tv 20th Century Catholic Politicians CSPAN October 13, 2020 2:25pm-2:42pm EDT
contenders," our series that looks at 14 presidential candidates who lost the election but who had a lasting effect on u.s. politics. tonight we feature 1940 republican presidential nominee wendell willkie. watch tonight beginning at 8:00 eastern and enjoy american history tv this week and every weekend on c-span3. you're watching american history tv. every weekend on c-span3, explore our nation's past. c-span3, created by america's cable television companies as a public service and brought to you today by your television provider. now on american history tv, a look at challenges faced by catholic politicians. we'll hear from a professor from
the university of notre dame about how al smith and john kennedy dealt with the issue in their presidential campaigns. >> john mcgreevy from the university of notre dame, your book which came out a few years ago, what's the premise behind it? what did you learn? >> i wanted to look at how american ideas of freedom intersected with the catholic global tradition and what i learned is there were moments of conflict and moments of overlap. in the 19th century there was conflict over slavery. but lots of overlap in efforts to reform the economy. there was overlap in the '50s on ideas about americanization and mention over issues around sexuality, divorce, a lot of the kind of cultural issues of the last 30 years. >> more than 90 years ago, al smith ran for president. first catholic on the ticket. why was that significant and who was al smith? >> al smith was an immigrant kid
from new york city. irish and german. never got beyond the eighth grade. by the 1920s, catholics are a significant percentage of the population, 20%, 25%. they faced considerable discrimination in the 19th century and even in the 1920 ws the ku klux klan. the fact that he lost so significantly was a marker that to run for president as a catholic was a disadvantage. he lost pretty significantly in the south which at that time because african-americans were prohibited from voting was an entirely democratic region. >> they have a dinner in his name every year. what was he like as a person? >> you know, charming. immigrant, very new york accent and that was controversial in
the 1928 campaign which had the first discussions on radio of american politics. it became a little bit bitter as an old man. was bitter that franklin roosevelt, rich, sophisticated, became perceived as the candidate of the common man and became the leader in the democratic party. and so in the '30s, you see him shift a little bit i.d. logically. >> how so? >> he's kind of mad at roosevelt and he wants to see less government programs, which kind of works against what he was doing as a pretty liberal democratic governor of new york state. there's a little bit of a sour end, i would say, to his career in the '30s. what we remember him for was becoming governor of new york, becoming successful, implementing all kinds of social welfare programs and reforms and that made him an icon for a lot of american catholics. >> why were catholics scorned?
why did they face racism? >> well, the tension in the 19th century was very much, hey, are catholics going to obey the american government or are they going to obey the pope in rome? but that was a powerful fear in europe and australia and canada. it was one of the great global issues of the 19th century. by the 1920s, some of that fear persisted, especially in the south which is the most evangelical protestant region and that was mixed up with smith as an immigrant, smith as someone who did not support prohibition and smith as a catholic. and those three things combine to make smith seem a dangerous foreigner, and to a lot of americans, especially third and fourth generation americans who lived in rural parts of the country, they weren't ready to accept that. >> 32 years after his defeat,
john kennedy becomes the democratic party nominee. what did he face in terms of anticatholic bigotry? >> it's a different story by that time. most of them had served in the war. it was very hard to assail their patriotism, i'm thinking of pat brown in california and other catholic political figures who become predominant in the 1950s and 1960s. so that's a little bit taken off the table. you see catholics can be patriotic. but even kennedy faced real questioning about -- on controversial issues such as contraception, divorce laws, are you going to obey the pope or are you going to obey the constitution? and he gives a speech in 1960 where he says, listen, i'm going to obey the constitution and not -- act as an american, not simply as a catholic. and some catholics thought he went too far in 1960 because he
made a point of saying my religious life is entirely separate which is not something we would say to martin luther king jr. or others. some people thought he went too far. but he probably handled well because he reassured enough protestants to support him. >> how significant was that speech in houston to baptist ministers? >> a big deal. at least in the media at the time, it took the issue off the table. and so the speech was early in the campaign and it really made it very difficult, for example, for richard nixon to talk about catholicism even though nixon wanted to and some of his advisers were doing it behind the scenes. his dad was a very famous strong-willed irish catholic
businessman and ambassador to england and he -- it's a good joke because people were worried that joseph kennedy had too much influence over his son. >> today the catholic church is dealing with another crisis and that's the abuse by priests that really dates back 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 years ago. somehow the church dealing with that? >> well, i think it's not been successful so far. it's a terrible -- it's the biggest crisis in the history of the united states catholicism, certainly -- >> in the history? >> absolutely. yeah. no question. in terms of disillusionment, in terms of struggle to figure out what the right message is and in terms of effectively dealing with the problem of sexual abuse and all of the trauma that causes young people and all of those who are abused. and in a certain sense, it's been going on, as you said, 40, 50 years, but the public scandal has been going on since 2002. there's famous early cases that we can trace back to the 1980s and 1990s.
