Mitt Romney is Following in Al Smith's Footsteps, not just JFK's
Mitt Romney's speech in Texas about religion and politics resurrected the ghost of John Kennedy, and his historic appearance in Houston during the 1960 campaign. But few have mentioned that Kennedy was following in the footsteps of Governor Alfred E. Smith. Smith was a Catholic who confronted the religious prejudices of his day when vying for the presidency during the 1928 campaign.
In the April 1927 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, a prominent lawyer named Charles Marshall wrote an open letter to Governor Smith, doubting a good Catholic's ability to serve the American people independently and honorably as president.
Al Smith, who loved to speak in the"dese, dem, dose," argot of New York's Bowery, but was an intelligent, and surprisingly refined individual, responded in the May issue. Smith's response was unequivocal and memorable, saying:"I should be a poor American and a poor Catholic alike if I injected religious discussion into a political campaign." Addressing Marshall"not as a candidate for any public office but as an American citizen, honored with high elective office, meeting a challenge to his patriotism and his intellectual integrity," Smith insisted there was no conflict between being a good Catholic and a good American.
John Kennedy was less hobbled by the religion issue than Al Smith was, because for all Smith's eloquence and alleged refinement, his political persona struck so many Americans as foreign. Governor Smith was too brassy, too Bowery, too much the immigrant New Yorker for many. Proving that Culture Wars in America are not new, the great American journalist William Allen White thundered:"The whole Puritan civilization which has built a sturdy, orderly nation is threatened by Smith." The evangelist Bill Sunday denounced Smith's male supporters as"damnable whiskey politicians, bootleggers, crooks, pimps, and businessmen," and his female supporters as"streetwalkers."
Like Kennedy, Mitt Romney comes across as all-American rather than as foreign or fanatic. If anything, whereas Al Smith oozed authenticity, Romney like Kennedy before him occasionally appears a bit too artificial, too programmed. Romney's campaign should rise or fall on half a dozen other factors than his Mormonism. Romney's courage and eloquence - like Kennedy's and Smith's - on this issue was admirable and a welcome contribution to the continuing American debate about religion and state, and the continuing American quest for a campaign and a country free of bigotry.
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