Rob Christensen

Christensen: Muslims are the new Catholics

Terry Sanford gives Sen. John F. Kennedy a North Carolina flag in July 1960.
Terry Sanford gives Sen. John F. Kennedy a North Carolina flag in July 1960. AP file photo

Presidential candidate Donald Trump is leading polls for the North Carolina Republican primary in part because of Islamophobia.

Sixty-seven percent of his Tar Heel backers support a national database of Muslims in the U.S., 51 percent want to see mosques in the country shut down, and 44 percent don’t think Islam should be legal in this country, according to a recent survey by Public Policy Polling.

But religious bigotry is nothing new. Today’s Muslims are the new Catholics.

North Carolinians have a long history of looking squint-eyed at religions they are not familiar with.

When the U.S. Constitution was adopted, religious tests for holding office were banned for federal office, but it was left up to states whether to apply their own religious tests.

North Carolina’s Constitution initially banned from holding state office any person “who shall deny the being of God, or the Truth of the Protestant Religion, or the Divine Authority of either the Old or New Testaments.” The clause was designed to keep Catholics, Jews, Quakers, Moravians, atheists, and others from holding office in a Protestant-dominated state.

Despite the state Constitutional ban, William Gaston, a New Bern lawyer and a Catholic, was elected to the legislature and to the North Carolina Supreme Court, where he championed religious freedom.

(The ban on Catholics was lifted by a vote of 74 to 52 after a memorable speech by Gaston at the constitutional convention of 1835.)

But anti-Catholicism continued to play a role in North Carolina.

In 1928, the South was solidly Democratic. But many were shocked when the party nominated New York Gov. Alfred Smith, a Catholic, a wet, and a product of the Tammany Hall Machine, to be its presidential nominee.

U.S. Sen. Furnifold Simmons, the state’s Democratic political boss from New Bern, had long been suspicious of what he called the “scum” immigrating to the U.S. from southern and eastern Europe. In 1906, Simmons pushed an amendment through the U.S. Senate creating a national literacy test for entrance into the country. The measure was defeated in the House, which Simmons blamed on lobbying by the steamship and railroad companies that benefited from immigration.

In 1920, North Carolina had the smallest foreign-born population in the country.

In 1928, Simmons announced he was endorsing Republican presidential candidate Herbert Hoover rather than Smith.

In a radio speech in October 1928, Simmons read an encyclical letter of Pope Pius XI issued earlier that year in which he said that Catholicism is the one true church and “no man can be or remain who does not accept, recognize and obey the authority and supremacy of Peter and his legitimate successors.”

“When before in all of our history was one church so solidly massed behind the candidacy of a candidate as the church of Alfred E. Smith is massed behind him?” Simmons asked. “In my town we have a great many Syrians, Catholics. We have many Catholics of the Greek type. I have not heard of a single one of them who is not for Mr. Smith.’’

“I am not a prejudiced man,” Simmons said. “My action in this matter is based upon my conscientious conviction. Feeling as I do, it is utterly impossible for me – I would rather die, I would rather have my right arm cut off, I would rather have my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, than to vote for Alfred E. Smith for President of the United States.”

During the campaign, the North Carolina Christian Advocate magazine included an article entitled: “A Bit of Roman Catholic History,” which among other things outlined the history of church torture during the Inquisition.

After North Carolina voted for Hoover, Nell Battle Lewis, a News & Observer columnist, and a Smith supporter, wrote a column entitled “An Open Letter to Governor Smith.”

“You were defeated not because you were unfitted for the presidency…but let it be said to the everlasting shame of this country, in a campaign of the most infamous slander, you were beaten because you worship God in a way displeasing to the dominant sectarian group,” Lewis wrote.

In 1960, anti-Catholicism once again reared its head when Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy was running for president.

Terry Sanford, the Democratic nominee for governor, became one of the first major Southern figures to endorse Kennedy and seconded his nomination at the national convention in Los Angeles. Sanford received 450 cards, letters and telegrams while in L.A., many of them highly critical. One Chapel Hill man wrote: “In supporting Kennedy you are betraying North Carolina…Apparently you are ignorant of the facts of life regarding international Catholicism. The Vatican philosophy is as dangerous as Moscow’s despotism.’’

Sanford’s minister at Hay Street Methodist Church in Fayetteville fretted over whether Sanford should keep his commitment to give the Layman’s Day Speech in October. Sanford withdrew and was still angry over his treatment years later. “The Methodist Church virtually excommunicated me,” Sanford recalled.

Barbara Rohrman, a Catholic who was a little girl in Charlotte during the election, remembers her parents attending a social function at a facility owned by the Knights of Columbus in what was then rural Mecklenburg County. As they were turning to the club’s driveway, a bullet came crashing through their windshield. “When the police were called, they sloughed if off,” Rohrman said. “They said, “Well, it’s because you have a Kennedy bumper sticker and you’re going into a Catholic country club.’”

Kennedy ended up carrying the state.

There are obviously major differences in the bias toward Muslims today and the Catholics in the past. But both were rooted in stereotypes and a lack of understanding of the religions.