Can a Catholic be President?

Previous Presidential candidate Al Smith

The first source I chose was an article published in the Chicago Daily Tribune in September of 1928 in which Al Smith confronts the Klan and the G.O.P. for their anti-Catholic sentiment. Smith recognizes that his religion is only an issue and only being discussed throughout the presidential campaign because he is Catholic. He admonishes the Republican Party for trying to “inject bigotry, hatred, intolerance and un-American sectarian diversion into a campaign which should be an intelligent debate on the important issues, which confront the American people” (O’Donnell Bennett). Smith is directly confronting the religious intolerance, specifically toward Catholics, that is buried in this nation despite religious freedom and tolerance being one of the founding principles. In addition, Smith calls upon his fellow Catholics to not vote for him because he is Catholic, and therefore they share a religious background, but because his ideals match with their own and they believe that he will serve the country well.

Both the denouncement of bigotry and intolerance and requests to not vote based on similar characteristics hark back to recent elections with Presidents Trump and Obama. The Smith quote about rejecting bigotry could just as easily be used today by the Democrats in response to President Trump’s comments on immigrants, African-Americans, the latinx community, and on other minorities. The intolerance has simply shifted away from Catholics while the rhetoric remains the same. During former-President Obama’s elections in 2008 and 2012, there was a push for black voters to not vote for Obama solely on the basis of race, but rather on his policies and beliefs. Smith desired the same for his fellow Catholic voters in hopes that in the future religion, race, ethnicity, etc. would not be important in an election, only their platform and morals.

Former President John F. Kennedy 

I also found a New York Times article published in 1959 about then-Senator John F. Kennedy as the Democratic candidate for president. The article makes two points about how Kennedy’s religion could affect the campaign and his chances of winning the general election. The author, James Reston, delineates two issues that Kennedy and the Democratic Party would face in choosing him as the nominee. The first question, whether the Democrats would lose Protestant voters by nominating a Catholic presidential candidate, has been covered before. This is the expected response as no Catholic had ever successfully campaigned for president, and especially because Al Smith faced so much backlash in 1928, many were hesitant to select Kennedy as it could cause the Democrats to lose the presidency over his religion.

The second concern discussed in the article is the opposite of the first; “will the Democratic party lose a great many Catholic votes if it seems to be passing up Kennedy because he is a Catholic?” (Reston). This was not as important of an issue during Al Smith’s campaign because there were less Catholic voters. In addition, they faced more discrimination, such as from the KKK, than they did during Kennedy’s run. The Catholic electorate was larger in the 1960s, so there is greater desire to reach out to Catholic voters although there still remains grave concerns over having a Catholic lead the country. Kennedy was the clear front runner before he earned the nomination, but the fear that a Catholic candidate would alienate Protestant voters is evident. This hostility towards Catholics was commonplace in the United States since its founding, but, I believe, that the election of Kennedy opened the eyes of the electorate to the fact that a Catholic politician is not obliged to the Vatican nor to the Pope. They are accountable to the American people.


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