Religion figured prominently in the 1928 presidential election when Alfred E. Smith, the Democratic governor of New York, became the first Catholic to run as the candidate of a major political party. Smith, who ran against the Republican Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, tried to downplay the subject of his religion. In this article from Atlantic Monthly of April 1927, lawyer Charles Marshall argued that loyalty to the Catholic Church conflicted with loyalty to the United States. Atlantic Monthly editor Ellery Sedgwick had solicited the Marshall letter, although he was himself a Smith supporter. He thought that the religious debate was inevitable, and he tried to place it on an intellectual plane. Although the article revealed anti-Catholic biases, Marshall’s views were less strident than those of many contemporaries.
The American people take pride in viewing the progress of an American citizen from the humble estate in which his life began toward the highest office within the gift of the nation. It is for this reason that your candidacy for the Presidential nomination has stirred the enthusiasm of a great body of your fellow citizens. They know and rejoice in the hardship and the struggle of which have fashioned you as a leader of men. They know your fidelity to the morality you have advocated in public and private life and to the religion you have revered; your great record of public trusts successfully and honestly discharged; your spirit of fair play, and justice even to your political opponents. Partisanship bids fair to quail before the challenge of your personality, and men who vote habitually against your party are pondering your candidacy with sincere respect; and yet—through all this tribute there is a note of doubt, a sinister accent of interrogation, not as to intentional rectitude and moral purpose, but as to certain conceptions which your fellow citizens attribute to you as a loyal and conscientious Roman Catholic, which in their minds are irreconcilable with that Constitution which as President you must support and defend, and with the principles of civil and religious liberty on which American institutions are based.
To this consideration no word of yours, or on your behalf, has yet been addressed. Its discussion in the interests of the public weal is obviously necessary, and yet a strange reticence avoids it, often with the unjust and withering attribution of bigotry or prejudice as the unworthy motive of its introduction. Undoubtedly a large part of the public would gladly avoid a subject the discussion of which is so unhappily associated with rancor and malevolence, and yet to avoid the subject is to neglect the profoundest interests in our national welfare.
American life has developed into a variety of religious beliefs and ethical systems, religious and nonreligious, whose claims press more and more upon public attention. None of these presents a more definite philosophy or makes a more positive demand upon the attention and reason of mankind than your venerable Church, which recently at Chicago, in the greatest religious demonstration that the world has ever seen, declared her presence and her power in American life. Is not the time ripe and the occasion opportune for a declaration, if it can be made, that shall clear away all doubt as to the reconcilability of her status and her claims with American constitutional principles? With such a statement the only question as to your proud eligibility to the Presidential office would disappear, and the doubts of your fellow citizens not of the Roman Catholic Church would be instantly resolved in your favor.
The conceptions to which we refer are not superficial. They are of the very life and being of that Church, determining its status and its relation to the State, and to the great masses of men whose convictions deny them the privilege of membership in that Church. Surely the more conscientious the Roman Catholic, and the more loyal to his Church, the more sincere and unqualified should be his acceptance of such conceptions.
These conceptions have been recognized before by Roman Catholics as a potential obstacle to their participation in public office, Pope Leo XIII himself declaring, in one of his encyclical letters, that “it may in some places be true that for most urgent and just reasons it is by no means expedient for (Roman) Catholics to engage in public affairs or to take an active part in politics.”
It is indeed true that a loyal and conscientious Roman Catholic could and would discharge his oath of office with absolute fidelity to his moral standards. As to that in general, and as to you in particular, your fellow citizens entertain no doubt. But those moral standards differ essentially from the moral standards of all men not Roman Catholics. They are derived from the basic political doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, asserted against repeated challenges for fifteen hundred years, that God has divided all power over men between the secular State and that Church. Thus Pope Leo XIII, in 1885, in his encyclical letter on The Christian Constitution of States, says: “The Almighty has appointed the charge of the human race between two powers, the ecclesiastical and the civil, the one being set over divine, and the other over human things.”
