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Did Anyone Care that George Romney Was Mormon?

In a classic comparison of father and son, one of many in American political history, Mitt Romney (Republican hopeful for the 2008 election [Editor's note: and, of course, for 2012]) has experienced a campaign remarkably different from his father’s, George Romney, some forty years ago.

The 1968 presidential campaign was one of those elections that make the textbooks. Coming at the high water mark of the Vietnam War, and following on the revelation by President Lyndon Johnson that he would not seek another term in office, the stakes were certainly high and the list of possible candidates was limitless.

Joining George Romney, names dropped for possible nomination by the Republican Party included former Vice President Richard M. Nixon and California Governor Ronald Reagan. For the Democratic Party, hopefuls included New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy and current Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Romney’s role in the election was short but memorable. A former chairman of American Motors from 1954 to 1962, Romney had risen in the ranks of the Republican Party, winning three consecutive terms as governor of Michigan before declaring his run for the White House. A late 1967 poll ranked him as the number one candidate among moderate Republicans. And although his religious affiliation was well known, it played virtually no role in his candidacy.

Rather, during the time of his candidacy a much larger issue for the Romney campaign was whether or not Romney, born to American parents in Chihuahua, Mexico could be classified as a naturally born citizen – a stipulation that applies only to those seeking the presidency. However, this issue also took a back seat to a more crucial one – one that would ultimately cause him the race.

All signs suggest that Romney’s future pointed in no other direction than up. But, following a televised comment that attributed his support for the Vietnam War to “brainwashing by the U.S. military” Romney’s campaign became enshrouded in an escalating controversy that dropped his ratings in the polls and caused him to finally concede the race shortly before the 1968 New Hampshire primary.

In an interview later in life, Romney insisted that his comments regarding Vietnam had nothing to do with his bowing out. Rather, he attributed the true nature of his concession to Nelson Rockefeller joining the race. Between Rockefeller and Nixon, Romney stated he had no chance. Whatever the cause of the demise of his career historians and journalists agree that his life-long membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was a non-issue in those early days of the 1968 race.

The 1968 campaign may not have been about religion, but the 1960 campaign certainly was. The questions regarding the influence of the Pope on a potential Catholic president weighed heavily on the minds of many Protestant voters and prompted JFK to make a speech regarding the influence of his faith on his possible presidency. By 1968 the Vietnam War and the social changes of the 1960s seemed far more important to the electorate than a candidate's religion.

In regards to questions of Mitt’s religious loyalty, Senator Ted Kennedy has said, “that issue died with my brother, Jack.” But headlines that say quips such as, “Does Romney’s Mormonism Matter?” “Romney’s Evangelical Problem,” and “Will Faith Hurt Bid for the White House?” make it clear that the issue is very much alive in modern-day American politics.

And though he was never questioned during the campaign on his faith, George Romney’s political career, and his life as a whole, was certainly influenced by his faith. In December of 1968, just following Romney’s appointment as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development by president-elect Richard Nixon, a New York Times article stated that Romney “sees himself bringing the idealism of his Mormon religion to business and politics in general.” Still, it is to be noted that clips such as this usually noted Romney’s religion as an advantage to his position, not a weakness, and did not spring up until after he had left the race.

Mitt Romney simply does not have the luxury of avoiding the topic of religion like his father did because religion has become such an influential part of our public debates, whereas it was almost nonexistent in the political realm of the ‘60s. Certainly religion played a prominent role in the 2000, 2002, and 2004 elections, as Kevin Coe and David Domke demonstrated in an article published on HNN a few weeks ago. Almost certainly religion will continue to play an outsized role.