September 22, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Anti-Catholicism resurfaced during the election of 1928

John F. FinkThis is the fourth of my columns about the anti-Catholicism that existed in the United States, and especially in Indiana, 100 years ago. We can be grateful that most of it no longer exists, although it does pop up now and then.

By the mid-1920s, much of the anti-Catholicism started to die down, especially, in Indiana, after Ku Klux Klan (KKK) Grand Dragon D. C. Stephenson was convicted of the rape and second-degree murder of Madge Oberholtzer. When Gov. Edward Jackson refused to pardon him in 1926, Stephenson talked to reporters of the Indianapolis Times about bribes the Klan had given to politicians. Mayor John Duvall of Indianapolis was jailed for 30 days and convicted of bribery, and numerous officials across the state resigned because of bribery charges. Klan members were arrested and went to prison on bribery charges. KKK members resigned by the thousands.

But then came the presidential election of 1928 between the Catholic Democratic governor of New York, Alfred E. Smith, and Republican Herbert Hoover. Smith was a popular four-term governor of New York, a self-made man who never went to high school after his father died when he was 13, and went to work at the Fulton Fish Market. He built his political career as the champion of immigrants and the working man. But he was a Catholic.

Once again, the anti-Catholic literature came out, telling readers that Catholics were un-American because they were part of an alien culture that opposed freedom and democracy. Groups circulated a million copies of the bogus Knights of Columbus oath, one paragraph of which I quoted here three weeks ago.

The National Lutheran Editors and Managers Association issued a manifesto against “the absolute allegiance” that Catholics owed to a “foreign sovereign who does not only ‘claim’ supremacy also in secular affairs as a matter of principle and theory but who, time and again, has endeavored to put this claim into practical operation.”

Protestant ministers warned their congregations that, if Smith won the election, the pope would move to the United States and rule the country from a fortress in Washington. After Smith lost, the joke was that he sent a one-word telegram to Pope Pius XI: “Unpack.”

It’s true that Smith lost by a landslide not only because he was a Catholic, but because the country was enjoying prosperity under the Republican presidency of Calvin Coolidge and expected Hoover to continue that prosperity. Also, Smith wanted to repeal Prohibition, which wasn’t a popular position in 1928. He was accused of being a drunken Catholic Irishman.

In the election, the Catholics voted for Smith. But he won only eight states, six of them in what was the Solid South that, quite different from today, was Democratic—Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia. The other two states were Massachusetts and Rhode Island, which were heavily Catholic.

It would be 32 years before another Catholic would be nominated for the presidency. John F. Kennedy also ran into some anti-Catholic opposition, but it was nothing compared to the opposition to Smith. A lot changed during those 32 years. †

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