The deduction is inevitable that, as all power over human affairs, not given to the State by God, is given by God to the Roman Catholic Church, no other churches or religious or ethical societies have in theory any direct power from God and are without direct divine sanction, and therefore without natural right to function on the same basis as the Roman Catholic Church in the religious and moral affairs of the State. The result is that that Church, if true to her basic political doctrine, is hopelessly committed to that intolerance that has disfigured so much of her history. This is frankly admitted by Roman Catholic authorities.
Pope Pius IX in the famous Syllabus (1864) said: “To hold that national churches, withdrawn from the authority of the Roman Pontiff and altogether separated, can be established, is error.”
That great compendium of Roman Catholic teaching, the Catholic Encyclopedia, declares that the Roman Catholic Church “regards dogmatic intolerance, not alone as her incontestable right, but as her sacred duty.” It is obvious that such convictions leave nothing in theory of the religious and moral rights of those who are not Roman Catholics. And, indeed, that is Roman Catholic, teaching and the inevitable deduction from Roman Catholic claims, if we use the word “rights” strictly. Other churches, other religious societies, are tolerated in the State, not by right, but by favor.
Pope Leo XIII is explicit on this point: “The (Roman Catholic) Church, indeed, deems it unlawful to place the various forms of divine worship on the same footing as the true religion, but does not, on that account, condemn those rulers who, for the sake of securing some great good or of hindering some great evil, allow patiently custom or usage to be a kind of sanction for each kind of religion having its place in the State.”
That is, there is not a lawful equality of other religious with that of the Roman Catholic Church, but that Church will allow state authorities for politic reasons—that is, by favor, but not by right—to tolerate other religious societies. We would ask, sir, whether such favors can be accepted in place of rights by those owning the name of freemen?
Furthermore, the doctrine of the Two Powers, in effect and theory, inevitable makes the Roman Catholic Church at times sovereign and paramount over the State. It is true that in theory the doctrine assigns to the secular State jurisdiction over secular matters and to the Roman Catholic Church jurisdiction over matters of faith and morals, each jurisdiction being exclusive of the other within undisputed lines. But the universal experience of mankind has demonstrated, and reason teaches, that many questions must arise between the State and the Roman Catholic Church in respect to which it is impossible to determine to the satisfaction of both in which jurisdiction the matter at issue lies.
Here arises the irrepressible conflict. Shall the State or the Roman Catholic Church determine? The Constitution of the United States clearly ordains that the State shall determine the question. The Roman Catholic Church demands for itself the sole right to determine it, and holds that within the limits of that claim it is superior to and supreme over the State. The Catholic Encyclopedia clearly so declares: “In case of direct contradiction, making it impossible for both jurisdictions to be exercised, the jurisdiction of the Church prevails and that of the State is excluded.” And Pope Pius IX in the Syllabus asserted: “To say in the case of conflicting laws enacted by the Two Powers, the civil law prevails, is error.”
Extreme as such a conclusion may appear, it is inevitable in Roman Catholic philosophy. That Church by the very theory of her existence cannot yield, because what she claims as her right and her truth she claims is hers by the “direct act of God”; in her theory, God himself directly forbids. The State cannot yield because of a great mass of citizens who are not Roman Catholics. By its constitutional law and in the nature of things, practices of religion in its opinion inconsistent with its peace and safety are unlawful; the law of its being—the law of necessity—forbids. If we could all concede the “divine and exclusive” claims of the Roman Catholic Church, conflict would be eliminated; but, as it is, there is a wide consensus of opinion that those claims are false in fact and in flat conflict with the very being and order of the State.
