Catholics in America – The ‘original’ Catholic presidential candidate

Most Catholics are aware that John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic president of the United States. He was not, however, the first to be a major candidate for the office.

In 1928, Alfred “Al” Smith, the governor of New York, and grandson of Catholic immigrants, ran as the Democratic candidate for the highest office in the land.

In his position with New York state, Smith often displayed a passion for labor issues, seeking to better conditions for factory works and to reform child labor laws.

Despite the fact that they would later vehemently disagree over policies such as the New Deal, Smith often worked closely with Franklin D. Roosevelt in the early decades of his career. In fact, FDR nominated him for the candidacy in the Democratic conventions of both 1924 and 1928, during the latter of which he succeeded in capturing the nomination.

While it is probably the event for which he is most famous, the election of 1928 did not pan out well for Smith. Many xenophobic elements of the country were not convinced that a Catholic could successfully lead the nation. Non-Catholics outside the Northeast corridor were afraid that Smith would be a mere puppet pulled by the strings of a foreign power, in this case the papacy (which wouldn’t come to be associated with the modern nation-state we know today as Vatican City until the Lateran Accords of 1929, after the election). Due to these and other complex economic factors, Smith lost in a landslide to Herbert Hoover.

The question of the relationship between church and state and the impact a politician’s belief system will have on his candidacy for and decisions in the presidency are not moot questions in our times, with Mitt Romney’s Mormonism playing at least a tangential role in conversations surrounding his run this year.

It would seem to all rational parties involved that bigotry about the issue does no one any good, but still pervades in some quarters. (This of course works on both sides of the aisle, for in addition to the Mormon dialogue, a not insignificant minority of Christians still maintain that the current president has been somehow dishonest about his own religious faith.)

Does religion deserve space in the public square? How can or should one’s doctrinal beliefs influence his or her governance? Can belief and policy be separated? Should they be? These inquiries continue to play themselves out in the halls of Congress, on radio talk shows, and over beers in local pubs today.

One heartening element of affability in these all-too-polemical times owes part of its heritage to Smith. The annual Al Smith Dinner, held at the Waldorf Astoria and originally initiated at the insistence of Cardinal Spellman, may well be the only time opposing presidential candidates share a dais without devolving into debate. The black-tie affair is widely recognized as an iconic symbol of (at least hoped-for) bi-partisanship in American politics.

As the Foundation’s website claims: “Today the dinner remains a true phenomenon — a living memorial to an uncommon public figure, best known as the first Roman Catholic presidential candidate, who died more than six decades ago. Doubtless the dinner’s honoree would be deeply gratified that he is being remembered each year in this fashion. He would be even more gratified to know that the dinner commemorating him and his unique role in American politics has contributed millions of dollars for charitable endeavors in the city he loved so much.”

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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