Today we awoke to the unsurprising news that Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum won over Mitt Romney in the GOP Primary in Mississippi and Alabama, two of the most conservative states in the union. But I wonder if people realize how surprising, historically speaking, this non-surprise is. Most will remember that John F. Kennedy was the first (and only) Catholic to become president of the United States in 1960, but how many Americans can say they know anything about the presidential election of 1928 when Herbert Hoover beat…who? Oh yes, Al Smith, a Catholic city kid from New York.
Imagine this is Rick Santorum today
“The nomination of a Catholic by one of the nation’s two major political parties rekindled religious strife in the United States,” according to historian Allan J. Lichtman’s Prejudice and the Old Politics: The Presidential Election of 1928. Lutheran, Baptist, and Fundamentalist ministers all came out against Al Smith.
When people think of the 1920s, they often think of the images they have seen of what looks like a damned good party: flappers, cocktails (in spite of Prohibition), the new Hollywood glamor, the ballooning stock market, the Charleston. But the 1920s was an era fraught with domestic strife. The new Ku Klux Klan (not the original post-Civil War KKK, but the newly awakened post World War I variety) reached its zenith in 1924 when millions of Americans claimed membership. This was the same year the federal government essentially closed Ellis Island to immigration. These events are not unrelated.
As I write here, the KKK sought to defend white Protestant America against perceived “un-American” threats, ranging from “undesirable” immigrants (Catholics and Jews) to Communism. The values and beliefs that millions of Americans possessed in the 1920s included a fear of internal subversion, a sense of Protestant righteousness, and a belief in individualism and God. The last of these underlay both a bias against secular reform as well as an opposition to progressive thinking. An example is the Red Scare of 1919-1920, which established critical precedence for anti-Communism in the United States, particularly among the political right, as a theme that would last seven decades and even become institutionalized in the American government. From the time the first Brits landed here, many Americans have believed that Catholicism was incompatible with democracy, that Catholics owed allegiance to a foreign sovereign. In 1928, some even believed the Pope sought to control Washington through Al Smith.
Although as recently as 2006, a Gallup Poll declared that 30 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of Catholics, Rick Santorum’s great appeal to evangelical Christians in this country displays an historic alignment that began over the issue of anti-Communism during the Cold War, and has continued to grow during the culture wars of the past forty-odd years, in particular over the issue of abortion.
This alignment should be reason to celebrate as it seems to show an open-mindedness that would have been historically impossible among white Anglo-Saxon Protestants towards the Catholics they did so much to exclude in this country. How ironic, then, that the man they voted for yesterday should prove to be so reactionary himself.