In our constitutional order this consensus is bulwarked on the doctrine of the Supreme Court of the United States that our religious liberty and our constitutional guaranties thereof are subject to the supreme qualification that religious “practices inconsistent with the peace and safety of the State shall not be justified.” (Watson v. Jones 13 Wall. P. 579)
The Roman Catholic Church, of course, makes no claim, and never has made any claim, to jurisdiction over matters that in her opinion are solely secular and civil. She makes the claim obviously only when the matter in question is not, in her opinion, solely secular and civil. But as determination of jurisdiction, in a conflict with the State, rests solely in her sovereign discretion, no argument is needed to show that she may in theory and effect annihilate the rights of all who are not Roman Catholics, sweeping into the jurisdiction of a single religious society the most important interests of human well-being. The education of youth, the institution of marriage, the international relations of the State, and its domestic peace, as we shall proceed to show, are, in certain exigencies, wrested from the jurisdiction of the State, in which all citizens share, and confided to the jurisdiction of a single religious society in which all citizens cannot share, great numbers being excluded by the barriers of religious belief. Do you, sir, regard such claims as tolerable in a republic that calls itself free?
And, in addition to all this, the exclusive powers of the Roman Catholic Church are claimed by her to be vested in and exercised by a sovereignty that is not only created therefor by the special act of God, but is foreign and extraterritorial to these United States and to all secular states. This sovereignty, by the highest Roman Catholic authority, that of Pope Leo XIII, is not only superior in theory to the sovereignty of the secular State, but is substituted upon earth in place of the authority of God himself. . . .
It follows naturally on all this that there is a conflict between authoritative Roman Catholic claims on the one side and our constitutional law and principles on the other. Pope Leo XIII says: “It is not lawful for the State, any more than for the individual, either to disregard all religious duties or to hold in equal favor different kinds of religion.” But the Constitution of the United States declares otherwise: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Thus the Constitution declares the United States shall hold in equal favor different kinds of religion or no religion and the Pope declares it is not lawful to hold them in equal favor. Is there not here a quandary for that man who is at once a loyal churchman and a loyal citizen? . . .
Americans indulge themselves in the felicitation that they have achieved an ideal religious situation in the United States. But Pope Leo, in his encyclical letter on Catholicity in the United States, asserts: “It would be very erroneous to draw the conclusion that in America is to be sought the type of the most desirable status of the Church.” The modern world reposes in the comfortable reflection that the severance of Church and State has ended a long and unhappy conflict, when the same Pope calls our attention to the error of supposing “that it would be universally lawful or expedient for State and Church to be, as in America, dissevered and divorced.”
Is our law, then, in papal theory, no law? Is it contrary to natural right? Is it in conflict with the will and fiat of Almighty God? Clearly the Supreme Court and Pope Leo are profoundly at variance. Is it not obvious that such a difference of opinion, concerning the fundamental rights between two sovereignties operating within the same territory, may, even with the best intentions and the most sensitive consciences, be fruitful of political offenses that are odious among men?
Citizens who waver in your support would ask whether, as a Roman Catholic, you accept as authoritative the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church that in case of contradiction, making it impossible for the jurisdiction of that Church and the jurisdiction of the State to agree, the jurisdiction of the Church shall prevail; whether, as statesman, you accept the teaching of the Supreme Court of the United States that, in matters of religious practices which in the opinion of the State are inconsistent with its peace and safety, the jurisdiction of the State shall prevail; and, if you accept both teachings, how you will reconcile them.
At the present time no question assumes greater importance than the education of youth. The legislatures of Tennessee, of Oregon, and of Nebraska have of late laid impious hands upon it and the judiciary has sternly curbed them. From what has been said above, it is clear that the claims of the Roman Catholic Church touching this point, more than those of any other institution, may conflict with the authority of the State.
It is true that in the famous Oregon School cases the Supreme Court of the United States held a state law unconstitutional that forbade parents to educate their children at church schools of every denomination. But there was no assertion in the law that the church schools in question gave instruction inconsistent with the peace and safety of the State and there was no allegation of that tenor in the pleadings. On the record the church schools were void of offense. But, had that feature existed in the cases, it would necessarily have led to a reversal of the decision. There would have been a conflict between Church and State as to whether the instruction was inconsistent with the peace and safety of the State. The Roman Catholic Church, if true to her doctrine and dogma, would have had to assert exclusive jurisdiction over the determination of this point. Equally the State, in self-preservation, would have had to assert exclusive jurisdiction. The conflict would have been irreconcilable. What would have been the results and what the test of a sincere and conscientious Roman Catholic in executive office or on the bench?
