The Klan and The Catholics
Alfred E. Smith was the first American Catholic to run for presidential office when he secured the Democratic nomination in 1928. A strong opponent of prohibition, Smith doubted that it could be effectively enforced and feared it might lead to an erosion of faith in the rule of law. As a result, he advocated for the law’s repeal. But many Americans supported it and in addition to his Irish heritage, New York background, and Catholic faith, many voters found him off-putting. Smith ended up losing–badly–to Herbert Hoover, who took 58.2 percent of the vote and all but 8 of the 48 states. Most painful of all for Smith, however, was the discovery that his home state of New York hadn’t voted in his favor.
The cultural context of the 1928 election helps us understand why Smith lost so badly. Rewind to 1924, when the Ku Klux Klan was at its height in American politics. The Klan perceived the waves of new immigrants from predominantly-Catholic countries like Ireland and Italy as a “threat” to their vision of America as an Anglo-Protestant nation. As a result, the Democratic Party had two distinct groups at their nominating convention in 1924: the “rural wing” led by KKK-endorsed William Gibbs McAdoo, and the new, immigrant, “urban wing” led by Al Smith. These sides clashed head-on at the convention, but the party ended up with the dark-horse candidate, John W. Davis, who promptly lost to Calvin Coolidge.
Robert A. Slayton, a professor of American history at Chapman University and author of Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith, characterizes 1920s America as a country caught in a cultural civil war between “small-town and big-city America.” Part of this culture war was the 18th Amendment, which banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. Ratified in 1919, it was the culmination of decades of work by activists in what is now known as the Third Wave of the Temperance movement.
Groups like the Anti-Saloon League, which drew support from Protestant denominations, claimed that consumption of alcohol led to moral corruption, criminal behavior, and domestic violence. But is was more than that – for many, the stance on Prohibition was tied to cultural, religious, and domestic identity. Many Protestant Americans thought of Catholic immigrants, who congregated in cities and had a less rigid relationship to alcohol, as cultural and religious ‘others.’ They quickly became targets of the temperance movement.
Smith was born to an Irish-American mother and a father of German and Italian descent in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1873. Smith’s father died when he was young, which forced him to drop out of school in the 7th grade. He worked at the Fulton fish market to help support his family. Despite his lack of formal education, Smith established a connection with the New York Democratic political organization, Tammany Hall.
Since the early-19th century, Tammany Hall had been a champion of immigrant rights in New York City. They also had a reputation as a kind of “social integrator” for ethnic minorities in the community. Smith’s political career began in 1895 when Tammany Hall appointed him as an investigator in the office of the city commissioner of jurors.
In 1928, all Smith’s opponents talked about was his Catholic faith. “Fliers informed voters that if Smith took the White House, all Protestant marriages would be annulled,” Richard Slayton told BackStory, “Their offspring rendered illegitimate on the spot.” Cartoons were also published depicting the recently-completed Holland Tunnel as a “secret passage” to transport the pope from Rome to his new abode: the White House.
Many of Smith’s supporters were shocked at how vehement the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant movement actually was — and how much this sentiment influenced the presidential politics in an allegedly secular state. Worst of all, Slayton noted, is the sad truth that such opposition was rarely based in fact. There was no evidence that Catholicism dictated Smith’s politics.
Nearly a century after Al Smith’s defeat, present-day America remains haunted by similar biases. Widespread discussion of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and Rep. Keith Ellison’s Muslim faith are recent examples that voters still worry about a candidate’s religion.
Learn more about the history of American presidents and spirituality by listening to BackStory’s episode, “Believer-In-Chief”
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist