Religious prejudice is, unfortunately, a part of American presidential campaigns. Thomas Jefferson suffered it. Barack Obama suffers it, and Mitt Romney, a Mormon, may well suffer it. One man who suffered it worse than most is Al Smith – the first Roman Catholic presidential candidate.
With incumbent President Calvin Coolidge declining to run for re-election in 1928, Democrats probably thought they had an opportunity to win back the White House. The Republicans nominated Herbert Hoover, and the Democrats nominated Al Smith, the popular incumbent governor of New York and a Roman Catholic. What followed was a campaign that set a new high in lowness for American politics.
To be sure, Smith had a few other problems: He was a “wet” (against Prohibition) and associated with Tammany Hall, originally founded in 1789 as a patriotic and charitable organization, but by the time Smith ran for President, the organization had become a political force dedicated to anti-Federalist principals. He was also fighting against a Republican-led tide of economic prosperity. However, it was an astounding backlash and vitriolic campaign by normally sane people against his religion that sank him.
A long and persistent undercurrent of anti-Catholicism in the United States existed, and many people thought Catholics were all stooges of Rome, blindly obeying the Pope and plotting to overthrow the government. Violence against Catholics and Catholic churches occurred throughout American history. Smith, however, was a popular multi-term governor of the nation’s most populous state and the one, which held the most cosmopolitan city. Surely, he wouldn’t fall victim to anti-Catholic prejudice…would he?
He would. The campaign, marked by things like the note sent home with every child by the school board of Daytona Beach, Florida: “We must prevent the election of Alfred E. Smith to the Presidency. If he is elected President, you will not be allowed to have or read a Bible.” Flyers informed voters that if elected, Smith would annul all Protestant marriages, making all children of these marriages illegitimate.
It got worse. A little girl who lived in Kansas asked her mother “Mama, why don’t they kill that bad man Smith that they told us about in Sunday school?” A Baptist minister in Oklahoma City bluntly told his congregation: “If you vote for Al Smith you’re voting against Christ and you’ll all be damned.”
Such blind hatred carried its own evil consequences, which included the Ku Klux Klan joining forces with those who denounced Smith on religious grounds. A Klan leader mailed postcards announcing that it was now the darkest hour in American history, and that Smith’s nomination was a victory for the anti-Christ. In one area of Indiana, a Klansman shrieked that the Pope could, even at that moment, have his bags packed and be on his way to the United States to get ready for the take-over. “Watch the trains!” he shrieked.
The prejudice against Smith ranged from the serious to the ridiculous. Photos of the newly completed Holland Tunnel blanketed the South, and the caption assured everyone that the tunnel led under the Atlantic Ocean floor to Rome, and actually was a secret passageway for the Pope to come to the United States and Smith to travel to Rome. A woman wrote to Franklin D. Roosevelt (F.D.R.) saying she had heard that if Smith were elected, the Pope’s son would be his secretary. “How many sons do you think the Pope has?” replied F.D.R.
A cartoon entitled “Cabinet Meeting – If Al Were President” showed the Pope sitting at the head of a Cabinet meeting, surrounded by priests and bishops with Smith shown as a waiter bringing in whiskey on a platter. Of course, the religious hatred continued right up to the election when Smith lost by a landslide, carrying only eight states with 87 electoral votes, he even lost New York. Hoover took the rest, and rolled up 444 electoral votes.
Of course, in less than a year, Smith had the last laugh, as the Great Depression began and forever branded Hoover as the Great Depression President, but the viciousness of the campaign stung Smith.
Although today we’d like to think that Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy’s victory in 1960-ended anti-religious bias in presidential politics for good, but pictures showing Obama in a turban and rants about how he’s a Muslim, unfortunately shows that religious prejudice is still very much alive in the United States.
“A History of Presidential Elections” by Eugene H. Roseboom