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Pushing Boundaries - A History of the Knights of Columbus

Part II: Proudly American, Defiantly Catholic

President Herbert Hoover dedicated a statue honoring Cardinal James Gibbons, one of the first U.S. churchmen to endorse the Order,in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 14, 1932. The date marked the 42nd anniversary of Father McGivney’s death. Gibbons had ordained McGivney a priest in 1877.

More than 10,000 people packed the Oklahoma City Coliseum that evening. They heard a fiery Al Smith speak a truth he had previously left mostly unspoken — that he was running against not just Herbert Hoover, but against a “whispering campaign” of “bigotry, hatred, intolerance and un- American sectarian division.”

“I here and now drag them into the open and I denounce them as a treasonable attack upon the very foundations of American liberty,” he said about the Klan, which had attacked not just him, but the entire Catholic Church, as well as an organization to which he proudly belonged: the Knights of Columbus (Dr. John C. Coyle Council 163).

“Nothing could be so contradictory to our whole history,” Smith argued. “Nothing could be so false to the teachings of our divine Lord himself. The world knows no greater mockery than the use of the blazing cross, the cross upon which Christ died, as a symbol to instill into the hearts of men a hatred of their brethren while Christ preached and died for the love and brotherhood of man.”

He spoke without notes, his public voice unleashed, rising to a pitch that matched his private outrage. “Let me make myself perfectly clear: I do not want any Catholic in the United States of America to vote for me on the sixth of November because I am a Catholic,” he said to a wave of applause. “By the same token, I cannot refrain from saying that any person who votes against me simply because of my religion is not a real, pure, genuine American.”

The Coliseum filled with more applause, and it radiated out from Oklahoma City, taken up by American Catholics who were tired of having their patriotism questioned. “Win or lose, I think Smith’s campaign has done much for Catholicity by dragging ‘Old Man Intolerance’ out into the broad daylight where the public can have a good look at him,” wrote Luke Hart, who, as the Order’s supreme advocate, had been fighting his own battles in the same long war against anti-Catholic bias.

Hart was less certain, though, about Smith’s prospects in the election, in which the Knights remained officially neutral. “Much as I would love to see it, I cannot convince myself that he has a chance,” he wrote.

He was right. Smith won the big cities, with their large populations of immigrant Catholics, but got barely 40 percent of the total vote, losing even his own home state of New York. America in 1928, it seemed, just wasn’t ready for a Catholic president.

Historical Highlights
125 Years in Review
The McGivney Legacy
Supreme Knights Gallery
St. Mary’s Church
Papal Moments
At Work Everywhere
His Timeless Message
Faith in Action
Knights of Columbus Photo Album