To all Catholic candidates for president: Thank Al Smith

In the spring of 1927, as the nation prepared for the following year’s presidential campaign, a leading contender for the Democratic Party’s nomination was confronted with a question that had not been asked of any other major U.S. politician.

Should the candidate’s religious affiliation bar him from serving in the nation’s highest elective office?

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A lawyer named Charles C. Marshall posed the question in an essay in The Atlantic Monthly, directing it at the four-term governor of New York, Al Smith, who was on the verge of becoming the first Catholic to win a major party’s presidential nomination. The governor’s elegant reply to Marshall’s piece, published in May 1927, remains a template for many Catholic politicians who have followed in his footsteps. Smith wrestled with issues of conscience and duty, with the civil and the sacred, and concluded that it was indeed possible to be both a good Catholic and a faithful servant of the American people in all their diversity. “I am unable to understand how anything that I was taught to believe as a Catholic could possibly be in conflict with what is good citizenship,” he wrote.

Al Smith was a symbol of the Other, the personification of a new America that was emerging in the cities of the Northeast and Midwest.

Catholic candidates in the decades since have been called on to express similar sentiments and perhaps will do so again as several Catholics seek the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. They have been the beneficiaries of the ways in which Al Smith negotiated piety and politics and how he answered those who insisted that Catholics were of dubious loyalty because they answered not to the U.S. Constitution but to bishops, cardinals and the most prominent resident of Vatican City.

Al Smith waves to crowds during his run for president in 1928. (Chicago Daily News Photo, via Library of Congress)

Al Smith’s assertion that there was no conflict between Catholicism and citizenship may not seem particularly controversial today, but at the time it was considered literally unbelievable, at least in some portions of the country. Just two years earlier, after all, the Ku Klux Klan had marched through Washington, D.C., animated at least in part by fear of what it saw as the un-American influence of Catholics in U.S. politics.

Those fears led Smith to assure his readers that if there were a conflict between Catholic dogma and public duty, the nation’s people could rest assured that the bishops would not have the final word. “There is no ecclesiastical tribunal which would have the slightest claim upon the obedience of Catholic communicants in the resolution of such a conflict,” he wrote.

Catholic and American

Variations on those sentiments were echoed decades later in two more famous reflections on the private beliefs and public duties of a Catholic politician: John F. Kennedy’s speech to a convention of Protestant ministers in Houston in 1960 and Mario Cuomo’s address on “Religious Belief and Public Morality” at the University of Notre Dame in 1984.

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“I believe in an America...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,” Kennedy said.

Governor Cuomo, in the aftermath of a testy and well-publicized exchange over abortion with Cardinal John O’Connor, the archbishop of New York, during the 1984 presidential campaign, posed this question at Notre Dame: “As a Catholic, I respect the teaching authority of the bishops.... Must I, having heard the pope renew the church’s ban on birth control devices, veto the funding of contraceptive programs for non-Catholics or dissenting Catholics in my state?” His answer, grounded in the Constitution that he and Kennedy and Smith pledged to uphold, was no.

Al Smith’s essay in The Atlantic ended with the hope that never again “will any public servant be challenged because of the faith in which he has tried to walk humbly with his God.” He was overly optimistic: He lost the 1928 presidential race to Herbert Hoover in part because of vitriolic and downright menacing challenges to his faith. An embittered Smith concluded that the time had not yet come “when a man can say his beads in the White House.”

Hating the Other

Al Smith is close to forgotten now; indeed, were it not for the high-profile annual dinner held in his name, he probably would be relegated to history’s dustbin, along with the likes of presidential losers Horatio Seymour, James Cox and Alf Landon. And that is unfortunate, for as the historian Robert Caro recently noted in an interview with The New York Times, “The more you learn about Al Smith, the more you realize he is probably the most forgotten consequential figure in American history.”

