by Sonja Schoepf Wentling and Rafael Medoff
(Prof. Wentling, of Concordia College, and Dr. Medoff, director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, are coauthors of the new book ‘Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the “Jewish Vote” and Bipartisan Support for Israel.’)
Comedienne-turned-talk show host Whoopi Goldberg has become the latest media personality to take a swipe at Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith. Perhaps the time has come for President Obama to say a few words about the unseemly injection of Romney’s religion into the presidential race.
During Ann Romney’s appearance on “The View” on October 18, co-host Goldberg suggested that if Mrs. Romney becomes First Lady, she may have difficulty “talking to the mothers whose children are coming home in bags, you know, from wars,” since –Goldberg erroneously asserted– “your religion doesn’t allow you to go fight.”
Goldberg’s slap was the latest in a series of high-profile jabs at the Romneys’ religion. An article in the August issue of GQ magazine, for example, denounced Mormonism as “weird.” MSNBC anchor Lawrence O’Donnell has used language about Mormonism’s founder that would have set off worldwide rioting had he said something comparable about Islam’s founder. ABC’s World News Tonight and NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams have broadcast special reports delving into Mormon theology, as if it is a campaign issue.
President Obama and Governor Romney spoke this week at the annual dinner in memory of Alfred E. Smith, who in 1928 was the first Catholic presidential candidate. Smith, like Romney, endured his share of bigotry. The response of Smith’s opponent, Herbert Hoover, set an example from which the current president could learn.
A number of Smith’s opponents tried to drag his faith into the 1928 campaign. One of the most offensive attacks was an open letter by Republican National Committee member Mrs. Willie Caldwell, calling on American women to prevent the country from becoming “Romanized and rum-ridden.” This was a common refrain among anti-Catholic bigots: if Smith were elected president, he would be secretly loyal to the pope in Rome and would subject the nation to the evils of alcohol.
Smith’s rival for the White House was Herbert Hoover. Formerly a mining engineer, Hoover’s path to the Republican nomination was paved by his leadership of food relief efforts that saved millions from starvation in Europe during and after World War I. It would not have been surprising if Hoover, for the sake of political expediency, had chosen to remain silent when Smith’s Catholicism came under attack. Denouncing the bigots might have alienated voters who otherwise were likely to support Hoover.
Nevertheless, Hoover rose to the challenge. He recognized that a presidential candidate had a moral responsibility to speak out–to beat back the “extremists” and “keep this [religious issue] out of national politics.”
At the Republican national convention, in August 1928, Hoover declared: “By blood and conviction, I stand for religious tolerance both in act and spirit.” Again the following month, Hoover issued a statement expressing his “indignation” over anti-Catholic agitation.
Hailing Hoover’s remarks, the noted financier (and former official of the Woodrow Wilson administration) Bernard Baruch said “never has there been a more courageous declaration of the idea that there must be and shall be no exhibition of religious intolerance in this campaign.”
Still, change did not come overnight. It would be another 32 years before a Catholic, John F. Kennedy, would be elected president. It would be forty more years until a Jew, Joseph Lieberman, was nominated for vice president, in 2000. And it was not until 2008 that an African American, Barack Obama, was elected president.
Now the time has come for President Obama to send a message to Whoopi Goldberg and Lawrence O’Donnell. Taking a page from Herbert Hoover’s book, the president should clearly condemn the “extremists” and explicitly urge his followers to keep Governor Romney’s private religious faith “out of national politics.” That would be an important contribution to the cause of religious tolerance.