15 August 2019

Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Christian reappraisal

On the evening of February 19, 1944, the assistant minister of St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, Howard A. Johnson, walks across the street to the White House. He's been invited to have dinner with Eleanor Roosevelt. To his surprise, he is ushered into the family quarters and finds Franklin Roosevelt, alone, waiting for him.

As it turns out, Eleanor is running late, so just the two of them get started with their evening. The first topic of conversation is a writer they both like, Dorothy L. Sayers. To Roosevelt, Sayers is an author of detective stories that help him relax. Johnson adds, "You know of course, Mr. President, that Dorothy Sayers is even more important for her theological writings."

No, in fact, Roosevelt hadn't known that. Woolverton and Bratt, authors of the fascinating new book A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, recount this evening as an illustration of the president's spiritual curiosity, especially in light of the war and the vivid reality of evil. After Eleanor and another dinner companion arrive, the discussion of Sayers as a theologian continues. Then Johnson throws out a link:
"You know, of course," he said, "that many moderns like Dorothy Sayers derive from Kierkegaard." No "of course" about it to Roosevelt. "Who," asked the president, "is Kierkegaard?" Johnson rose to the occasion with a lively sketch of the philosopher and his thought. He located its impact on modern thinking in its central premise of (in Frances Perkins's words) "man's natural sinfulness and his helplessness to reform himself except by the grace and help of God." This was the venerable doctrine of original sin but with a difference: not the traditional ideal about a moral taint or legal guilt inherited from Adam and Eve, but the name for the existential reality that each person has assented to, or willingly takes part in--his or her fallen nature. ... As Perkins said: "Johnson pointed out that the recent interest in Kierkegaard was chargeable to the current break-up of the humanistic illusion under which men had been laboring for a hundred years or so."
After piecing together more of the evening's conversation (for which no transcript exists), and providing background on Kierkegaard's rising reputation in those years, the authors of A Christian and a Democrat recount this subsequent incident:
The issues of "humanistic illusion" and original sin stayed with FDR. "Some weeks later I happened to be reporting to Roosevelt on problems concerning the War Labor Board," wrote Secretary [of Labor Frances] Perkins. "He was looking at me, nodding his head, and, I thought, following my report, but suddenly he interrupted me, 'Frances, have you ever read Kierkegaard?'" Perkins replied, "Very little -- mostly reviews of his writings." "Well, you ought to read him," Roosevelt said with enthusiasm. "It will teach you something." Perkins thought the president meant that it would teach her something about the War Labor Board. But no. "It will teach you about the Nazis. Kierkegaard explains the Nazis to me as nothing else ever has."
With all of FDR's familiarity with the Bible and the church's prayer book and hymns, and his service as a church warden his whole adult life, Woolverton and Bratt do not claim that Roosevelt was either a theologian or a man of deep mystical devotion. However, in describing his family, education, and entry into public life, they make a convincing case that his formative years were saturated in a specific Christian culture, that he was shaped by that culture and its expectations of duty and commitment to the public welfare, and that he drew upon that culture for his own personal support, and for his public rhetoric.

That Christian culture had some apparent paradoxes that help explain Roosevelt's political vision and style. For example, it was theologically liberal but expected strict self-discipline, illustrated in this book by the spartan lifestyle and athleticism of the Groton School for Boys. The school's founding rector and headmaster, Endicott Peabody, became a lifelong mentor to his former student.

Another apparent paradox: this version of Protestantism was the religion of much of the USA's upper class. At the same time it was politically progressive, even to the extent that some of its prominent exponents, such as the Baptist pastor of J.P. Morgan's church, advocated socialism. For his own students, headmaster Peabody was deliberate about making connections between faith and social justice. He invited leading theologians and social advocates as chapel speakers and lecturers, and made sure that the students saw poverty first-hand. For some Episcopalians, that progressivism may have remained social, aspirational, and theoretical, with its practical expression limited to token acts of charity and philanthropy. For others -- and specifically for FDR as he entered public life -- the religion of the Sermon on the Mount and the "faith, hope, and charity" passage of 1 Corinthians 13 shaped a political vision for the country. It was a vision that was all the more urgent in the early 1930s as the Great Depression unemployment figure reached 30%.

His own overwhelming crises came earlier, including the polio that might have ended his career permanently. The Groton culture's combination of both endurance and mutual generosity may have been a key element in Roosevelt's ability to endure the physical hardships resulting from the disease. Furthermore, those daily hardships required constant help from others, which may have mellowed his early cockiness and strengthened his capacity for empathy.

