“What the hell is an encyclical?” Who the heck asked such a question? Hint: the person who did the asking was a Catholic, a Democrat, and a candidate for president. That narrows things down more than a bit. Hmmm. . .might it have been John Kennedy or Joe Biden? No and no. The answer is Al Smith, the first Catholic to be nominated to run for president by one of the two major political parties in all of American history.
The year was 1928. Then serving his fourth term as Governor of New York, Smith was a decided underdog in his race against Republican candidate Herbert Hoover. More—or less—than that, he was also a frustrated underdog; hence his exasperation and his question.
That question was no doubt evidence of a measure of ignorance on the part of this Catholic layman. But it was also indirect evidence of his operating assumption: independence of mind; namely, that one could be a loyal American, a faithful Catholic, and a good Democrat all in one—and all without reading the latest words of the Pope.
Nonetheless, Smith was under attack for his Catholicism. Would his first loyalty be to his country or to his Church? Governor Smith could anticipate no problems. He wouldn’t take orders from anyone, including the Vatican. He wouldn’t oppose Church teaching, but he did oppose public aid to private schools, including Catholic parish schools. He was simply a professional politician, who made no pretense of being so much as even an amateur theologian.
According to Frances Perkins, a Smith ally and later FDR’s Secretary of Labor, the governor knew little about Catholic theology and “didn’t care much about it.” He was prepared to be judged on his record, including his support for the repeal of Prohibition, and not on his knowledge of this or that papal encyclical.
Whether Smith lost to Hoover primarily or secondarily because of his Catholicism will likely never be established with complete certainty. But down to defeat he went, carrying only eight states totaling a meager 87 electoral votes. Six of the eight states in the Democratic column were states of the Old Confederacy. Each was solidly Democratic and just as solidly Baptist. In all likelihood, Smith would have lost had he been a mainline Protestant. General prosperity defeated him more than anything else. Still, his 41% of the popular vote bettered the performances of the two previous Democratic nominees.
Prohibition was certainly not an issue that reached encyclical status. In fact, many prominent Catholics could be found on either side of this divide. For example, St. Paul Archbishop John Ireland had supported a ban on both booze and saloons because he thought that both retarded the assimilation of immigrants. Smith saw great value in assimilation—with or without saloons.
Three decades would pass before another Catholic would make a serious run for the presidency. That, of course, would result in John Kennedy’s narrow victory in 1960. Once again, the Democratic nominee was an ethnic Catholic. (Smith was actually a mix of Irish, Italian, and German ethnicity.) Like Smith, Kennedy was a skilled politician devoid of theological concerns or interests. Unlike Smith, Kennedy was something less than a faithful Catholic and not exactly an observant one.
Still, there were those same nagging concerns about the candidate’s ultimate loyalty. Those concerns were expressed by a broad cross section of Americans, including mainline Protestant leaders, such as Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, as well as Democratic party veterans, including Eleanor Roosevelt, and not a few liberal intellectuals.
In fact, Kennedy aide and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. publicly labeled anti-Catholicism as the “anti-Semitism of the intellectuals” before going on to classify anti-Catholic sentiment as the “last acceptable prejudice.”