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Monday, October 24, 2016

Al Smith the papist demagogue: the origins of a "democratic institution"

Apparently there is something called the "Al Smith dinner," which is a "democratic institution" in danger from Donald Trump.

I find this a bit ironic, since when Al Smith actually ran for president in 1928 plenty of people thought he was a danger to democratic institutions himself. He would take the Bible out of public schools:

Indeed, his candidacy was nothing more than a papal plot to smash the public schools with a club called "violence" and, apparently, poison them with a vial of holy water:

Among the many denunciations of Smith by indignant Protestants was a treatise by the Methodist preacher Henry Clay Morrison (founder of Asbury Seminary), called "The Battle of the Ballots." (This has been recently reprinted by Asbury Seminary's "Firstfruits Press.") Morrison claimed that, in fact, opponents of Smith had not invoked his religion as a reason to oppose him, but that his supporters had falsely accused his opponents of religious prejudice, and since the pro-Smith side had brought religion into the discussion Morrison was justified in discussing it. His closing peroration gives an idea of his tone throughout:
If Al Smith should be elected in the coming battle of ballots, the 6th day of next November, I shall be forced to believe that the curse of God has come upon us, because of our spiritual apostasy and reckless lust for wealth and pleasure that has come to characterize such a large per cent of our American people. May the Holy Spirit arouse our womanhood, awaken and stir the manhood of the nation, and may God in mercy save us from a reign of Rum and Romanism.
Does the desperate rhetoric sound familiar? Try this cartoon, also produced during the 1928 campaign (though it has nothing to do with Morrison), with the caption "Religious liberty is guaranteed, but can we allow foreign reptiles to crawl all over us/"

Morrison echoes these concerns, arguing that Smith was elected governor of New York "by the vast hords [sic] of un-Americanized foreigners, who have gathered by millions, in New York City, making it a menace to the peace and welfare of this nation." Morrison accuses Smith of calling for "an open door to immigrants," under the excuse of not wishing to separate families. He argues that since pretty much everyone in "southern Europe" is related to somebody already in America, this policy would amount to completely unrestricted immigration of people "raised up under the oppression of a Romish ecclesiasticism" and thus easy prey to the machinations of Tammany Hall.

If this anti-immigration rhetoric sounds like one side of the current debate, Morrison's worries about Catholic attacks on the public school system, "one of the cornerstones of our greatness," sound like the other. Indeed, if his criticisms of Catholicism sound like contemporary right-wing attacks on Islam, they also echo the language of the "Podesta emails" revealed by Wikileaks.

The worries of the 1920s don't map exactly onto the political map of the 2010s. Yet it's remarkable how persistent the basic elements are: fear of immigration, fear of corrupt crony politicians, fear of unscrupulous demagogues, fear of "alien" religious traditions undermining America's democratic institutions.

But perhaps there is a ray of hope. After all, the corrupt puppet of Roman despotism, defeated in 1928 by Herbert Hoover, would survive to become a "democratic institution" threatened in turn by a New York demagogue. I don't want to see Donald Trump give his name to a "democratic institution" of the future, and I'm not too enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton either. But democratic institutions are, let us hope, more durable and more capable of renewal than the prophets of doom would have us fear.

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