Reviving attacks on religion

The canard that members of this religion or that are more loyal to their religion than their nation is making a comeback and enjoying the aid and comfort of that eminent historian and theologian, Donald J. Trump.

When the president declared last month that the American Jews who voted Democratic in the last two elections — more than 70 percent of them — were either ignorant or disloyal, it was hard to determine if he meant they were disloyal to the United States, Israel or him — or maybe a little of each.  

He hasn’t been much kinder to Jews who vote Republican. In an April speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, he referred to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “your prime minister.” This makes the president an equal opportunity maligner of both Democratic and Republican voters who happen to be Jewish.

Making Jews scapegoats for various troubles is “why they often call anti-Semitism the oldest hatred,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, but the Jews are just one of several minorities, including Catholics and Muslims, who have been convenient targets for demagogues around the world, including the land of the free. 

Today, those ancient foes, the Jews and the Muslims, are almost equal opportunity targets of American bigots, while the Catholics have been enjoying a pass for several decades.

But it shouldn’t be forgotten that Catholics were the Muslims of the 19th and early 20th centuries in these United States. The massive influx of Catholic immigrants, many of them poor, illiterate Irish, through the mostly open borders of the USA, was an unsettling event for the descendants of the original White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant settlers. The result was those fabled “No Irish Need Apply” employment notices and much more.

The Irish invaders and the Catholics from Germany, Italy and Poland who accompanied them were frightening creatures, alien pawns of the mysterious Pope of Rome, to those who got here first.  

Writing in The Atlantic last April, Steven Waldman recalled that illustrious Americans like the inventor of the telegraph, Samuel F.B. Morse, urged the construction of walls and gates to keep out the Catholic immigrants he described as “halt and blind and naked” men with “darkened intellects” who obeyed their priests and Pope as demigods. 

The myth of Catholics subservient to the Pope and therefore disloyal to their adopted land survived well into the 20th century. Al Smith, the first Catholic candidate for president, was subjected to vicious attacks by those who feared his church.  

One anti-Smith pamphlet was illustrated by a photo of the new Holland Tunnel under the Hudson River that would be extended to the Vatican if Smith became the Pope’s president. With the nation enjoying a decade of Republican prosperity, Smith probably would have lost if he had been a Baptist but his religion cost him several Southern states that had never before voted for the party of Lincoln.

It took 32 years, a Depression and a World War before the Democratic Party would give a Catholic a second chance at the presidency. That Catholic was, of course, John Kennedy, the only non-Protestant president this nation has had.  

It wasn’t easy for Kennedy to overcome the revived divided loyalty accusations. He did it by entering and winning the primary in West Virginia, the state with the fewest Catholics and strong anti-Catholic sentiment, and then addressing the issue in the enemy camp with a speech to the largely evangelical Greater Houston Ministerial Association.

“I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” Kennedy told the clergymen. “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens to be Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me.” The speech and an article in Look magazine, in which he wrote of his belief “in an America where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source,” settled the issue and Kennedy became the first and only non-WASP president.

John Kerry, defeated by incumbent George W. Bush in 2004, remains the only other Catholic presidential candidate and, thanks to Kennedy, his religion did not become an issue 44 years after Kennedy’s election. We still await the nomination and election of a Jew and other non-Christians. 

And, as we have seen all too recently, a person’s religion can be used against them, especially by politicians for whom honesty and decency are not priorities. This brief history should also serve as a reminder to Catholics and members of other Christian churches that no religious minority can be free of the divided loyalty canard if it serves the purpose of unscrupulous politicians.


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.