and i think the frustration is that it's been since 2002 and it still seems not to have been resolved. the good news is that it does seem like there are very few new cases since 2002. those that we're seeing right now, but we're still seeing uncovering, uncovering of more evidence of cover-up before 2002 and my own view, everything has to be opened up now. >> and the pope, how do you view his role in all of this? >> i'm sympathic to it. he is an 82-year-old argentinian male. we have to keep that in mind. this is not somebody who thinking about gender and sex issues the way maybe an american who is 25 does. but that said, i think his instincts have been pretty good. he's willing to admit when he makes mistakes and he'll be interesting to see what happens in february at this global
meeting. it's not just an american issue, it's a huge issue in ireland, australia, chile and it will be interesting to see how far they can go to develop global policies around sexual abuse. my own sense is that in the united states, germany as well, the policies around sexual abuse by protests are pretty well set and actually may be working again post-2002. we haven't had clear policies around bishops who cover up sexual abuse. >> when you're talking to students, 18, 19, 20, 21 years old, they're probably pretty much progressive than previous generations, did you talk about this? >> yes. and the students are a mix. we have students on all points of political spectrum and that's something we're quite proud of, actually. yes, you hear a disillusionment, a sense of what is this
institution. if the only thing you knew about catholicism was the headlines of the "new york times" over the last two years, it might be a church that you would join. but this problem is severe and has to be grappled with. >> can you generally say that catholics identify with one party or another or is it mixed? >> catholics were very clearly associated with the democratic party from the 19th centuries through to the 1950s. and the data that we have tells us they started to shift a little bit more, more affluent catholics to the republican party in the 1950s. eisenhower was popular with many catholics. kennedy stopped that. kennedy was unbelievably popular with catholics of all income levels and ethnic backgrounds. we think he got 75%, something
like that, 80% of the catholic vote which is a huge number. since then, broadly, euro american catholics drifting toward the democratic party. latino catholics, pretty significantly democratic. >> do you remember his assassination? >> no. i was two days old. >> as you look back and understand the research of what the country was going through, what was the church going through? what were catholic priests and non no nuns dealing with? >> we learned a lot about kennedy's personal life over the last 50 years and i think our culture is generally less empathetic to heroes and people who are perceived as leaders. kennedy was a hero for american catholics and so i think the country was in trauma after his assassination. nothing like this had happened since the death of lincoln in
1865. he was so young and his life was in front of him. i think it did hold a poignancy for catholics because he was their hero. he was not an ordinary catholic. they were wealthy. they went to harvard. they -- very sophisticated family. but they were a catholic family and self-consciously so and that was a symbol of pride. to have him killed like that was a great trauma. >> i asked the question, those who do remember recall that they were in school, the nuns were crying, they dismissed classes for four days. it was a national crisis. >> traumatic and overwhelming. >> who are the catholic leaders today? that's an interesting question. obviously in the political sphere, there are quite a few, you could talk about nancy pelosi, you could talk about joe biden, you could talk about a lot of figures. you could talk about
ocasio-cortez, she's a self-identified catholic, i just saw some data that catholics are about 30% of congress and that's a pretty high number because the catholic population is maybe 20-plus percent of the population. >> and a majority on the supreme court. >> amazingly. if you said 30 years ago, 50 years ago, that the catholics would have a majority in the supreme court, no one would have believed that. and that's a very interesting story about in some ways a conservative catholic legal has propelled catholics to the forefront. that's a great story. very interesting. in terms of politics, those are leaders. beyond politics, there are catholics scattered all over american life, corporate leadership, media leadership, universities, the -- the president of stanford who
stepped down is a serious catholic. so they're deeply embedded in american life. one thing you can say because it's also an immigrant church now, again, in a way that it hasn't been, really since the early 20th century, is that catholics run the gamut of american life. they're some of the poorest immigrants and some of the most recent immigrants as well as some of the most powerful people in the country. >> in terms of research, teaching this to your students as well, anything stand out, any particular stories or individuals or figures that you've come across that really surprised you or intrigued you? >> so when you teach this material to students, i've been a dean for ten years. i haven't done as much teaching as i would like. i think some of the figure students don't expect, dorothy day was a great catholic radical of the mid-20th century and pa
pass vis, lived a life of poverty. to tell her story is to startle university students in 2019 because she seems so anomalous. >> tell her story. >> she was an american student who was a radical, socialist in the early 20th century. lived in greenwich village and became catholic. she devoted the next 50 years to building the catholic worker movement which is a radical moving, attempting to live a life of poverty and reminding the people around us how unequal in many ways our society is. and so that's a story that is striking in terms of culture,
o'connor, and that is jolting, those are deeply catholic stories. so i have to think about that a little bit more. there are leaders across american life now and that's one of the interesting things about studying catholicism. >> and you find this interesting? >> sure. it's -- generally, i think being an historian is an amazing occupation and i always have to remind myself how lucky i am about teaching this. my own fascination right now is with catholicism as a global institution and how you compare the american experience to other experiences and i find that interesting. >> john mcgreevy, from the university of notre dame, thank you for your time. >> what a pleasure. thank you. you're watching american history tv. every weekend on c-span3, explore our nation's past.