As if to illustrate Mr. Caro’s point about Smith’s obscurity, The Times thought it necessary to identify him and did so not by saying that he was the first Catholic to win a presidential nomination, or that he defied the K.K.K. when it was a powerful force in the Democratic Party, but that he was “a prominent supporter and beneficiary of the notorious Tammany Hall Democratic political machine.”

Well, yes. And George Washington was a Virginia planter and a prominent beneficiary of the slave trade.

Al Smith is consequential today not only because of his extraordinary achievements as a state legislator and governor but also because he was the first person outside of the traditional white Anglo-Saxon Protestant power structure to have a chance at the presidency. Smith was the trailblazer not only for Kennedy, who became the first Catholic president in 1961, but arguably for Barack Obama as well. Smith’s rise to national prominence and his unabashed embrace of who he was—a city kid, the grandson of immigrants, a Catholic—challenged the majority population’s ideas about national identity and culture in ways that more recent candidates have built upon and expanded.

Al Smith’s Catholicism posed a question in the 1920s that others have asked since and never more, it would seem, than today: What does it mean to be an American?

Exotic—and Threatening

It is easy to forget, especially in light of the emphasis placed on race and gender in current historical scholarship, that Al Smith was considered exotic and threatening a century ago. His religion placed him beyond the pale of traditional American power arrangements, and because of that, his detractors feared not just the man himself but those who supported him as well. An acquaintance of William Gibbs McAdoo, who was President Woodrow Wilson’s treasury secretary and son-in-law, complained that Smith represented “aliens... Catholics...northern negroes [and] Jews” who were intent on transforming “the America of Anglo-Saxon stock.” The famed Kansas journalist William Allen White wrote that the “whole Puritan civilization which has built a sturdy, orderly nation is threatened by Smith.”

The cultural analysts who dominate academic history today would likely see Smith as just another white guy, if they deigned to consider traditional political history at all. In fact, he was anything but. He was a symbol of the Other, the personification of a new America that was emerging in the cities of the Northeast and Midwest. Immigrants and their children traced their roots not to the fields of the English midlands or the ancient cities of Germany but to small villages in Sicily and the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Indeed, the accusations were true—they had not a drop of Anglo-Saxon blood running through their veins. Perhaps most important of all, they walked humbly with their God in ways the majority found offensive and threatening.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Al Smith in Albany, New York, in 1930. (Wikimedia Commons)

The United States, reportedly said one prominent politician of the time, “is a Protestant country” and “Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance.” The speaker was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who actually was fairly tolerant of non-Protestants. His wife, Eleanor, once complained that her husband was constantly surrounded by Catholics.

Congress and President Calvin Coolidge sought to build a bureaucratic wall to keep such people out of the country through the Immigration Act of 1924. Al Smith’s emergence that very year as a figure of national significance—he sought and was denied the 1924 Democratic presidential nomination in one of the most tumultuous and important national conventions in U.S. history—contradicted all the cultural assumptions baked into the new immigration restrictions. One of those assumptions had it that American liberty was a Protestant concept and required Protestant stewardship. Smith’s effectiveness as the elected leader of the country’s largest and most powerful state suggested otherwise.

A Protestant Monopoly

There have been two Catholic presidential nominees since Al Smith: Kennedy and John Kerry. Both were from privileged backgrounds, Ivy League educated and very much part of the country’s established power structure. Yet Kennedy and, to a lesser extent, Kerry had to deal with doubts about their fitness for office because of their faith, a version of the doubts that Smith confronted during his historic campaign in 1928. The naked anti-Catholic bigotry of that year would be unimaginable today, but if a Catholic wins the Democratic nomination in 2020, next year’s presidential campaign may offer an insight into just how much Catholics have been assimilated into the American cultural and political mainstream.

The complaint lodged against Smith in the 1920s and echoed loudly against Kennedy in 1960 (and perhaps more quietly against Kerry in 2004) was rooted in a critique of Catholicism that would have sounded familiar to the authors of a statute in post-Revolutionary New York that required officeholders to forswear any allegiance to a foreign prince. The prince they had in mind, of course, was the pope, and the oath had the effect of barring Catholics from public office in the state of New York immediately following the American Revolution.

