This year, my co-blogger spent the holidays shuffling between Queens Village and Sea Cliff, Long Island. Since Noel’s family in New York skews almost uniformly Democratic, the political discussions tended to be about the distant past, back in a time when many — well, some — of his relatives were still Republicans. He was told by people old enough to remember that George Romney’s religion was a giant nothingburger in the run-up to the 1968 election. This was so massively different from the environment Romney’s son encountered in 2008 and 2012 that my esteemed blog-colleague had trouble believing that it was true.
Only it is true! George Romney’s religion was an issue, but a relatively small one.
“In December 1965, the New York Times ran a three-part exposé on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the first installment of which appeared on the front page. The series argued that the Church was a corporate, top-down organization in which believers unquestioningly obeyed the leadership’s dictates in social, economic, and political matters as well as in their spiritual lives. Journalist Wallace Turner was particularly disturbed by what he regarded as the Church’s racist policy on African Americans in the priesthood. But most of all, he wanted readers to understand that George Romney was a Mormon, and because — as Turner saw it — Mormons always obeyed the leadership of their Church, if Romney were elected then the Church could effectively govern the nation.”
(The articles in question were Wallace Turner, “Mormons Gain Despite Tensions: Liberals Are Stirred by Church Curb on Negro Members; Right-Wing Activity and Polygamy Also Cause Concern,” December 27, 1965; Turner, “Mormon Stand on Negroes Poses Problem for Romney If He Decides to Run for President: Church Prejudice Would Be an Issue,” December 28, 1965; Turner, “Mormon Tithes Support Worldwide Proselyting, and Membership Keeps Growing: Financial Health of Church Strong,” December 29, 1965.)
However, these don’t seem to have done him much harm. Romney’s period as an A-list presidential candidate was pretty short —from his re-election as governor of Michigan (November 1966) to his disastrous “brainwashing” comment (August 1967). His candidacy dragged on into January ‘68 but he was trailing in every poll by then, and he quit on the eve of New Hampshire. But during that not-quite-a-year, he got a lot of scrutiny, and the religious issue did come up.
One suspects that if he’d lasted longer and gone further, it would likely have been more of an issue. But in real life, despite some unflattering articles — in addition to the ones mentioned above, there was a snarky piece in the New Republic entitled “Holy George” — it doesn’t seem to have done him much harm.
J.B. Haws’ book, The Mormon Image in the American Mind: Fifty Years of Public Perception, has a whole chapter on this. Haws argues that the 1960s were sort of a local maximum in terms of perception of Mormons. After World War 2, their social conservatism and enthusiastic patriotism went far to mainstream them in the public eye. It was only in the 1970s that Mormons got demonized by liberals for retrogressive racial views while more and more conservative evangelicals came to view them as heretical pseudo-Christians.
An additional issue is that in 1968, a lot fewer Americans were clear on what Mormons were. There were relatively fewer of them 50 years ago, and they hadn’t produced a lot of national figures yet. Also, they weren’t associated politically with the GOP to anything like the extent they are today. (There are prominent Mormon Democrats, but for some reason the public tends to overlook their religious affiliation.) So, less negative stereotypes both socially and politically, I’d say.
TLDR: Noel’s relatives are right. It was a thing, but for various reasons it wasn’t a very big thing.