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.
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
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
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
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
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.”
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
Hebert Hoover and the Jews: The Birth of the Jewish Vote and
Bipartisan Support for Israel.
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