Mitt Romney is not the first presidential candidate whose religious faith has become the target of prejudice and suspicion. Eighty-four years ago, the first Catholic presidential candidate, New York Governor Al Smith, endured his share of bigotry, too. But the response of his opponent, Herbert Hoover, set an example from which today’s politicians could learn.

More than a few of Smith’s opponents tried to drag his faith into the campaign.

Among the most well-publicized attacks was an open letter by Republican National Committee member Mrs. Willie Caldwell, calling on American women to prevent the country from becoming “Romanized and rum-ridden.”

Anti-Catholic bigots claimed that if Smith were elected president, he would be secretly loyal to the pope in Rome. (Mrs. Caldwell’s mention of rum was a reference to Smith’s support for repeal of Prohibition.) Smith’s rival for the White House was Herbert Hoover. A mining engineer by profession, Hoover’s path to the Republican nomination was paved by his leadership of food relief efforts that saved millions – including major Jewish communities – from starvation in Europe during and after World War I. His American Jewish supporters distributed an election-year pamphlet, in Yiddish and English, calling him “the modern Moses of war-stricken Europe [who] led Israel out of the slavery of starvation and despair.”

For reasons of sheer political expediency, it would not have been surprising if Hoover had chosen to remain silent when Smith’s Catholicism came under attack. Denouncing the bigots might have alienated voters who were expected to support Hoover.

Nevertheless, Hoover rose to the challenge. He recognized that a presidential candidate had a moral responsibility to speak out in such a situation, to beat back the “extremists” and “keep this [religious issue] out of national politics.”

At the Republican national convention, in August 1928, Hoover declared: “By blood and conviction, I stand for religious tolerance both in act and spirit.”

Again the following month, Hoover issued a statement expressing his “indignation” over anti-Catholic agitation.

American Jewish financier (and former official of the Woodrow Wilson administration) Bernard Baruch said “never has there been a more courageous declaration of the idea that there must be and shall be no exhibition of religious intolerance in this campaign.”

Still, change did not come to America overnight. It would be another 32 years before a Catholic, John F. Kennedy, would be elected president. It would be another forty years after that before a Jew, Joseph Lieberman, was nominated for vice president. And it was not until 2008 that an African American, Barack Obama, was elected president.

This year, for the first time, one of the presidential candidates is a Mormon.

Sadly, his religion has been attacked or mocked in some quarters.

Perhaps President Obama will take a page from Herbert Hoover’s book, and use his address at his party’s national convention to clearly condemn the “extremists” and explicitly urge his followers to keep Governor Romney’s private religious faith “out of national politics.”

In an election year such as this one, where the outcome of both parties’ conventions is a foregone conclusion, the conventions offer mostly show and little substance. But as Hoover demonstrated in 1928, a convention can provide a platform for elevating the national discourse on religion and politics.

Prof. Sonja Wentling and Dr. Rafael Medoff are coauthors of the new book, Hebert Hoover and the Jews: The Birth of the Jewish Vote and Bipartisan Support for Israel.

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