Next year may offer an insight into just how much Catholics have been assimilated into the American cultural and political mainstream.

Mario Cuomo, in his Notre Dame speech, made a humorous and possibly even true reference to that long-held criticism of Smith and by extension, other Catholics in public life. He began his speech with a parable about Smith’s attendance at the annual Notre Dame–Army football games in New York in the 1920s. “His fellow Catholics expected Smith to sit with Notre Dame; protocol required him to sit with Army because it was the home team,” Cuomo said. “Protocol prevailed. But not without Smith noting the dual demands on his affections. ‘I’ll take my seat with Army,’ he said, ‘but I commend my soul to Notre Dame!’”

The novelist Peter Quinn, who helped write the Notre Dame speech for Cuomo, said the prominent mention of Smith was deliberate. He and Cuomo were well aware of the accusations of divided loyalty—or, worse, of suspect allegiance—hurled against Smith and many who followed him. Cuomo’s speech at Notre Dame was, in many ways, a continuation of the argument Smith first made in the pages of The Atlantic 60 years earlier.

There was one important difference, however: Cuomo was speaking in a Catholic setting, and a good portion of his intended audience was other Catholics, particularly within the hierarchy. But Smith’s essay in The Atlantic was directed at non-Catholic critics, particularly among the magazine’s elite readership, during a decade besmirched by virulent nativism. His reply to Marshall was one of the most anticipated literary events of the year, with the editors noting that it was indeed a historic occasion, for no presidential candidate had ever had to defend his religious faith in such a manner.

The Constitution and the Church

Marshall was a formidable critic. He quoted from encyclicals by Pius IX and Leo XIII to justify his claim that the majority of Americans were correct in thinking that the views of a “loyal and conscientious Roman Catholic” were “irreconcilable” with the Constitution “and with the principles of civil and religious liberty on which American institutions are based.”

Smith read the piece and saw nothing he recognized from his childhood catechism lessons at St. James parochial school on the Lower East Side of New York City. He confessed his confusion to one of his close advisors, Joseph Proskauer, a prominent judge and a Jew born in Alabama. In one version of the story, Smith said of Marshall’s piece: “I don’t know what the words mean. I’ve been a Catholic all my life—a devout Catholic, I believe—and I never heard of these encyclicals and bulls and books that he writes about.”

In another version of the story, Smith turned to Proskauer and said, “What the hell is an encyclical?” The saltier version has the benefit of being both a better story and far more credible—a rare combination.

“A Protestant lawyer challenges a Catholic candidate on his religion, and the challenge is answered by a Jewish judge.” Only in America! 

He was reluctant to respond, perhaps intimidated by Marshall’s confident citations of not just encyclicals but also Supreme Court decisions relating to church-state matters. But three non-Catholics in his circle recognized the historic nature of Marshall’s challenge. Proskauer, Franklin Roosevelt (then a political ally) and Smith’s closest political advisor, Belle Moskowitz, begged Smith to reply not only for his sake but for those who would follow. Not to answer, they said, would be to confirm the criticism.

Smith grudgingly agreed, and he asked Proskauer to draft the reply, leading the judge to remark on the irony: “A Protestant lawyer challenges a Catholic candidate on his religion, and the challenge is answered by a Jewish judge.” Only in America!

Portrait of Al Smith by Douglas Volk (Wikimedia Commons)

The final draft, however, also bore the imprint of one of the most famous priests of the era, the Rev. Francis Duffy, the chaplain of the 165th Infantry Regiment (including the old Fighting 69th). Smith was careful to remind Marshall and his readers of Father Duffy’s many awards for bravery during World War I while serving in a unit that was “almost wholly Catholic.” Kennedy, in his speech in Houston, would echo Smith’s emphasis on Catholic military service as evidence of unquestioned devotion to the nation and its Constitution—J.F.K. noted that he had fought in the Pacific and his brother had died serving in Europe. “No one suggested then that we may have a ‘divided loyalty,’ that we did ‘not believe in liberty,’ or that we belonged to a disloyal group that threatened the ‘freedoms for which our forefathers died,’” Kennedy said. 

