Review: Haws, “When Mormonism Mattered Less in Presidential Politics: George Romney’s 1968 Window of Possibilities”
Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns came to seem, in the media frenzy of the last few years, like bookends to America’s much-touted Mormon moment. But Americans’ fascination with the Latter-day Saints did not begin or end with Mitt Romney. This is not the first period in American history when non-Mormon Americans have, to some extent, embraced their LDS neighbors. In fact, Mitt Romney isn’t even the first Republican Romney whose religious affiliation has colored his national political image. His father George, the successful head of the American Motor Company in the 1950s and popular governor of Michigan in the 1960s, was a prominent candidate for the 1968 Republican nomination for President. Also like Mitt, George owed at least some measure of his political success to a period of increased interest in and positive feeling towards the Mormons. As J.B. Haws, Assistant Professor of Church History at BYU, shows in his article in the most recent issue of the Journal of Mormon History, George Romney’s candidacy was not seen as tainted by a “Mormon problem,” as were his son’s campaigns a half-century later.  In the United States in the 1960s, the Romneys’ Mormonism simply “mattered less” than it does in the 21st century. And if it mattered at all, Haws argues, it did so by lending George Romney the air of “benign wholesomeness” that characterized public perceptions of the Latter-day Saints in this period (99).
Haws’ current article is based on the research for his forthcoming book The Mormon Image in the American Mind: Fifty Years of Public Perception (OUP, November 2013), and essentially lays the groundwork for that longer study, in which he traces public perceptions of Mormonism in the American media across the last half-century. In the 1960s, he argues, George Romney ran for the Republican nomination for the presidency and faced remarkably few challenges to his religion—or at least what look like remarkably few challenges to those of us who lived through the most recent Mormon moment. By comparing political polling data from both Romneys’ campaigns and examining news coverage of the elder Romney’s presidential aspirations and editorial commentary on his campaign and on the larger question of the role a candidate’s religion should play in voters’ assessment of his fitness for office, Haws convincingly demonstrates that Americans were less concerned in the 1960s—or at least said they were less concerned—by the possibility of having a Mormon in the White House than were their early 21st-century counterparts. While George Romney’s religion was occasionally challenged—primarily, Haws claims, regarding the Church’s policies on race (remember, George Romney was running for the presidency in the midst of the Civil Rights movements, and a decade before the Church lifted its ban on blacks in the priesthood)—according to Haws it was not Romney’s religion but his moderate politics and his ill-advised declaration in 1967 that he had been “brainwashed” into supporting the Vietnam war that sunk him with American voters. In short, Haws argues that political views, not religious beliefs, were the elder Romney’s greatest obstacles.
Haws’ arguments here point forward in powerfully suggestive ways that leave me excited to read the full book. His argument in the article would certainly benefit from more attention to the background of the Mormon image, which I hope we’ll see in the longer text. While Haws tells makes a strong argument here that JFK’s election, Roman Catholics’ greater openness in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, and the push toward greater ecumenism in the dominant Protestant discourse laid the groundwork for keeping religion largely out of political discourse in the 1960s, he doesn’t discuss the cultural history of perceptions of Mormonism in the American popular mind up to this point. What non-Mormon perceptions about the Latter-day Saints AND what actions on the part of Mormons and their Church in the years prior to Romney’s ascent to national prominence fostered the positive images (that “benign wholesomeness”) that carried the elder Romney through his strong campaign? Were Americans really unconcerned about Romney’s religion, or is that just what they told the pollsters in an earlier, religiously-based instance of what we’ve come to know as the Bradley effect? If Americans really were so unperturbed about Romney’s Mormonism, how had they moved, in the 50 years before his rise to political stardom, so far from the attitudes expressed during the nearly-successful attempt to have Mormon Apostle Reed Smoot ejected from his seat in the U.S. Senate on the basis of his religion? This calls for some explanation, and would help to explain why, as Haws contends, Americans were willing to largely ignore George Romney’s religion–which just a few decades earlier was regarded by much of the American population as sufficient reason to have a national official thrown out of office.
