August 30th, 2012
10:45 PM ET
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
(CNN) - After years of keeping quiet about his Mormon faith, Mitt Romney’s campaign thrust his church life into the national eye Thursday night, as a handful of Mormons took to the Republican National Convention’s stage to deliver moving testimonials about the Republican presidential nominee’s role as a member and leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
One couple that belonged to the same Massachusetts ward, or church, as Romney did recounted in a prime-time address how Romney tended to their 14-year-old son when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
“You cannot measure a man’s character based on words he utters before adoring crowds during happy times,” Ted Oparowski, the boy’s father, said on the RNC's final night, following speeches by such GOP stars as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
“The true measure of a man is revealed in his actions during times of trouble,” Oparowski said, his voice shaking. “The quiet hospital room of a dying boy, with no cameras and no reporters – that is the time to make an assessment.”
Oparowski explained how, more than 30 years ago, Romney would go on to eulogize his son.
Moments later, Pam Finlayson walked onto the convention stage to tell how Romney helped her when he served as bishop – the rough equivalent of a church pastor – of their ward in Belmont, Massachusetts.
Finlayson told how she’d given birth to a daughter 3½ months early and that the baby suffered from underdeveloped lungs, an unstable heart and a brain hemorrhage.
“As I sat with her in intensive care, consumed with a mother's worry and fear, dear Mitt came to visit and pray with me,” Finlayson said, provoking tears throughout the convention hall.
“I will never forget that when he looked down tenderly at my daughter, his eyes filled with tears, and he reached out gently and stroked her tiny back.”
“When it comes to loving our neighbor, we can talk about it or we can live it,” Finlayson said later. “The Romneys live it every single day.”
With Romney almost never even invoking the words “Mormon” or “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” the intimate windows into the candidate’s church life came as a surprise to many ears.
“I was a little surprised that it really came out so strong,” says Richard Bushman, a Mormon and a scholar of the religion at Columbia University. “The number of Mormon notes struck in this one evening was remarkable.”
“It must have been some kind of balance of power in the campaign that shifted.”
Romney has opened up more about his Mormonism in recent weeks, but Thursday night’s speeches from Mormon friends marked a dramatic departure from Romney’s vague pronouncements about his faith.
In formally accepting the Republican nomination on Thursday night, Romney took the unusual step of invoking the "M" word, as he recounted his early years.
"We were Mormons and growing up in Michigan," Romney said. "That might have seemed unusual or out of place but I really don’t remember it that way. My friends cared more about what sports teams we followed than what church we went to."
Later in his speech, as he talked about arriving in Massachusetts, Romney referred to his church experience in a way that made it sound universal.
"Like a lot of families in a new place with no family, we found kinship with a wide circle of friends through our church," Romney said. "When we were new to the community it was welcoming and as the years went by, it was a joy to help others who had just moved to town or just joined our church."
Earlier in the evening, the Oparowskis and Finlayson were introduced by Grant Bennett, a fellow ward member who talked in specific terms about Mormon life.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has an unpaid, lay clergy,” said Bennett, who succeeded Romney as bishop of the ward. “While raising his family and pursuing his career, Mitt Romney served in our church, devoting 10, 15, even 20 hours a week doing so.”
“Like all Mormon leaders, he did so on his own time and at his own expense,” Bennett continued.
While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has seized on the national Mormon moment with national ad campaigns to try to explain and normalize Mormonism, the slate of Mormon RNC speakers may have done more to explain the fundamentals of Mormon life to millions of Americans.
“Tonight’s stories had an authenticity that’s greater than 20 public affairs releases from the church office,” says Bushman. “It’s just a huge enlargement of the understanding of the faith.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.