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Are you ready to vote? The Homestead’s Operations Assistant Steven Dugan sure is! Here, he looks at politics and religion, taking it back to 1928.
Presidential campaigns provide a fascinating look into societal, economic, and political issues facing American voters. Do voters approve tax hikes or tell the legislature to spend tax money more efficiently? Do voters elect people from the same party for major offices or have candidates from different parties? What if a candidate professes a different faith than a large number of voters might practice?
The 1928 presidential election pitted Republican Herbert Hoover, former Secretary of Commerce and a Protestant, against Democrat Governor of New York Al Smith, a Catholic. The country had never had a Catholic President; sadly, religious fears and bigotry played into voter behavior.
Anti-Catholic sentiment in the political arena had been around since colonial times, despite the ideal of religious freedom. Rhode Island imposed civil restrictions on Catholics. John Adams once praised a Catholic homily he heard, but ridiculed its parishioners on their rituals. During the 1800s, Catholics were seen as unworthy Americans and the antithesis of democracy because their allegiance was to the Pope in a faraway land, and not necessarily to the Constitution.
This view reared its ugly head in the presidential race between Hoover and Smith in a pamphlet reprinted from 1912 entitled, the “Knights of Columbus Oath.” The oath portrays Catholics as willing to use graphic violence to defend the faith against heretics (non-Catholics). One passage particularly fueled the bigotry against Smith: “I do now denounce and disown any allegiance as due to any heretical king, prince, or State (the United States, perhaps?), or obedience to any of their laws, magistrates, or officers.” The prevailing fear was that “President Smith” would take his orders from Rome instead of “We the People.” It should be noted that this “oath” was part of a campaign waged by the Ku Klux Klan to rid America of Catholics—and was completely bogus.
This fear came up again in 1960, as this bogus oath again resurfaced during the race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and to a lesser degree during the last presidential election in which Mitt Romney (a member of the Mormon church) ran against Barack Obama.
Whatever role anti-Catholic bigotry played in Smith’s defeat, Hoover was elected as the beneficiary of the economic boom of the 1920s, as well as his support of Prohibition, which Smith opposed. If nothing else, the 1928 presidential election shows that fear and bigotry can be nearly as powerful as economic and political issues in deciding presidential campaigns.