The presidential campaigns of Al Smith and John F. Kennedy were paralleled in their obstacle of answering the “Catholic question”, JFK succeeded in answering the American public where Smith could not.
Both candidates struggled with moving focus from their religions to their policies, and having the American people view them not as Catholics but as viable candidates. JFK was applauded for how he dealt with the question of his Catholicism impacting his presidency, however Smith did not address the issues of religion that were presented to him in the same manor that JFK did, and many historians believe this could have impacted his lack of popularity in comparison to JFK. In Michael J. Hostetler’s meta-analysis: Gov. Al Smith Confronts the Catholic Question: The Rhetorical Legacy of the 1928 Campaign, he reviews the differences in campaigning that ultimately led to JFK’s success and Smith’s failure. The analysis also focuses on how JFK openly spoke about his religion, while Smith gave “thin” background and did not want religion to be a focal point of his campaign.
However, it is argued that Smith’s campaign in 1928 laid the groundwork for JFK’s success in 1960. Smith’s major problem in his candidacy was people did not believe that “dual allegiance” with respect to church and state would be an obstacle he could overcome. Moreover, it was said that the Catholic principles the Church demands of their congregation would sway the candidate away from American issues and towards Catholic issues.
These arguments were all used when JFK ran as well, however he was prepared to answer them in a manor that would calm the American people in the 1960’s. Smith spoke about the Catholic question sparingly very early in his campaign, and refused to answer questions regarding his religion as the election approached. JFK approached the situation exactly the opposite, he spoke often about his Catholicism and welcomed questions and concerns — establishing his position and reassuring the people often that it would not affect his judgement should he be elected. Smith believed his religion would not play a significant role in his campaign, but JFK knew it would be instrumental, and detrimental if he did not address it.
There of course were other factors in play other than just addressing the public, a change in politic climate, a greater toleration for Catholicism by the American people, and so on. However, the rhetoric used during the campaigns seems to have played a huge role, and that can be seen even in the way people spoke about JFK as opposed to Smith. Smith was viewed in a harsher light, while JFK was beloved even by those who did not necesarilly support him. In a January 1960 post by the Los Angeles Times, Alexander Holmes wrote an editorial titled: Candidate Kennedy, a Man of Quality. In this newspaper article, Holmes explicitly states that Kennedy is not his first choice for the presidency, (In fact, he was not even in his top 3) however, Holmes wrote “Win or lose, he is as good a guy as the country has around”. He continued citing Kennedy’s intellectual integrity, policies, successful career, and finished his piece with “He’s a man of quality, this Kennedy”. This is remarkable, especially when comparing it to today’s political climate. I could not imagine a member of an opposing party speaking so highly of a candidate in such a fashion today. The coverage on Kennedy was positive, even from those who did not support his policies, which differs greatly from Smith’s campaign.
This does not mean that Kennedy did not face issues in answering the Catholic question, as can be seen in other newspaper articles from 1960. “Problem of Religion posed for Democrats: Kennedy makes it clear he will not accept vice-presidency as Catholic Vote Deal” an article posted in New York Times also in January of 1960, examined JFK’s refusal to accept a VP nomination when he was qualified to run for the presidency. At the time, the Democratic party probably did not believe he could win as a Catholic, so because he was so loved, they thought he would better serve under a protestant candidate and pull in the Catholic votes. JFK saw through this, and refused to be a part of it — he said he either would run as president or not at all. His strength is definitely something to be applauded here, and this article exemplified some of the challenges he was facing at the time, even from his own party. I think this strength and honesty with the people is what people loved about him. It seems there was more open bigotry to Catholics during Smith’s run, as can be seen above in the political cartoon — people were not shy in expressing their distrust in his religion and policies. The largest difference, among many others, is in how the candidates chose to address the public, even those who did not agree with JFK, liked him. Though there was still hostility towards his religion from many at the time, JFK was able to overcome the barrier that the Catholic question posed for Al Smith.
Holmes, A. (1960, Jan 28). Candidate kennedy, a man of quality. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995) Retrieved from http://flagship.luc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.flagship.luc.edu/docview/167621966?accountid=12163
By, A. K. (1960, Jan 10). PROBLEM OF RELIGION POSED FOR DEMOCRATS. New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from http://flagship.luc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.flagship.luc.edu/docview/114952401?accountid=12163