Pivotal election of 1928

Nov. 6 will be the 85th anniversary of one of the most traumatic days for American Catholics in U.S. history. On this day in 1928, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover roundly defeated New York Gov. Alfred E. Smith, a practicing Catholic and that year’s Democratic nominee, for the White House.

(Smith won 87 out of 535 electoral votes, and 40.8 percent of the popular vote.)

The day was very painful for Catholic Americans, because Smith’s religion so significantly contributed to his defeat. His loss signaled that the majority of Americans mistrusted the Catholics in their midst, and Catholics read the signals. It was not just about Al Smith. Every American Catholic knew that he or she was suspect because of being Catholic.

Bigotry never burdened Smith in liberal New York, but it dogged him once he sought the presidency.

In 1927, a prominent Protestant expressed his suspicions about Smith’s Catholicism in an article in The Atlantic Monthly. Smith replied, describing how his religion would affect his decisions were he to serve as president. This article gives the most detailed insight into his views in this matter.

Smith wrote: “I summarize my creed as an American Catholic. 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. I believe in the absolute separation of Church and State ...”

What did he mean by “interfere” or by “equality of all beliefs?” Smith’s statement widely was construed to mean that no Church teaching could force him as president to take this or that position. His supporters certainly took it this way.

Smith’s statement was in a context, Prohibition, the amendment to the U.S. Constitution that forbade the manufacture, sale or transport of alcoholic beverages in this country. It was a law that most Catholics opposed. They had reason to feel that it was a sign of bad days ahead.

Passage of Prohibition in 1919 had been a fundamentalist Protestant triumph. It followed a series of anti-Catholic triumphs. Many states required police inspection of convents, the nuns’ privacy notwithstanding. Heavy-handed immigration restrictions made it clear that the Protestant majority wanted few, if any, Catholics coming into the country.

Catholics feared what might be next. New laws restricting Catholics were being proposed. In some places, laws forbidding nuns to wear religious garb in public were suggested.

Overwhelmingly, for generations, Catholics responded to prejudice by arguing for absolute separation of organized religion from politics. Live and let live. Interfere with nobody. Keep religion private. Judge no one. It was the way that they had tried to survive by deflecting Protestant ill will. It was in the American Catholic culture.

Not surprisingly, New York Cardinal Patrick Hayes and Father Francis P. Duffy, the World War I hero, complimented Smith’s statement after reading it, at his request, before he submitted it to the magazine. When published, no Catholic voice anywhere, including Our Sunday Visitor’s, opposed it.

John F. Kennedy, in his 1960 presidential campaign, virtually echoed Smith. By winning, Kennedy solidified this live-and-let-live approach. Religion is now a private, personal matter for many American Catholics, politicians included. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.