The Right of a Catholic To Be President

Author: Jay Dolan

While voters were mulling over the war, the economy and the environment, the presidential primaries also cast light on an entirely different issue: our nation’s religious tolerance. Were too many voters making choices based on stereotypical views or were their concerns legitimate?

People questioned whether Mitt Romney, a Mormon, could be president. Then along came Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, who proudly spoke about his Baptist roots. Soon there was the uproar when Barack Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, embarrassed the candidate with his fiery pulpit rhetoric. And John McCain became entangled in the religion issue because of his association with Rev. John Hagee, a conservative evangelical Protestant known for his anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic views.

This was hardly the first presidential election in which religion has become entangled with politics. Two of the more famous instances involved two prominent Irish Catholics—Al Smith and John F. Kennedy.

Al Smith was the quintessential Irish-American politician whose political career began on New York City’s Lower East Side and ended at the state house in Albany, where he served as New York’s governor for four terms. By 1928 he had become one of the most powerful and popular Democratic politicians of that time.

Denied his party’s presidential nomination in 1924 because of the powerful opposition of the Ku Klux Klan, which objected to Smith because of his religion, he was the party’s unanimous choice to oppose Herbert Hoover in the 1928 election. But the religious issue continually haunted Smith throughout the campaign. Was a Protestant country ready to elect a Catholic president? The answer was not long in coming.

Numerous pamphlets appeared attacking Smith and his religion. More than 100 anti-Catholic newspapers were also spreading their propaganda to millions of readers. Ministers assailed Smith from their pulpits. One Protestant divine asked an audience of Lutherans, “Shall we have a man in the White House who acknowledges allegiance to the Autocrat on the Tiber, who hates democracy, public schools, Protestant parsonages, individual right, and everything that is essential to independence?”

Fueling this religious bigotry was an organized campaign orchestrated by those who disagreed with Smith’s opposition to Prohibition. They called him “Alcohol Al” and “the cocktail president,” portraying him as a drunkard who would show up at rallies intoxicated. A poem written by a factory worker captured some of these feelings:

A vote for Al is a vote for rum A vote to empower America’s scum.

Smith confronted the religious issue head-on at a campaign stop in Oklahoma. The Ku Klux Klan had welcomed the campaign train by burning crosses along the way to Oklahoma City. Rumors of pending violence had been circulating, but the roar of more than 70,000 well-wishers at the train station quieted the fears among Smith’s aides.

Confronting the issue
In his talk Smith addressed the issue of anti-Catholicism, stating that such hatred was “out of line with the spirit of America.” He closed his talk with the following remarks: “I do not want any Catholic to vote for me . . . because I am a Catholic. . . . But, on the other hand, I have the right to say that any citizen of this country . . . [who] votes against me because of my religion, he is not a real, pure, genuine American.”

Smith continued his travels through the Midwest, where enthusiastic crowds welcomed him at every stop. In a small rural town in Minnesota, a young Catholic girl named Abigail, dressed in her Girl Scout uniform, recalled how she and her family went to the train station to greet Al Smith. She remembered him as very New York, not quite refined and “so alien to the Minnesota landscape.” Her instincts were prophetic, since a vast majority of voters thought the same. Smith was too Irish, too urban and, of course, too Catholic for their taste.

When the final votes were counted, Herbert Hoover had won 444 electoral votes to Smith’s 87. The New York governor didn’t even carry his home state.

Ever since then historians have attempted to explain Smith’s resounding 1928 defeat. Some have said that the decisive issue was the voter’s attitude toward Prohibition. Others have claimed that the voter’s nativity, either American-born or foreign-born, was the critical factor. It seems a majority of rural American-born Protestants voted for Hoover, while the majority of urban, foreign-born Catholic ethnics cast their ballot for Smith. Still others asserted that the economic prosperity of the 1920s assured the Republicans of victory.

The most comprehensive study, conducted by the historian Allan Lichtman, concluded that “the religious issue was by far the most important influence on voting.” Smith’s contemporary, Republican Senator George W. Norris, acknowledged, as did many others in 1928, that “the greatest element involved in the landslide was religion.” Moreover, he added, “the religious issue” has sowed “the seeds of hatred, prejudice, and jealousy, and they will grow and bear fruit long after the present generation has passed away.”

The campaign of 1928 clearly revealed the deep division between Catholics and Protestants as religion remained as a major fault line running through U.S. society. Recalling her reaction to Smith’s defeat as a young girl, the writer Abigail McCarthy remarked that Smith’s loss “was my loss as well as his.” She was sad, “afraid that if I went up Main Street people would taunt me and jeer at me.”

The election showed how far Irish Catholics had come but also how far they still had to go. That would all change in the 1960 presidential election when another Irish Catholic, John F. Kennedy, sought to become the nation’s president.

