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Mitt Romney's French Mormon Mission Deepened His Faith In Jesus, Kept Him From Vietnam Draft

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In this 1966 photo taken by a photographer at the San Francisco Examiner newspaper, 19-year-old Mitt Romney, far right, then a student at Stanford University, participates in a counter-protest on campus. Romney and his fellow students were reacting to a protest then being waged by other students upset with the university's student draft deferment policies.
In this 1966 photo taken by a photographer at the San Francisco Examiner newspaper, 19-year-old Mitt Romney, far right, then a student at Stanford University, participates in a counter-protest on campus. Romney and his fellow students were reacting to a protest then being waged by other students upset with the university's student draft deferment policies.

From an invocation from a Mormon friend and videos highlighting Mitt Romney's time as a church leader in Boston, where he pastored to thousands of Mormons, the GOP presidential candidate's religious service will on display Thursday the Republican National Convention.

But it's less clear if the campaign will showcase his work in his late teens and early 20s as Mormon missionary. Romney, now 65, has said the time was integral to deepening his faith in Jesus Christ, but it also allowed him to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War, and instead to spend two and a half years in France.

While hundreds of thousands of American men were drafted to serve in Vietnam, Romney received a deferment because he was working as a missionary, which the government classified as a "minister of religion." His mission lasted 30 months from July 1966 to February 1969, but Romney also was given almost three years of deferment before and after the mission because he was a student.

In 1970, when Romney became eligible for the draft, he drew a high enough number in the annual lottery that he did not have to join the war effort.

The Romney campaign did not reply to a request for comment about the candidate's mission in France and his deferments from military service. President Barack Obama, 51, also did not serve in the war because he was a child at the time.

In 2007, during his previous run for president, Romney told the Boston Globe that did not recall "thinking about political positions when I was knocking at the door in France." "I longed in many respects to actually be in Vietnam and be representing our country there and in some ways it was frustrating," he said.

But as a Massachusetts Senate candidate in 1994, Romney struck a different tone. "I was not planning on signing up for the military," he told the Boston Herald. "It was not my desire to go off and serve in Vietnam, but nor did I take any actions to remove myself from the pool of young men who were eligible for the draft."

Deferments to Mormon missionaries at the time were granted regardless of whether their assignments were within the U.S. or another nation. Ministers of any religion received deferments, though Mormons are unique since most men embark on temporary missions when they turn 19. Ministers of other religions typically had made a lifetime commitment.

In 1968, non-Mormons filed a lawsuit against the federal government, claiming that the number of deferments granted to Mormon missionaries in Utah meant that non-Mormons were more likely to be drafted. The church had about 12,600 missionaries in 1970; the government issued around 5,359 Mormon missionary deferments just a year before, according to a New York Times article published at the time.

A spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints said the church does not release information on where its missionaries served during those years. Traditional church practice was to send abroad any Mormon able to excel at a foreign language.

In 1969, the total number of draftees from Utah, a state with 737,000 Mormons among a statewide population of 1,053,000, was 1,558. The church had a policy of nominating one missionary for deferment every six months from each ward, or congregation, in the country. Selective Service leaders in Utah knew of the policy and were instructed to accommodate it, according to the Times article.

Yet, as Romney was from Michigan, which had significantly fewer Mormons and missionaries than Utah, deferments were easier to come by.

"I was aware of the fact that there was an agreement of some sort of between the church and the Selective Service because there were some wards mostly in the West where the congregation was large and the number of youth was large," Barry Mayo, a counselor to the bishop of Romney's Pontiac, Mich., ward said in 2007 to Boston Globe.

"The circumstances were very different [from Utah] here. Our congregation was small and the number of youth [was] small. To the best of my knowledge we never had a situation where we had more than two young men wanting to go [on a mission] in any one year," Mayo said.

In France, Romney was in Le Havre, on the northwest French coast, and later in Paris with about 175 missionaries. He encountered a wave of anti-war sentiment among the French, as well as little enthusiasm for religion.

"You would find lots of cynical, angry older folks who felt that God didn't exist," said Randall Paul, who did not know Romney in France, but whose Mormon mission in Northern France and Southern Belgium overlapped for two years with Romney's. As they went door-to-door, the French usually thought missionaries were solicitors and had never heard of Mormonism. Conversions were rare.

As a freshman at Stanford in 1966, before becoming a missionary and prior to completing his undergraduate studies at Brigham Young University, Romney once joined a counter-demonstration to challenge anti-draft protesters who took over the university president's office, according to a 2008 Boston Globe article. He held a sign that read "speak out, don't sit in."

His father, who had supported the war but then famously said he had experienced "brainwashing," was serving in President Richard Nixon's cabinet when Romney returned to the U.S.

Young Romney was quoted in a 1970 Boston Globe article about the war in which reporters interviewed children of cabinet members about their views.

"We were brainwashed," echoed Romney, 23. "If it wasn’t a political blunder to move into Vietnam, I don’t know what is."

 
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