Years later, the stresses of World War II did not cause Franklin to lose sight of his progressive vision. Consider his 1944 State of the Union speech, in which he proposed a second Bill of Rights, to be added to what he called the "political Bill of Rights" adopted with the U.S. Constitution. His enumeration of these eight rights (in the masculine-gendered language of the time):
The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman large and small to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination of monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.
How would a set of proposals like this be greeted in today's political climate? In any event, I think these eight points could well summarize what Roosevelt meant to say in a telling incident that gave the book its name. At a press conference, he was asked about the source of his "political philosophy." As the authors of the book put it, "Momentarily dumbfounded, he replied that he was a Christian and a Democrat."

The last section of the book includes comparisons of the spiritual formation and self-understanding of Abraham Lincoln and FDR, and then Herbert Hoover and FDR. Both comparisons are fascinating.

As a Quaker I wondered how Hoover would fare. The authors point out many similarities in the political philosophies of both men, as evidenced by the sheer number of progressive proposals for political and social reform credited to Herbert Hoover in his long public service. In addition to their shared ideals, both men were ambitious. One of the crucial differences between the two may be their temperaments -- Hoover, the fierce individualist, distrustful of politics and politicians, and Roosevelt the master of political congeniality.

But these temperamental differences also coincided with aspects of their spiritual formation as well. Hoover's idea of determining policy mirrored Friends business process: his job was to work out good proposals using the best data and methods. These proposals were to be duly agreed upon by his peers in a thoughtful process that involved no politicking or horse-trading of the kind that FDR loved. Hoover distrusted government initiative that overrode individual initiative, while FDR recognized that the times demanded action on a scale only government could address. As FDR proceeded to convert their shared progressive ideals into government policy, Hoover grew ever more fearful that the end would be socialism. As the authors summarized,
A basic difference between them lay in the contrast between technical efficiency and social adroitness, between the engineer with his infallible facts and figures and the politician with his sensitivity to tides and temperament. Religiously, they represented the two different sides of Protestant aspiration, the tension between the individual's concern for personal salvation and the communal emphasis on an ordered Christian society. In political theory, the mood of the 1930's swung toward security and collective action under the impact of the Depression. Hoover remained in the older camp of individualism, in which setbacks and difficulties were thought to improve character. Roosevelt upheld as the model citizen the one who helped his neighbor. Hoover agreed with that but insisted that charitable action come from the individual, not the government. Both presidents asked, in effect, which of the seven deadly sins most infected the body politic. For Hoover it was sloth, carelessness, and ignorance. For Roosevelt it was avarice, covetousness, and greed.
This debate continues right into the present, and is often conducted with epithets ("socialism!" for example) that were already familiar in the 1930's. After reading this book, I wonder whether the words "a Christian and a Democrat," spontaneously offered by Franklin Roosevelt as his apparently self-evident "political philosophy," would trip so naturally off anyone's tongue now.

Myles Werntz summarizes Howard Thurman's twofold challenge: those who would be contemplative must identify with those who are suffering, and those who would address suffering must be contemplative.

The Quaker role in the history of economic boycotts.

Marianne Williamson's unorthodox campaign scrambles the categories and intrigues voters. In terms of American religious history, where does she fit in?

God is pleased to give us the Kingdom, but are we afraid to receive it?

Progressives need to start preaching Hell again.

Russia's nuclear accident may not be what you've heard.

How the Kremlin-friendly media portray Moscow's protesters; and the myth of the bourgeois liberal protester. Russia's government-financed RT reports that Russian senator Vyacheslav Markhayev strongly criticized riot police for unnecessary roughness and unprofessional conduct during recent protests.

Rosie Flores, "It Came from Memphis."


Unknown said...

Yes ,the struggle is real even today. However (Had he not died), he (FDR) still would have dropped the A Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Struggles aside, human nature left on its own will kill you. So it is relevant,
in that many people follow the louder voice, whether true or not because they simply not wanting to look into their own hearts to see their sin, chaos and self-interest above OTHERS. Unless people want to see or hear the OTHER (in our case the Holy Spirit), well there they go into the DESERT of "ENSHA-ALLAH" or "BAHA-ALLAH".

So, What Do You Do? For me the Third Option: Sacrifice, Obedience, Integrity to the Holy Spirit and Scripture, not the WORLD!

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you! We're not limited by these two ways (Hoover's and FDR's) of understanding faithfulness.

... And of course Kierkegaard had a lot to say about Christian culture in general -- about all the ways the Gospel is domesticated.