A few years ago, I read a biography of the late Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. It said that when he was a boy in 1928 in Columbia, S.C., his home state overwhelmingly voted against Democrat Alfred E. Smith, a Catholic, for president.
“Wrong!,” I said recalling old lessons in American history. So, I telephoned election authorities in South Carolina and asked them to check the results in the 1928 general election. Sure enough, South Carolina overwhelmingly supported Smith, giving him 91 percent of the vote, and every county in the state. He also took Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas, all as heavily fundamentalist Protestant as was South Carolina.
By the way, 32 years after Smith, Democrat John F. Kennedy, another Catholic, also carried South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas, as well as North Carolina and Texas, two states lost by Smith, and none of these states had had a great increase in Catholic voters. (Georgia, then with a tiny Catholic minority, in his biggest win, gave Kennedy a higher percentage of votes than he received in Massachusetts.)
So, even despite historic religious prejudice, even with anti-Catholicism at the level of hysteria, those Southern voters in 1928 and 1960 rose above fear and ignorance to prefer leaders on the basis of issues they saw as important to the society.
Hopefully the same will govern the thinking of Americans in this election. Such automatically will not come. I am receiving my share of emails denouncing a candidate in the Republican Presidential for being Mormon. (No one — at least yet — has sent me a complaint that two others are Roman Catholics.)
I was not on this earth in 1928, and I was too young to vote in 1960, and what is past is past. Here I do not want to re-visit the approaches to religion and politics taken either by Smith or Kennedy.
Looking at the present, I am critically interested in whether a candidate’s position corresponds with what I believe, and I also want to know how closely a candidate takes sides on issues on the basis of what he says that religiously he believes.
Too much of a precedent in American politics has been the willingness virtually to banish more obviously religious principles from any public discussion. I fear that the same old habit will prevail this year.
Catholics should criticize this historic tendency carefully. Throughout history, and even now when Catholics are as prosperous as anyone, and when they are numerous enough to make their preferences count, Catholics have tended rarely to admit that religious belief influences their political views.
Once, the motivation for this hesitancy was the yearning to survive. Catholics as a group have paid a dear price to function fully within this society. For long decades, they struggled not just to achieve, but to survive, in a culture fundamentally unfriendly to them. In very many cases, Catholics came to enjoy rights only accorded very grudgingly by the wider society.
I admit it is not completely a thing of the past. Just mention the Catholic position on abortion and same-sex marriage and see how strongly the Church is resented today.
Hopefully, in the conversations that will include us all as this election develops, we will be able, as were those Southern fundamentalist Protestants in 1928 and 1960 when they voted for Catholics, to encourage others to look at the issues and reject ignorance and prejudice.
And, hopefully, God willing, we all will see our Catholic beliefs as reflections of truth revealed to us by God, and that by wishing to see these beliefs in practice in our national policy, we are in fact wishing the very best for our country.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV associate publisher.