THE BLOG
09/30/2015 11:18 am ET Updated Sep 30, 2016

The New Catholics

The Pope's visit is a stunning statement of religious tolerance in America, of enormous progress. Back in 1928 Alfred E. Smith ran on the Democratic Party ticket, and the country decisively rejected the idea that a Roman Catholic was fit to be president. Robert Schuler, a Southern California minister (no relation to the Robert Schuler of the Crystal Cathedral) wrote a pamphlet, "Al Smith: A Vigorous Study", which explained that Smith was "distinctly Rome's candidacy... If America desires a president born and raised in a foreign atmosphere... that man may be had by electing Al Smith." Schuler also testified that Smith's election would mean the end of the public school system, and that civil and even Protestant marriages would no longer be recognized as legal and binding. Echoing these ideas, the Daytona Beach school board distributed to every child a card to bring parents: "We must prevent the election of Alfred E. Smith to the presidency. If he is elected president, you will not be allowed to have or read a Bible." Photos of the construction of the Lincoln Tunnel were standard campaign flyers, with the caption that these were evidence of the secret tunnel being built between Rome and Washington to bring the pope over. For some the threat was immediate. A Klan speaker in Manchester, Ind. alerted his audience about the Pope's imminent arrival: "He may even be on the Northbound train tomorrow! He may! He may! Be warned! Prepare! America is for Americans!... Watch the trains!"

Tied to this was the sense that Smith represented America's new immigrants. M. K. Troxell wrote in the Baltimore Sun that "very little is being said about his proposal to to abolish the quota restrictions from the immigration law, but all intelligent people know that such a policy would mean unloosing on us a horde of immigrants from such races as have already been proven hardest to assimilate." William Allen White, one of the grand figures of American journalism at the time, argued that "the whole Puritan civilization which has built a sturdy, orderly nation is threatened by Smith." Methodist Bishop Edwin Mouzen bluntly declared, "Smith himself is utterly un-American".

Americans agreed with these charges in 1928, and Smith was overwhelmingly rejected by the electorate. Herbert Hoover beat Smith by 21 million to 15 million in the popular vote, and even more powerfully in the Electoral College, 444 to 87.

In a sign of incredible growth, in 2015 the pope will not only travel to this country, but speak to a joint session of Congress, by invitation no less, the first time in history. In the 1920s Senator Thomas Heflin of Alabama denounced Calvin Coolidge for putting up red drapes in the White Houses, on the grounds that it symbolized obeisance to papal authority. Today, priests will sit in the same room as the nation's representatives, all listening respectfully to the Pontiff's words.

While this event represents true and honest headway of the most noble kind, at the same time another group has replaced Catholics as the target for bigotry, facing the same arguments Smith encountered in 1928. Thus, the fundamental charge against Smith was that his religion precluded him from running for the nation's highest office, that being a Catholic disqualified him, irregardless of any other factors. Yet, on September 20, 2015 Ben Carson explained, "I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that." Carson felt that a president's religion must be "consistent with the Constitution," and when asked if Islam met this qualification, replied, "No, I do not." That same day an analyst asked Donald Trump if he would accept a Muslim president, and Trump answered, "Some people have already said it happened."

As in 1928, large numbers of Americans agree with these sentiments. Polls show that 43 percent of Republicans think Barack Obama is a Muslim, and but only 45 percent claim they would ever vote for someone of that faith.

In 2015 Muslims are the target of Americans' bigotry, replacing Catholics of a century ago. Neither episode represents the better ideals of this country; every citizen -- then and now -- should be evaluated on his actions, not with prejudiced, preconceived tests.