Americans beginning to reflect on this matter are glancing back at the elections of 1928 and 1960. The author of this original essay wrote “The United States in 1960” for hnn.com, the History News Network, on July 16, 2008, and LABOR POLITICS IN A DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC, a book on the election of 1928 (published 1964). From the vantage point of having earlier considered the Kennedy and Smith efforts to reach the presidency in spite of religious prejudice, Dr. Bornet offers a useful commentary for our readers. He cast his own first presidential vote in 1940, by the way. This article was published on January 9, 2012 on HNN. Approximately 1524 words.
If Mitt Romney is the eventual nominee of the Republican Party this year, will the American public disregard his Latter Day Saints membership, loyalty, and affection (amounting to dedication), or will a substantial part of the electorate turn on him with Christian based, upright, uncompromising venom? In short, will the election bring out the best or the worst in voters as they finally reflect silently at ballot box time on what they are, who they really are, and what they think will motivate this candidate who professes something called Mormonism?
I just don’t know, that is, for certain. And I really do not see how anybody can foresee what will happen throughout the vicissitudes of the coming year. Of course, one can look back, hopefully, to see what History can teach about voting at a time of public prejudice rooted in religion. When doing that the focus is likely to be on 1960 with its Kennedy vs. Nixon and the issue of Catholicism. Actually, it can just as easily be on 1928 with Smith vs. Hoover.
On July 16, 2008 I had published in HNN a very detailed article on “The United States in 1960.” Before its outset was the explanation that it had been assembled weekly in that year and actually written for an encyclopedia in November/December, 1960, so its generalizations date from those times. There is much commentary there on aspects of the Kennedy effort to win the Presidency throughout 1960. I should think that reading it would get one ready to have a general opinion on overall issues in that presidential election year. (see HNN Archives)
Beginning in 1950 I researched deeply into the election of 1928 so that in 1964 my heavily footnoted result appeared as Labor Politics in a Democratic Republic (Wash., D.C.: Spartan Press). The book as a whole concentrates on the electoral efforts of the Republican, Democratic, Socialist, and Communist Parties. I have just reread the chapter “Smith Appeals to Union Organizations.” From it I think I learned that try as they might, the Democrats could not shake off the Catholicism of Al Smith. He had been a successful governor of New York State, displayed a winning smile, and had an engaging manner. He dwelt on issues that appealed to America’s working men. The issue of Prohibition would not go away, nor would the matter of the Smith accent, which was NewYawkish first to last and decidedly alien to MidAmerica.
Former Governor Romney will have to shake off not just his Mormon aspect, but the all too conspicuous matter of the Massachusetts medical plan with which he is inevitably associated. As in 1960 when Kennedy’s youth was an issue for some, and his extra-cultured accent was also alien to many voters nationwide, the question will be: can the electorate be diverted from issues that bother them so that they will concentrate on matters more positive for the candidate? In 1928 they continued to dwell on effects of the prohibition amendments and the “New York” (Fulton Fish Market) aspect, and especially matters said to center on “The Pope.” They could not be diverted from such channels. On the other hand, Hoover’s Indiana style Quakerism, a decidedly fundamentalist style of religion with a minister and beliefs that could easily intrude on an individual’s freedom of action, might well have come up as an issue, but nobody launched that at the time.
Several sentences from Labor Politics may be especially pertinent: “It is never easy to keep issues gray rather than black or white. Could the fact that Alfred E. Smith was a Catholic and a product of the largest city in the United States be minimized in the eyes of all but Catholic and city voters? Could his lack of higher education be built into an asset, his accent be forgiven, his derby hat kept in the realm of friendly good humor, and his Tammany connections—however free from scandal—be subordinated?” (p 178)
A contemporary answer from that day may suffice to indicate a negative response. From a Unitarian minister writing in The Christian Register in mid-campaign came this: “Every intelligent person knows that religion is already perhaps the principal factor in the discussion of the people throughout the country, outranking prohibition, farm relief and any other question that the press attempts to keep foremost.” As to this ineradicable prejudice, I wrote way back then, “Here was provincialism, plus an ill-considered and suspicious anti-Catholicism, from persons who, meaning no profound harm, nevertheless dishonored the spirit of fair play. In retrospect, the slurs slung at Alfred E. Smith in 1928 make the historian pity—not Smith—but the little ones who reviled him.” (p. 185)
If during the coming year the Republican Party delegates at the national convention decide to take a chance, that is, if they gamble on the charity of a public that time and again has shown its capacity for swinging toward crude bias and away from issues (even ones associated with their self-interest), then a sentence like one that follows may appear in a book down the line. From Labor Politics comes this sad judgment: “Unfortunately for Alfred E. Smith, an able and self-made man of the people, the workingmen and women of America had their eyes on collateral matters in 1928—not on the intricacies of his well-meant appeal to their economic self-interest.” (p. 188)
It is altogether true that the voters of The Twenties had somewhat stogy newspapers, various magazines, and living room radios providing information to them on the passing scene. Churchgoers had the advice of ministers and church bulletins and fellow parishioners. Today all realize that we have Fox News, liberal pundits and NPR, often irresponsible radio pundits in the AM, national and local newspapers that are down but not out, and the voices of organized religion in many forms. If we look to the past for guidance, it seems to indicate that this distinguished Mormon candidate of 2012 could run into the kind of prejudiced trouble that could push notable assets to one side and bring nothing but stinging defeat.
Yet not so fast. Has the Age of the Internet taught us nothing? Will the election year airing of multiple viewpoints on Twitter and Facebook and blogs, and the nationally distributed candidate debates ahead turn out to be like holding up a mirror to the faces of The Prejudiced? Nothing remotely like these phenomena existed in 1928 (when I was eleven and delivered a daily newspaper to homes in Bala Cynwyd each evening). Discrimination was taken for granted; no one thundered against it. Heads nodded up and down when all kinds of biases were aired in those living rooms decorated with artificial potted plants or in kitchens boasting iceboxes.
The American public can sometimes display a stupid streak, as Rick Shenkman, publisher of HNN shows in his book Just How Stupid Are We? (2009). Somehow, religious prejudice displayed at the voting booth may not quite be “stupid” but rather deep rooted misapprehension stemming from flawed education enroute to adulthood. Perhaps religion is not entirely to be ruled out as a qualifier for presidential power. Is it possible that an atheist in our top office might find it ultimately frustrating to govern without a personal religiously based moral guide? The general public could be the loser as such a president floundered about with an inadequate moral compass. With Catholicism, some citizens feared policy meddling by outside forces. With Mormonism it is hard to say what is feared, exactly, although the familiar Bible seems to have been amended by the unfamiliar Book of Mormon.
In 1960, Kennedy squeaked out a miniature victory eventually in spite of all those anti-Catholic sentiments. A quarter of a century earlier, Smith didn’t come close, not even remotely. Can it be that the half century from 1928 to 1960 (in this case) brought enough change to the Country to enable JFK’s success at the polls? May it be that 1960 to 2012, another half century, will do something like that for Romney? It could be. After what happened to Smith, it turned out to be easier for Kennedy. After Kennedy, maybe it will be easier for Romney to defeat prejudice. First, of course, he must get the chance to lead his Party through those risky electoral waters of the primaries, where candidates who happen to be stuck with “different” religious faith have to gamble on the intelligence and tolerance of their fellow citizens.