the time she received her Ph.D. in history from Boston University.

"I really value the church, that's my identity," Bushman told Yahoo News as four severe-looking ancestors glowered at her from the walls of her book-lined living room.Her great-great grandfather, a young Mormon convert with piercing light eyes in his black-and-white portrait, immigrated to Utah from England in the 1850s to establish a sugar factory. He later fled the territory in the middle of the night, claiming that Brigham Young wanted to murder him.

"They would have had to kick me out," she said.

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