Thursday, November 06, 2008

To Be President One Day

The festivities in the streets on Tuesday and yesterday's elation in what I'll call "Smiling Wednesday" call to mind my feelings in November 1960, as a Catholic schoolboy, when the country elected a Catholic and my coreligionists instantly ceased being second-class citizens.

 * photo origin unknown; will credit or take down if requested

Although the "No Irish Need Apply" signs are part of myth rather than history, this country was distinctly Protestant and anti-Catholic for most of its history. Bigotry against Catholics is still socially acceptable 48 years after the 1960 election.

Evidence of past prejudice is amply in evidence in the city I live, Washington, D.C., on 16th Street, the boulevard that starts from smack in the middle of the White House. The street is also known as "the street of churches." However, when the Shrine of the Sacred Heart was built in the 1920s, it had to be placed on a spur off 16th Street because neighboring Protestant leaders found a Catholic church fronting on 16th offensive.

It is evident in the things even "cool" Protestant ministers today feel entitled to say.

I am no longer a practicing Catholic for philosophical reasons, but I still bristle at the abiding prejudice that John F. Kennedy helped, if not erase, at least mitigate. This broke the spell cast on Alfred E. Smith, the Irish Catholic four-times-elected governor of New York, only to lose to Herbert Hoover in 1928 due to what a contemporary journalist described as "the three P's: Prohibition, Prejudice and Prosperity."

A Catholic could grow up to be president starting in 1960, just as an African American can grow up to be president starting now.

It's a wonderful feeling when something that characterizes you or your family, something not easily changed, something incidental to character, no longer stands as a bar to your dreams.

This week that happened again.
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