Thanks, but no thanks

Catholics are too successful and secure in their identity as Americans to fall for McCain's attempt to paint them as "victims" of the Bob Jones fringe.

Published March 10, 2000 10:00AM (EST)

Within a week after the Democratic Party convention of 1928, when Al Smith became the first Catholic ever nominated for the presidency, 10 million pieces of hate literature flooded the United States. They went far beyond the purported issue of Smith's opposition to Prohibition, or even his roots in New York's corrupt Tammany Hall machine, to his place in a nation that still conceived of itself as Protestant.

"Crimes of the Pope," cried one mailing. Another bore the title, "Convent Life Unveiled." A broad spectrum of American society joined in the assault. While the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan declared that Smith had to be defeated for "the Nordic stock ... to finish its destiny," the respected commentator William Allen White characterized Smith's race against Herbert Hoover as a challenge "to the whole Puritan civilization, which has built a sturdy, orderly nation."

When the last ballots had been counted in what remains the most bigoted presidential campaign in American history, Smith had been decimated. He carried eight states to Hoover's 40, won 87 electoral votes to Hoover's 444.

Within that seeming repudiation, however, Smith had begun building the alliance of urban Catholics and Jews that would carry Franklin Delano Roosevelt into power four years later and install the New Deal coalition as America's dominant political force for nearly a half-century. And, importantly for this moment in the presidential race of 2000, Smith had personified the movement of Catholics into the national mainstream.

We saw the security of successful citizens displayed last week when Catholic voters in New York, Missouri, California and Ohio all gave Texas Gov. George W. Bush the majority of their votes in the Republican primary against Arizona Sen. John McCain. I consider that result less a vote for Bush than a vote against victimization. Offered the chance to define themselves by their enemies, Catholics said, "No thanks." How sadly rare that is in American politics.

At one level, Bush deserved the scorn of Catholics, who are among the quintessential Reagan Democrats and thus vital swing voters in any presidential race. By appearing at Bob Jones University in South Carolina last month in pursuit of support from the Christian right, Bush gave a tacit endorsement to the school's anti-Catholic bias. The university's president, Bob Jones, has referred to Catholicism as "the religion of the anti-Christ and a Satanic system."

In a frenzy of damage control, Bush had to send a public letter of apology to Cardinal John O'Connor of New York. And he found his campaign relying on such Catholics as New York Gov. George Pataki and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani not only to deliver their state to him but in doing so to banish the taint of bigotry from the Bush campaign. There was something delicious, I have to admit, about watching Bush's arrogance shattered for at least a few days.

But when John McCain and his surrogates tried to make the Bob Jones appearance into a wedge issue -- referring to it first in Michigan and then New York and other states that voted on Super Tuesday -- they drastically misread the Catholic experience in America. The anti-Catholic bigotry that was a staple in Smith's time, a perfectly acceptable stance for someone in polite society, has shrunk back to the right- and left-wing fringes of the country, and Catholic voters showed March 7 that they understood the difference between one bonehead move by George W. Bush and a return to the era of "No Irish Need Apply" signs.

On the eve of New York's primary, for instance, a mere 26 percent of Catholics likely to vote approved of Bush's performance, the Quinnipiac College Polling Institute in Hamden, Conn., found. Yet on Election Day, exit polls showed, Bush carried the state's Catholic Republicans by 53 percent to 42 percent. Some of his success, of course, owes to the state's juggernaut of a Republican machine. It turned out votes for Bush and it levied an onslaught of negative advertising against McCain. But in explaining the seeming contradiction of Bush's 26-percent approval rating and 53-percent share from Catholic voters, Quinnipiac director Maurice Carroll distinguished between an incident of intolerance and a climate of it. Or, one might say, between the present and the past.

"The stuff my father and grandfather had to deal with was the Ku Klux Klan, the idea John Kennedy was going to have a secret phone line from the White House to the Vatican," recalls Carroll, who covered New York politics for Newsday and the New York Times before becoming a pollster. "Those were the real prejudices they faced. Now, Catholics have become so much a part of the country, something like Bob Jones University washes off them. I mean, nobody likes to be called the anti-Christ. But they don't feel threatened."

Terry Golway, a political journalist and historian of Irish nationalism, offers a similar analysis.

"I distinctly remember the nuns in my grammar school telling us about Al Smith and that wound," says Golway, whose new book, "For the Cause of Liberty," traces Irish nationalism and activism over a millennium. "But they also taught us that the wound had been healed. We shouldn't forget Al Smith, because we don't live in a perfect society. But, for us, the story has been about overcoming all that."

The author and priest Andrew Greeley has been contending for decades that Irish Catholics -- and Catholics in general -- are far more successful economically than their blue-collar stereotype suggests. In his 1981 book "The Irish Americans" and again in 1990's "The Catholic Myth," Father Greeley showed that in terms of income, education, and job status American Catholics surpassed WASPs.

Personally, I recall sharing a dais with Frank McCourt at a book -and-author luncheon a few years ago in Westchester County. The Irish Catholic listeners McCourt was riveting with his account of harrowing poverty in "Angela's Ashes" consisted of suburban housewives and professional women, and they were listening at a yacht club that in generations past probably would not have accepted their kind as members.

The ethnic and political variety within the American Catholic community promises to confound anyone trying to practice identity politics. As Terry Golway pointed out, what particularly galled many Irish Catholics about Bob Jones University was the school's awarding an honorary doctorate in 1966 to Reverend Ian Paisley, the leader of Protestant militants in Northern Ireland. But that decision mattered little, if it was known at all, among Italian, Polish, and Hispanic Catholics in the U.S.

Part of the reason Catholics are swing voters is that their values reflect the Church's own, mixing such traditionally conservative positions as opposition to abortion with such liberal ones as support for trade unions. During the New York primary race, reporters tried to draw Bishop Thomas V. Daily into criticizing Bush. He did, but not over the Bob Jones University visit nearly as much as Texas governor's avid use of the death penalty. Cardinal O'Connor, widely perceived as a right-winger for his positions on abortion and homosexuality, has simultaneously led the effort to have Dorothy Day of the left-wing Catholic Worker movement canonized. To a degree that maddens many conservatives, Catholic Charities delivers tens of millions of dollars of social services nationwide.

"Anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the intellectual elite," goes an aphorism popular in some Catholic circles. But the mere fact that it was repeated by such prominent, widely respected figures as Father Theodore Hesburgh, the former president of Notre Dame, casts doubt on its premise. There will always be some artistic provocateur like Andres Serrano going for shock value by, in his case, submerging a crucifix in urine. There will always be some religious bigots like Bob Jones, likening the pope to a Satanic priest. And, hopefully, American Catholics will see aberrations for what they are.

The ultimate proof of their confidence, perhaps, came on the morning after Super Tuesday. All around my Manhattan neighborhood, and surely all around the nation, from the ranches of South Texas to the row houses of Baltimore, Catholics headed for churches to have their foreheads marked with the sign of the cross on Ash Wednesday. Then they went about their business, bearing a symbol of their faith, not the brand of an endangered species.

By Samuel G. Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, has written for Salon since 1996. His new book, “Breaking The Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights,” will be published in August 2013.

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