Scripture advises us not to visit the sins of the father upon the son.
So nobody should hold it against Donald Trump that his father was arrested on Memorial Day in 1927 for participating in a Klu Klux Klan riot in his home borough of Queens. The riot was fueled in part by the prospect that Al Smith might become not just the Catholic governor of New York but the first Catholic president of the United States.
“Americans Assaulted by Roman Catholic Police of New York City” read KKK leaflets that went up in Queens the day after the arrest of Fred Trump and others.
But the son has embraced his father’s sins as his own in seeking to become president by stoking that very same kind of bigotry against Muslims and Mexicans and others.
Pope Francis said himself while visiting Mexico back in February that a man who is fixated on building a wall such as Trump has promised “is not Christian.” Trump responded by calling the pope “disgraceful.”
So why in the name of what is holy did the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York invite Donald Trump to the 71st Annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner?
Yes, going back to John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, both parties’ candidates are traditionally invited to roast each other and honor Smith’s memory in election years at this annual fundraiser for disadvantaged kids.
But in 1996, the archdiocese decided not to invite President Bill Clinton and his Republican opponent, Bob Dole, to the 51st annual dinner. The reason was said to be then Cardinal John O’Connor’s displeasure over Clinton’s veto of a bill outlawing late-term abortions. Dole was also left out so the church would not be seen as taking sides.
In 2004, the archdiocese again broke with tradition and invited neither President George W. Bush nor his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, to the 59th annual dinner. The reason was said to be Kerry’s pro-choice position. The archdiocese, then headed by Cardinal Edward Egan, would only say, “The issues in this year’s campaign could provoke division and disagreement.”
The archdiocese is now headed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who to his great credit resisted pressure not to invite President Obama in 2012, after his health-care bill required employers to provide insurance plans covering contraceptive services for women.
Dolan acknowledged then that some of his flock were outraged.
“Some have told me the invitation is a scandal,” he wrote in a blog post. “That charge weighs on me, as it would on any person of faith, but especially a pastor, who longs to give good example, never bad.”
Dolan noted that for seven decades, the Al Smith dinner “has been an acclaimed example of such civility in political life.”
“The Al Smith Dinner is the venue of history, as it is the only time outside of the presidential debates that the two presidential candidates come together, at the invitation of the Al Smith Foundation, through the archbishop of New York, for an evening of positive, upbeat, patriotic, enjoyable civil discourse,” he wrote. “It is named after Governor Al Smith, the first Catholic nominated, in 1928, as a candidate for president, who was viciously maligned because of his own Catholic faith. Smith was known as the Happy Warrior, because while he fought fiercely for what he believed was right, he never sought to demonize those who opposed him.”
He continued, “The purpose of the Al Smith Dinner is to show both our country and our church at their best: people of faith gathered in an evening of friendship, civility, and patriotism, to help those in need, not to endorse either candidate. Those who started the dinner 67 years ago believed that you can accomplish a lot more by inviting folks of different political loyalties to an uplifting evening, rather than in closing the door to them.”
He concluded, “In the end, I’m encouraged by the example of Jesus, who was blistered by his critics for dining with those some considered sinners; and by the recognition that, if I only sat down with people who agreed with me, and I with them, or with those who were saints, I’d be taking all my meals alone.”
All that to justify inviting an incumbent president who has sought to rouse what is truly the best in us, who symbolizes a great advance in social justice and has labored to turn symbolism into a better reality for all those who felt such hope when he was elected.
Dolan’s fine sentiments do not justify inviting a demagogue who has sought to manipulate and inflame the very worst in us, who has stoked fear and hatred different only in target from that expressed by those leaflets posted in the aftermath of his father’s arrest in the anti-Catholic riot dating back to the time of Al Smith.
“Liberty and democracy have been trampled upon when Native-born Protestant Americans dare to organize to protect one flag, the American flag… one language, the English language,” the leaflets said.
Dolan would be right to say that the Happy Warrior would not have demonized Donald Trump. But that is because Smith would have seen no need to do so. Smith would have simply recognized Trump as a demon.
Smith spoke back in 1928 of those who seek “to inject bigotry, hatred, intolerance, and un-American sectarian division into a campaign which should be an intelligent debate of the important issues which confront the American people.” He noted that this is “contrary to the spirit, not only of the Declaration of Independence, but of the Constitution itself.”
Dolan has said nothing of the bigotry, hatred, and intolerance incited by the Trump campaign. Did Dolan forget what Pope Francis said when he stood in Mexico at the border where Trump had promised to build a HUGE wall?
“A person who thinks only about building walls—wherever they may be—and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.”
Did Dolan also forget Trump’s response?
“For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian, and as president I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened, unlike what is happening now, with our current president.”
The cardinal did not mention those remarks this week, but he did take big-time exception to what he denounced as “extraordinarily patronizing and insulting to Catholics” remarks in leaked emails by Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta and Director of Communications Jennifer Palmieri. Podesta and Palmieri are both Catholics. Dolan suggested that Clinton should offer an apology.
“Hasn’t happened yet,” Dolan said.
Dolan is said to have been all smiles Friday, when Trump—a Protestant—visited the cardinal’s residence along with his wife Melania, and his soulless campaign manager Kellyanne Conway. A spokesman for the archdiocese insisted the meeting had been arranged at Trump’s request weeks before.
“There was a private meeting with the cardinal,” the spokesman said. “It’s the practice of the archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York to accommodate a request for a meeting, especially someone who is running for national office.”
Only, Trump was not just someone running for national office. And that had become even clearer with the Access Hollywood tape in which he bragged of committing sexual assault with impunity because he is a “star.” He was now committing an assault upon Lady Liberty herself.
A demon such as Trump should never have been allowed at a church-sponsored dinner that honors a champion against bigotry and benefits some of the very people who feel targeted by his campaign.
A few boos welcomed Trump when he strode into the ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the first boos anybody can remember at an Al Smith Dinner. Cardinal Dolan was beaming.
Trump sat on Dolan’s left while Clinton sat on his right, as would have been only fine had this election been a contest between two candidates separated by political loyalties, but sharing a respect for what makes us Americans.
Alfred E. Smith IV, the 65-year-old great-grandson of Al Smith, once again served as the master of ceremonies, as well as the dinner chairman. Only his name excused him from starting off with a joke making light of something that should have kept Trump from being there at all.
“Before the dinner started, Trump went to Hillary and asked, ‘How are you?’” he said. “She said, ‘I’m fine—now get out of the ladies’ dressing room.’”
The night progressed as Trump himself strove to be humorous, remaining enough of a truly nasty man to inspire more boos. He said, in a serious and surprising moment, that he had come to the dinner with his father.
“This was always a special experience for him and me to come together,” Trump said.
The thought of Fred Trump bringing his son might have caused you to think that the father had grown and learned. More likely, he came because his connections with the Democratic machine were so important to his real-estate business. Fred used those connections to get Donald the tax breaks that launched his career. The father clearly did not seem to view the memory of Al Smith as an opportunity to school the son in the importance of tolerance.
Clinton had her turn and was tough enough and good enough that you were almost glad Trump had been invited. Then a smiling Dolan patted Trump on the shoulder.