In 1928, Democratic nominee Al Smith of New York ran one of the most disastrous presidential campaigns in history. His effort to gain national office was hampered by his provincialism, which was evident in everything from his thick, cigar-chomping New York accent to his theme song: “The Sidewalks of New York.”
Smith was also was tarnished by his lifelong membership in New York’s notoriously corrupt Tammany Hall political machine. And being the son of Irish immigrants didn’t help either during an era when the mainstream culture stereotyped the Irish as moronic, wife-beating drunkards.
It was no great surprise when Iowa’s Herbert Hoover shellacked him in the general election.
But it’s also worth remembering that Smith’s Catholicism played a vital role in his defeat. The U.S. population was still overwhelmingly Protestant, and the arrival of Catholics by the millions in the 1840s and 1850s had set off a maelstrom of hatred and paranoia that was augmented by more heavy Catholic immigration from the 1980s-1910s. One of the many ludicrous accusations popular at the time was that no Catholic politician could be trusted because their first allegiance would be to the Pope in Rome instead of the United States.
All of this taken together enabled Hoover supporters to smear Smith as the candidate of Rome (Catholicism), Rum (he opposed Prohibition), and Rebellion (his Tammany Hall connections).
Of course Hoover got his comeuppance. While popular culture has all but forgotten Smith these many years later, Hoover is still known as the guy who oversaw our descent into the Great Depression with graceless ineptitude.
By 1960, when John Fitzgerald Kennedy ran for the presidency, Catholics were far more integrated into and accepted by the mainstream American culture. But that doesn’t mean all of the old bigotries were gone. Particularly in the Bible Belt, an inherent mistrust remained among many Southern Baptists and other Protestants.
For the Kennedy camp, there was real reason to worry that they might lose some of the Solid South, and with it the election. Normally the former Confederate states were loyally Democratic. But that hadn’t been the case during the 1948 election when President Harry Truman made noise about challenging the grotesquely immoral system a of Jim Crow apartheid.
Indeed, he lost several states after desegregating U.S. armed forces and trying to make civil rights part of the national party’s platform; Southern Democrats had rallied around South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, who waged an upstart presidential run of his own with a schismatic party called the Dixiecrats.
Its platform was essentially the Democratic Party platform but with a vicious commitment to segregation.
When Thurmond coined the popular phrase, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me,” it didn’t have anything to do with tax and spend policies, as people who now use that phrase might believe. It was simply an impassioned defense of vitriolic racism.
Truman had been able to survive the rebellion within his own party and, despite losing 39 electoral votes to Thurmond, won his re-election bid. Barely 20 years later, however, Kennedy could not afford even a hint of division.
If the speculation that many religious Southern Protestants would either vote for Richard Nixon or just stay home turned out to be true, it could easily cost him what was shaping up to be a tight contest.
So on Sept. 12, less than two months before the election, Kennedy made a pivotal move to shore up his party’s base in the South, to dampen any hints of a 1948-style backlash, and to bury the ghost of Al Smith once and for all.
Having already reached out by choosing Texan Lyndon Johnson as his running mate, Kennedy now went to Houston and gave a speech refuting the old charges about Catholics’ ultimate political loyalties.
Addressing the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Kennedy spoke for nearly forty minutes and not only dismissed the role of his Catholic faith in politics, but also championed the separation of church and state, and attacked religious bigotry generally:
Because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured, perhaps deliberately in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me, but what kind of America I believe in.
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote . . .
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials . . .
For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist.
He might have added, “or a Mormon.”
In the next post, I'll talk about how more than half a century later, Mitt Romney must walk the same path as Kennedy did through the Solid South, where conservative Protestantism still reigns. Only now, it is his Republican Party that holds sway instead of the Democrats.