A Failed Campaign, an Important Legacy

Smith’s essay considered Marshall’s insinuations that a Catholic president would be compelled to implement church teaching in law and policy on issues like divorce and would tolerate other religious institutions as a courtesy, not as a right (ironically, the flipside of the assertion F.D.R. would make years later about the position of Catholics and Jews in a Protestant country). He rejected these notions, citing the most tangible evidence he could: his own record as governor of New York. He had funded public schools in record amounts, he had not sought to ban divorce, and most of his key appointments went to Protestants and Jews, not to Catholics.

“I summarize my creed as an American Catholic,” Smith wrote. “I believe in the worship of God according to the faith and practice of the Roman Catholic Church. I recognize no power in the institutions of my Church to interfere with the operations of the Constitution of the United States or the enforcement of the law of the land. I believe in absolute freedom of conscience for all men and in equality of all churches, all sects, and all beliefs before the law as a matter of right and not as a matter of favor.”

It is a measure of Al Smith’s continued relevance in American politics that his creed resonates all these years later. Words similar to Smith’s could have been and perhaps should have been uttered by the federal judicial nominee Brian Buescher last year when Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Senator Kamala Harris of California, both Democrats, attacked him during his confirmation hearing because he was a member of the Knights of Columbus. On the other hand, a Catholic politician who had a good word to say about Pope Francis’ teachings on income inequality or immigration or climate change would certainly be put on the defensive in a Republican-dominated proceeding.

But even if Smith’s reply to Marshall remains astonishingly fresh after nearly a century, no one could argue that nothing has changed for Catholic politicians. One of the 2020 Catholic presidential hopefuls, the former mayor of San Antonio, Julián Castro, speaks openly about his faith—so much so that a recent Washington Post headline stated something that Smith could hardly have imagined: “Democrat Julián Castro makes his Catholicism central to his presidential campaign.” The Post story noted that Mr. Castro so frequently invoked Our Lady of Guadalupe that “she might as well have been his running mate.”

It is a measure of Al Smith’s continued relevance in American politics that his creed resonates all these years later.

“For women and for people of color, [these] are very difficult times,” Mr. Castro has said, “and the Catholic Church provided a sense of place and belonging and also a hope—a faith that things would get better.”

Maybe they are getting better, at least for Catholic politicians. If so, they have Al Smith to thank for it.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Veronica Meidus-Heilpern
3 weeks 4 days ago

What a wonderful reminder to all that the USA is a nation of immigrants from ALL OVER THE WORLD and of EVERY FAITH/RELIGION there is. President Kennedy showed that there was No conflict between his Catholic faith and his commitment to upholding the Constitution. President Carter showed the same, that there was no conflict between his faith as a Southern Baptist and his commitment to upholding the Constitution. Only Trump has shown the conflict between his faith in HIMSELF ONLY and his "commitment" to upholding the Constitution.

Unfortunately, the senators from Hawaii and California showed their disregard of their belief in equality regardless of faith. Senator Harris has lost any support I may have had for her in her attempt to become the next President. She has no business if she ever -- and I'm not saying that she has done this because I don't recall any instances of it -- of playing the "racist" or "sexist" cards with an attitude like that.

Veronica Meidus-Heilpern
3 weeks 4 days ago

What a wonderful reminder to all that the USA is a nation of immigrants from ALL OVER THE WORLD and of EVERY FAITH/RELIGION there is. President Kennedy showed that there was No conflict between his Catholic faith and his commitment to upholding the Constitution. President Carter showed the same, that there was no conflict between his faith as a Southern Baptist and his commitment to upholding the Constitution. Only Trump has shown the conflict between his faith in HIMSELF ONLY and his "commitment" to upholding the Constitution.