Nothing can be clearer to the American mind than that the plain political teaching of Pope Pius IX and of Pope Leo XIII, as set forth in their encyclical letters, is inconsistent with the peace and safety of the State within the meaning of those words as used by the Supreme Court of the United States in its great decision. That it is “not lawful for the State to hold in equal favor different kinds of religion”; that it is not universally lawful for the State and the Roman Catholic Church to be dissevered and divorced; that the various kinds of religion in theory have their place in the State, not by natural right, but by favor; that dogmatic intolerance is not alone the incontestable right of the Roman Catholic Church, but her sacred duty; that in the case of conflicting laws of the State and the Roman Catholic Church the law of that Church shall prevail, are propositions that would make up a strange textbook for the instruction of American youth.
We have no desire to impute to the Roman Catholic Church aught but high and sincere motives in the assertion of her claims as one of the Two Powers. Her members believe in those claims, and, so believing, it is their conscientious duty to stand for them. We are satisfied if they will but concede that those claims, unless modified and historically redressed, precipitate an inevitable conflict between the Roman Catholic Church and the American State irreconcilable with domestic peace. With two illustrations—and those relating to English Christianity—we have done.
In the sixteenth century the decree of Pope Pius V in terms deposed Elizabeth, Queen of England, from the English throne and absolved her subjects from their allegiance. The result is well known. Much that pertained to the venerable forms of religion in the preceding centuries became associated in the popular mind of England with treason—even the Mass itself when celebrated in the Roman form. Roman Catholics were oppressed in their rights and privileges. Roman Catholic priests were forbidden within the realm. The mills of God turned slowly, but they turned. The Roman Catholics of England endured the penalties of hostile legislation with heroic fortitude and resignation. Public opinion slowly changed and gradually Roman Catholic disabilities were removed, and in 1850, under Cardinal Wiseman, the Roman Catholic Hierarchy was restored in England, with no other condition than that its sees should not use the ancient titles that the Hierarchy of the Church of England had retained. Peace and amity reigned within the realm, irrespective of different religions, and domestic repose marked a happy epoch. But the toleration and magnanimity of England bore strange fruit. Scarcely was the Roman Hierarchy restored to its ancient privileges when the astounding Apostolic Letter of Pope Leo XIII appeared (1896), declaring to the world that the orders of the Church of England were void, her priests no priests, her bishops not bishops, and her sacraments so many empty forms.
But this was not all. Reaching hands back through three centuries, the Roman Pontiff drew from obscurity the case of John Felton, an English citizen who in 1570, contrary to the law of treason at that time on the statute book of England, posted on the walls of London the decree of Pope Pius V already referred to, deposing the English Queen. Felton was beatified in 1886 by the act of Pope Leo XIII.
The honors paid him were rendered three hundred years after his treasonable act. There lies their sinister import. They are no part of the medieval milieu; they belong to the modern world and must have judgment not by medieval but by modern standards. One would have supposed, in view of the critical situation in modern States in relation to the respect for authority of government and the obedience of citizens to the law, that the beautification might have been omitted. One would have supposed that the changes in political thought and theory through three hundred years would have dictated the wisdom of letting the dead past bury its dead, and the memory of blessed John Felton rest in peace with those abandoned political doctrines that inspired his heroic but unhappy deed.
Is the record of the Roman Catholic Church in England consistent, sir, in your opinion, with the peace and safety of the State?
Nothing will be of greater satisfaction to those of your fellow citizens who hesitate in their endorsement of your candidacy because of the religious issues involved than such a disclaimer by you of the convictions here imputed, or such an exposition by others of the questions here presented, as may justly turn public opinion in your favor.
Yours with great respect,
Charles C. Marshall
(The Atlantic’s columns will be open to further discussion of this subject)
Source: Charles C. Marshall, “An Open Letter to the Honorable Alfred E. Smith,” Atlantic Monthly 139 (April 1927): 540–44, 548–49.