If someone asked who began the modern welfare state, who could name ‘Al Smith’? This man, who was four-time governor of New York in the early 20th century, put into practice the idea that government should reach out to help its weakest members, and he did so because of his Catholic faith.
Alfred E. Smith was born in 1873 and died in 1944. He grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and the multicultural diversity of that neighbourhood stuck with him throughout his political career.
Al Smith consciously represented the poor and immigrant. He never forgot Christian origins of charity for the needy. For example, in supporting the introduction of a ‘widow’s’ pension to help single mothers struggling to raise children, Smith said openly, ‘By the adoption of this policy, we are sending up to (God) a prayer of thanksgiving for the innumerable blessings that he has showered upon us…’
Smith came to prominence as a member of the New York Legislature when he investigated the awful conditions of the city’s working class. He did so in response to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, in which 146 workers – mainly young women – were killed because fire exits were inadequately identified, opened inwards not outwards, and lacked the push-bars we are used to today. Big business failed to carry out fire drills, and crammed workers into tiny spaces in order to reduce real estate costs and maximize profits. Smith is responsible for many of the safety features and practices we now associate with Workplace Health and Safety.
Al Smith was not a theologian of Catholicism; he was a practicing believer who saw no need to distinguish between being a faithful Catholic and a dedicated politician. The church he grew up in, St James, was close to the Bowery in New York City. Later, in political conflicts, his enemies accused him of being a friend to alcoholics, gamblers and prostitutes. Smith had no real response to this claim beyond that of Jesus, when he was accused of being a friend of tax collectors and sinners, that it was not the healthy who needed a doctor, but the sick.
Smith increased funding to schools and hospitals, and he would veto measures which encroached on individual rights, while at the same time intervening when big business ignored those same rights. He was also known for personal acts of charity, such as arranging financial assistance for the songwriter who had written his favourite anthem, “The Sidewalks of New York”, when he found out the man had fallen into poverty in old age. Al Smith also built the Empire State Building and saw it as an example of what immigrant and American workers could achieve working together.
When Al ran for the presidency in 1928, an outlandish propaganda campaign was mounted against him by the KKK and its affiliates. They claimed the Pope would move to America to take control, that no Protestant family would be allowed to purchase a bible if Smith were elected, and even (bizarrely) that the Holland Tunnel itself was a secret passageway from the Vatican to New York!
Although Al Smith was unable to take his ideas of universal welfare to Washington, his political ally, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, eventually succeeded; the New Deal was inspired by the Catholic thinking of one-time governor of New York, Al Smith.
It is possible for an authentic Christianity to intersect successfully with a committed political career. One hundred years later, that’s worth remembering in Australia.