When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960 his Catholicism was a major issue because some voters assumed that his political decisions would be based on Catholic tenets and that he might even take orders from the Pope. Kennedy successfully diffused the issue in a major speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in which he stated, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party candidate for president who happens to be Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me.”
One of his predecessors, the Democratic candidate for president in 1928, did not have it so easy. Al Smith, born this week (Dec. 30) in 1873, had been a rising star in New York state politics, serving as a state assemblyman and earning four terms as New York’s governor. He was also a reformer who led the investigation of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which 146 employees died of fire-related causes because of numerous safety violations, and he helped institute tougher workplace safety standards and fire codes.
He looked like a formidable candidate against the 1928 Republican presidential nominee, Herbert Hoover, but Smith had several political problems, including the fact that the nation had prospered under the outgoing Republican administration of Cal Coolidge and wasn’t looking for change.
But Smith’s biggest problem was that he was the first practicing Catholic to run for president, and America in 1928, especially the American heartland, was rabidly anti-Catholic.
As the campaign against Smith attested. Photos of New York’s recently completed Holland Tunnel were distributed nationwide with captions stating that the tunnel was a secret passageway that then-Pope Pius XI would use to visit the White House and give Smith his orders. A popular political cartoon showed the Pope and several Bishops meeting in the Cabinet Room while Smith stood by in a bellboy’s uniform. A Florida school board sent every student home with a note saying that if Smith was president, reading the Bible would be forbidden.
A Baptist minister in Oklahoma told his congregation that a vote for Smith meant “you will all be damned.” One political flier said a Smith presidency meant all Protestant marriages would be annulled, making all offspring illegitimate. And there was much more.
Unsurprisingly, Smith lost in a landslide, even losing his home state, New York, in an election virtually unmatched in bigotry and ignorance. One woman wrote Franklin Roosevelt, Smith’s successor as New York governor, that she was told “If Governor Smith is elected president, the Pope’s son will become his secretary.” Roosevelt responded that it was his understanding that Catholic Popes were not allowed to father children.