I think of John Carroll as the first American Catholic. Born in colonial Maryland, he…
Religion in politics
Nov. 6 came and went. Most American Catholics regarded the day as special because of the midterm elections.
Few thought of it as an anniversary, but American Catholics alive on Nov. 6, 1928, remember it as the day when Governor Alfred E. Smith, of New York — for years highly regarded by many as a government official, the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, and known as a faithful Catholic — went down in a breathtaking defeat, in great measure due to hatred in American society for Catholics. Only Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Massachusetts and Rhode Island supported Smith. No Democrat had lost so badly in generations.
Millions thought electing a Catholic president unthinkable. Protestant denominations and clergy thundered in their fury about Smith. When he was nominated for president, Smith invited Arkansas Senator Joseph T. Robinson, a former governor of Arkansas, to be the Democratic nominee for vice president. Robinson was friendly with Arkansas Catholics and had spoken against anti-Catholicism in the Senate. As a Protestant, and a Southerner, he would “balance” the ticket. Robinson agreed to run. The First Methodist Church in Little Rock, his church, promptly expelled him.
Heading “Women for Smith” was Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of future President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Highly educated, a keen observer of American life and an Episcopalian, she had mingled with all religious and ethnic elements of New York’s varied community throughout her life. She wrote that in 1928 she truly learned how deeply embedded anti-Catholicism was in the United States.
Some historians wonder if Smith knew what awaited him when he decided to run for president. He had not experienced such animosity in cosmopolitan New York.
Regardless, Smith realized what his religion cost him. He said, “I hope that never again in this country will any candidate for public office be judged on the basis of how he has tried to walk humbly with his God.”
Recently, I went to the public library to read the newspapers from 1928. I was stunned at how bluntly and openly people admitted their utter contempt for the Catholic Church. Catholics were criminals and pests, weirdos, shiftless parasites on the country, adherents of a philosophy alien to America, and mindless robots controlled by enemies of America.
Immigration laws were in effect, designed to restrict Catholics from entering the country. The constitution forbade mentioning any religion outright in laws, so the purpose was achieved by stopping people from certain countries with strong Catholic majorities from coming into the United States.
It sounds crazy now, but laws were being proposed to forbid the wearing of Catholic religious clothing in public, and to require all parents to send their children to public schools. Catholics feared that parochial schools might have to close.
Believe it or not, many states authorized police to barge unexpectedly into convents to see if crimes were being committed or plotted by the nuns.
Rare was the Catholic lawyer who could be considered for a judgeship. Few Catholics were in appointed governmental office. Few Catholics were business executives or professionals.
Catholics were expected to obey laws obviously hostile to their Church, pay taxes, die on the battlefield when wars were declared, and grovel at the foot of every ladder, in silence.
Times have changed, but not completely. Catholics still are different. Today, more and more, anyone openly voicing religious principles is unwelcome. Religion itself is under siege, and it is not good for our country.
Msgr. Owen Campion is OSV’s chaplain.