Unfortunately, the senators from Hawaii and California showed their disregard of their belief in equality regardless of faith. Senator Harris has lost any support I may have had for her in her attempt to become the next President. She has no business if she ever -- and I'm not saying that she has done this because I don't recall any instances of it -- of playing the "racist" or "sexist" cards with an attitude like that.

John Walton
3 weeks 4 days ago

God bless Al Smith and all his progeny. Nevertheless, Calvin Coolidge was much too modest and had he run the country would probably have been spared "The Great Depression".

Jim Smith
3 weeks 1 day ago

Posing the question differently, can a Catholic enforce or legislate the way every person has done as president in the last 100 years and avoid mortal sin in doing so.

Looking at the way the nation has projected economic and military power into the world of external affairs and has legislated grave mortal sin as legal and unpublishable and irreproachable, impossible would be a fair judgement.

Maria Alderson
3 weeks 1 day ago

Wonderful piece, thanks! And Thank God that Al Smith lost. Had he won, the crash and the depression would have been blamed on Catholics, with the press saying he gave away the country to that "foreign prince."

John Graham
3 weeks 1 day ago

The article appears to celebrate that Gov. Smith was a poorly educated Catholic, utterly uninformed about the papal pronouncements cited by Mr. Marshall. When I consider the history of Gov. Smith, JFK, and Gov. Cuomo as described in this article, I cannot ignore the results we see today: Self-styled Catholic politicians promoting abortion and same-sex "marriage," with no hope of effective pastoral care from the U.S. bishops. Now we are in a situation where Pew polls indicate 52% of Catholics approve of abortion. This scandal indicates the approach described in the article is failing.

J Jones
3 weeks 1 day ago

And I cannot ignore "the self-styled Catholics" enabling Trump's worst and most dangerous instincts: uber-Catholics William Barr KellyAnne Conway and Rudy Giuliani, chief among them.

Jim Smith
3 weeks ago

how are you enjoying Hillary Clinton now calling two candidates for the next election the same thing as she has been accusing President Trump of being? Tulsi Gabbard and Jill Stein are Russian assets.

J Jones
3 weeks ago

My favorite line from Pulp Fiction? A woman asks whether they should discuss a guy named Zed. Bruce Willis says, "Zed's dead, baby. Zed's dead".

Jim, Zed's dead.

Vincent Gaglione
3 weeks ago

Al Smith’s words would be most instructive to some Catholic Bishops, clergy, and laypersons, if they only listened to them! Their insistence that certain Catholic teachings become the law of the land only adds to the impressions by non-Catholics that their goal is a Catholic theocratic state. You only have to work with non-Catholics to appreciate the caution, fears, and resentments that some hold regarding Catholic political intentions due to past personal and/or ancestral experiences in Catholic-dominated nations or neighborhoods. A recent picture in the NY Times reinforced it all to me, a picture of Franco of Spain with hand raised in a fascist salute standing next to an obvious Catholic prelate with his hand raised, not in blessing, but similarly in salute!

Also, in support of one remark here abour Giuliani, Conway, and Barr, I bet their funerals will be spectacular liturgies presided by Bishops.

Cam Rathborne
3 weeks ago

When I read JFK's address in Houston, I see someone explaining that his religion will have no influence on his governing. I find it hard to fathom how ones faith in God, can have no bearing in the life. What I see in that speech is a Catholic telling an audience of Protestant ministers, that his Catholic faith will be discounted and not interfere.

Vincent Gaglione
2 weeks 6 days ago

I have no idea your age nor your experiences. When Kennedy made that speech, ask anyone of my age, Catholics were suspect of fealty to Rome in too many parts of the nation. The KKK, which still existed and exists, numbered Catholics as part of the sworn enemies of the good old USA, along with primarily African-Americans as well as Jews. And Protestant ministers had no fear to express similar positions. I would suggest that Kennedy was arguing less about how his Christian values might inform his conscience than he was reducing the fears of the ministers that he would invite the Pope to dictate USA foreign and domestic policy.

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