Another Catholic contender
As in 1928, religion was a major issue in Kennedy’s bid for the presidency. It surfaced in the Wisconsin primary in April 1960 when Kennedy defeated his Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey. Though he won in a close election, Kennedy lost the predominantly Protestant districts and won decisively in the Catholic areas.

Such a clear Catholic-Protestant split convinced Kennedy that he could no longer avoid publicly discussing the issue of his religion, even though his aides tried to discourage him. “Let’s face it,” he said, “it’s the most important and the biggest issue in this campaign.” He decided to address it in the next primary in West Virginia, a state whose population was 95 percent Protestant.

In a speech in Morgantown, he struck a theme that he would repeat throughout West Virginia. “Nobody asked me if I was a Catholic when I joined the United States Navy,” he said to a stunned crowd. His aide, Ken O’Donnell, recalled that Kennedy went on “with a fire and dash that I had seldom seen in him, asking if 40 million Americans lost their right to run for the presidency on the day when they were baptized as Catholics. ‘That wasn’t the country my brother died for in Europe,’ he said, ‘and nobody asked my brother if he was a Catholic or Protestant before he climbed into an American bomber plane to fly his last mission.’”

By stressing the theme of religious tolerance rather than intolerance, Kennedy was able to win over a majority of the Protestant voters. He defeated Humphrey, who then withdrew from the primary campaign.

Nonetheless, the religion issue did not die. It came to a head in September 1960 with the founding of the National Conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom, an organization of prominent Protestant clergymen. The group’s public statement, read by the well-known clergyman Norman Vincent Peale, claimed that Kennedy’s religion made him unacceptable for the presidency. The prestige of Peale gave a measure of respectability to the prejudices of millions of Americans fearful of what a Catholic presidency might mean for the country. The bigotry evident in 1928 was still prevalent across the land.

Kennedy knew that once again there was “only one way to separate the bigots from the honestly fearful,” as Theodore White wrote, “and that was to face the issue of religion frankly and in the open, stripping it of the darkness, incense, and strange rituals that so many Protestants feared.”

He did this in Texas on September 12, 1960, when he addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. The ministers had invited JFK to discuss his religion and defend the right of a Catholic to be president. House Speaker and Texan Sam Rayburn warned him, “They’re mostly Republicans and they’re out to get you,” but Kennedy’s instincts persuaded him to accept the invitation.

JFK’s famous speech on religion
In a speech that has become one of his most famous, JFK defended the right of a Catholic to be president. Theodore Sorensen, who drafted the speech, described it as “the best speech of his campaign, and one of the most important in his life.” Addressing 300 Protestant ministers and a crowd of 300 spectators, Kennedy said:

“[B]ecause I am a Catholic and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured. . . . 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 (should he be a Catholic) 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 . . . and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all. . . .

“I believe in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair, neither imposed upon him by the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office. . . .

“This is the kind of America I believe in—and this is the kind of America I fought for in the South Pacific and the kind my brother died for in Europe.”

Though the speech did not end the controversy, it was widely applauded in Texas and beyond. Rayburn, who had been lukewarm about Kennedy, became an enthusiastic admirer after hearing the speech. “As we say in my part of Texas, he ate ’em blood raw.”

When the voters cast their ballots on election day, Kennedy’s religion hurt him more than it helped him. Though he received a majority of the Catholic vote, he clearly lost votes because of his religion. One analyst summed it up best: “Kennedy won in spite of rather than because of the fact that he was a Catholic.”

Kennedy’s presidency was a triumph for Irish Americans, signaling their final arrival and acceptance in a land where, for so long, their name and their religion were held against them. As columnist William Shannon put it, Kennedy’s election “wiped away the bitterness and disappointment of Al Smith’s defeat in 1928; it removed any lingering sense of social inferiority and insecurity.”

The journalist Pete Hamill wrote that Kennedy’s election “had redeemed everything: the bigotry that went all the way back to the Great Famine; the slurs and the sneers; Help Wanted No Irish Need Apply; the insulting acceptance of the stereotype of the drunken and impotent stage Irishman; the doors closed in law firms, and men’s clubs and brokerage houses because of religion and origin. After 1960, they knew that their children truly could be anything in their chosen country, including president of the United States.”

Irish Catholics had come a long way since 1928 when Al Smith bemoaned that “the time hasn’t come when a man can say his beads in the White House.”

Kennedy’s election ended the debate as to whether a Catholic could be elected president. But, as the presidential campaign of 2008 has shown, religion still remains an important issue for anyone who aspires to be president of the United States.

Jay P. Dolan, professor emeritus of history, taught Irish American history at Notre Dame for a number of years. His most recent book is The Irish Americans—A History (Bloomsbury Press, 2008).