By Aya Melhem
After the rise of ISIS, a series of terrorist attacks around the world, and Syrian refugees fleeing their homes, many American voters have become concerned with terrorism and Islam. Some presidential candidates have capitalized on these growing fears making anti-Muslim statements common to hear this election season. But America is no stranger to presidential candidates exploiting religious prejudice for their own gain.
Anti-Catholicism was widespread in the 1920s. Catholics, like today’s Muslims, had to deal with intolerance, xenophobia, and religious prejudice from those around them. Catholicism was often believed to be “un-American”. Many anti-Catholics believed that the religion was inconsistent and incompatible with American democracy. The KKK was known for their anti-Catholicism views and often committed hate crimes against Catholics.
In the election of 1928 Al Smith became America’s first Catholic presidential candidate. His religion, however, became a major issue in his campaign. Some Americans were troubled with the idea of having a Catholic president. Many public figures took advantage of these fears. Influential religious leaders and ministers warned that, if elected, Smith would take orders from the Catholic Church and the Pope. A Sunday School in in Daytona Beach, Florida sent children home with a note that said “We must prevent the election of Alfred E. Smith to the Presidency. If he is chosen President, you will not be allowed to have or read a Bible.” Many anti-Catholic political cartoons spread against Smith. One cartoon depicted Smith waiting on a table of priests with the Pope as the head of the table. The KKK made claims that if Smith were to become president he would “take orders from the Pope, declare all Protestant children illegitimate, annul Protestant marriages, and establish Catholicism as the nation’s official religion.” Smith was met with burning KKK crosses at an Oklahoma City rally. Much of the anti-Catholic rhetoric is similar to the anti-Muslim rhetoric we hear today.
Unlike Trump, Smith’s opponent, Herbert Hoover, distanced himself from the anti-Catholic rhetoric his party and supporters were spreading instead of centering his campaign around it. His party, however, continued to exploit Smith’s faith. Hoover greatly benefited from the anti-Catholic prejudice and eventually won the election by a landslide.
Politicians have not stopped appealing to religious paranoia. The 2016 election has been filled with anti-Muslim comments. Both Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz have proposed that the United States should only accept Christian refugees. Ben Carson compared Syrian refugees to “rabid dogs” and said that he doesn’t believe a Muslim should be president. He also said that Islam is “inconsistent with the values and principles of America”. Donald Trump has famously called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. Trump has even suggested surveilling and closing down some mosques and creating a special ID for Muslim Americans. This anti-Muslim rhetoric has not gone unnoticed and it is no coincidence that hate crimes against American Muslims have increased dramatically. Data from the California State University of San Bernardino found that hate crimes against American Muslims increased by 78 percent in 2015. This the highest they have risen since 9/11.
This election has taken anti-religious rhetoric to a whole new level with politicians spreading hate themselves. Donald Trump has been obvious with his attempts in fueling voters’ fears of foreign terrorism and immigration. His fear-mongering has helped him gain many loyal supporters. Will America’s religious prejudice help Trump win the election like it helped Hoover?