Haws also elides a great deal of evidence of ongoing prejudices toward the Latter-day Saints, even in this halcyon moment. In December 1965, for instance, just as George Romney began their push toward the 1968 Republican presidential nomination, the New York Times ran a front-page story entitled “Mormons Gain Despite Tensions: Liberals Are Stirred by Church Curb on Negro Members; Right-Wing Activity and Polygamy Also a Concern.” It was followed by two more articles, and altogether the exposé (and a follow-up book by the author, The Mormon Establishment, published in 1966) sought to warn readers about the Latter-day Saints’ rapid growth and entry into mainstream American life, their supposedly pervasive retrograde attitudes about race, and the corporate greed that apparently ruled the Church.  Haws acknowledges that such negative attitudes persisted in American culture, noting Jan Shipps’ contention that different media treated Mormons differently in this period: print sources, she argued, focused on negative stereotypes, while TV and radio emphasized positive views (120, n. 63). He even observes that “reporters and opponents took exception to the fact that [George Romney] fasted and prayed before making the decision to enter the governor’s race—allegedly implying a ‘pipeline to God’” (121), but doesn’t note that such criticisms fit into the larger context of pre-existing stereotypes about the Saints’ belief in ongoing revelation—an aspect of their religion that Americans had long ridiculed. He simply doesn’t explore the myriad negative images that were still clearly a part of the American discussion about Mormonism. While it is useful to compare the number of contemporary positive and negative media references to George Romney’s faith, Haws needed to examine the broader context of American perceptions of Mormonism, which are critically important because American voters were unavoidably reading contemporary references to this prominent man’s faith through the lens of their previous encounters with the Mormon image.
I’m particularly fascinated by the implications of Haws’ argument that “Romney’s ‘liberal’ positions,” and not his religion, significantly hindered his candidacy (113). I wish Haws would have said more here about the liberal/conservative divide in politics that he sees at work against the elder Romney. Do George and Mitt Romney’s political woes say more about political realignments within the Republican party over the course of the last 50 years than they do about Mormonism in the public eye? Has Mormonism come to be regarded by the majority of Americans as a theological oddity, but more importantly a social and political threat? The discussion of George Romney’s religion focused on its impact on his social positions, but his liberalism on issues of race—amply demonstrated by his actions as well as his words—should have challenged the prevailing view of Mormons as hegemonic, in lockstep with the hierarchy and with each other on social and cultural issues. And yet he couldn’t escape the accusation that he would follow the dictates of his Church once in office. Following this train of thought leads me to wonder—was “the complexity of the Mormon position on race” as represented by the elder Romney (116) the 1960s equivalent of his son’s support of LGBT rights early in his own political career? Were both men moderate by inclination, and was that moderation rejected within their own party because of its increasingly conservative bent, and by political liberals because of the perceived social and political conservatism of the Church to which they were believed to be blindly obedient? Was the younger Romney then politically sunk, as Haws argues of his father, not by public suspicions about his religion, but rather by opposition from the conservative wing of his own party who opposed his publicly moderate stance on the civil rights issues of his day? If so, this tale of two Romneys offers a fascinating take on recent American political history, and seems particularly to place the Mormons at the moderate crossroads of the Republican Party’s internecine fighting.
Haws’ article has certainly piqued my interest. But what most fascinates me about the material he has presented in this article is not the differences in the two Romneys’ experiences, but rather the similarities. I look forward with much anticipation to what his book will uncover about the transition of American responses to Mormon religion from George Romney to Mitt Romney, but even more to what he still has to tell us about the shifts that have taken place in American party politics and the role Mormons have played as symbols and perhaps standard-bearers in those changes.
 J.B. Haws, “When Mormonism Mattered Less in Presidential Politics: George Romney’s 1968 Window of Possibilities,” The Journal of Mormon History 39, 3 (Summer 2013), 97–129.
 The 3 articles were published on December 27, 28, and 29, 1965. Turner’s book was published the following year by Houghton Mifflin. The New York Times continued a steady drumbeat against Romney’s Church’s conservatism, with articles on the Church’s attitudes about race and connections to ultra-conservative organizations like the John Birch Society, throughout the mid-1960s.