By FATHER DOUGLAS K. CLARK, STL, Commentary | Published July 22, 2010
Fifty years ago this week, the Democratic National Convention, meeting in Los Angeles, nominated Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts for the office of President of the United States. For the second time in its history, the Democratic Party nominated a Catholic as its candidate for the chief magistracy of the republic.
The first Catholic nominee, New York Governor Al Smith, was soundly defeated by the Republican nominee, Herbert Hoover, in 1928. In that campaign, conducted during the economic boom that would end so spectacularly in 1929, the Republican Commerce Secretary had the initial advantage that people tend to vote their “pocketbooks.” But his opponent’s Catholicism was also a significant factor in his defeat. Not only was the country still overwhelmingly Protestant, but the 1910s and 1920s constituted a particularly anti-Catholic period in the nation’s history.
The Ku Klux Klan experienced a revival in about 1915. As the traditionally anti-black organization revived and spread northward, it became more pronouncedly “nativist”, that is, anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish. Nativist pressure undoubtedly facilitated the passage of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924, which restricted immigration into the United States of Asians and of Southern and Eastern (read “Catholic”) Europeans. The brief social experiment of Prohibition (of alcohol) by constitutional amendment had anti-Catholic overtones, as Catholics never shared the theological and ideological premises of the temperance movement (which was wholly Protestant in its origins) and were regarded as unsavory “wets” by the temporarily ascendant “dry” Prohibitionists.
In Georgia, the former Populist turned Democratic Senator Thomas E. Watson, who had made no secret of his opposition to Catholics, Jews and African-Americans or of his support for the Ku Klux Klan, died in 1922, but his legacy lived on, with the result that Georgia, whose few Catholics had historically been on good terms with their Protestant neighbors, was now widely recognized as the most anti-Catholic of the 48 United States. In 1916, the Georgia legislature had passed the infamous Convent Inspection Act, introduced by the “Watsonite” Reuben J. Veazey, that required the inspection of Catholic convents and orphanages to ascertain that none of the “inmates” was being held against her will. By 1920, the participation of Catholic schools in the developing public school systems in Savannah, Augusta and Macon (the “Savannah Plan”) was halted by the state’s attorney general.
To meet the challenges posed by these developments, especially the Veazey Act, Catholic laymen in Augusta organized an association dedicated to propagating the truth about the Catholic Church, its beliefs and practices in the Diocese of Savannah (which comprised the entire state of Georgia). Savannah Bishop Benjamin J. Keiley readily granted his approval to the establishment of the Catholic Laymen’s Association of Georgia, which bore tremendous fruit for the next half-century and beyond. The Association produced timely and accurate responses to anti-Catholic publications and slurs in its pamphlets and in its newspaper, founded in 1920. (The Southern Cross and The Georgia Bulletin are the direct descendants of the Bulletin of the Catholic Laymen’s Association of Georgia.)
By 1960, times had definitely changed, especially in regard to the possibility of Americans electing a Catholic president. While in 1928, the United States had been a Republican-dominated country for nearly 70 years (since the Civil War), the 20-year ascendency of the Democratic Party during the Great Depression, had sufficiently changed the political landscape that Democratic control of Congress was more or less taken for granted, although the popular General Dwight D. Eisenhower had shown that a Republican could win the presidency by impressive margins.
Before the 1956 conventions, the Democratic historian Arthur E. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote a widely-quoted memo pointing out that the New Deal coalition forged by President Franklin D. Roosevelt was fraying and that its Catholic component might prove decisive in the upcoming election. He advocated that the party consider nominating a Catholic for president or vice president in the near future and went on to support Senator John F. Kennedy’s unsuccessful attempt to secure the vice-presidential nomination in 1956 and his successful bid for the presidential nomination in 1960.
How did it come to pass that a Catholic could be elected President of the United States in 1960, by however narrow a margin, when the circumstances were somewhat analogous to those of 1928?
Kennedy was thought to have handled the “religious issue” very deftly, by his address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, “I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party candidate for President who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters—and the Church does not speak for me.” This stance, however questionable it may now seem to Catholics, plus Nixon’s admirable refusal to make Kennedy’s religion a campaign issue, effectively excluded his Catholicism from playing the same role, to the same degree, in 1960 that Smith’s Catholicism played in 1928 in the country at large. As in 1928, Georgians voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic ticket, even though it was headed by a Catholic.
For Georgia Catholics, the immediate result of Kennedy’s election was the voluntary disbanding of the Catholic Laymen’s Association of Georgia.
A half-century later, at a time of rising secularism in the media and of increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric, especially in terms of Spanish-speaking Catholics, we might ask ourselves if something like the Association might again be needed.
Father Douglas K. Clark, STL, is pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Port Wentworth. This column was printed with the permission of the Diocese of Savannah and was originally printed in the July 15 issue of the Southern Cross, newspaper of the Savannah Diocese.