Review Article: FDR: Nominal Christian and Influential Democrat
Douglas J. Kuiper
A Christian and A Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, by John F. Woolverton with James D. Bratt. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019. Pp xvii + 291. $32.00 (hardcover). ISBN: 978-0802876850. [Reviewed by Douglas J. Kuiper.]
Generally speaking, a theological journal is not the place to review a biography of a politician. That the book under review is a religious biography, that it asserts that Franklin Roosevelt was a Christian, and that it argues that his “faith contributed to his leadership of the American democracy through some of its gravest trials” (1), justifies including a review here. The main purpose of this review is to evaluate the book’s analysis of FDR as a Christian, not as a Democrat.
The author, John Woolverton, was ordained in the Episcopal Church (in which church FDR had been member) and was professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary. Woolverton did not know FDR personally, but knew several who did know FDR personally. He penned this book as a manuscript before his death in 2014. Subsequently, James Bratt edited the book for publication, and wrote the preface and the ninth chapter (FDR’s last year, death, and burial). The bulk of the book, including its title, is Woolverton’s, not Bratt’s. Eerdmans includes the book in its series “Library of Religious Biography.” One can find other books in this series at www. religiousbiography.com.
The first three chapters comprise the first part of the book, “Formation.” Chapter one treats FDR’s pedigree. His father, James, left the Dutch Reformed Church (“Roosevelt,” after all, is a Dutch name) for the Episcopalian church when he married Sara Delano. FDR devoted years of service to this church—both the denomination and his own parish, St. James Episcopal Church in Hyde Park, NY. In 1906 (at age 24) he was elected to the parish vestry, and from 1928 until his death in 1945 he served as the church’s senior warden, its “chief lay officer” (26), who was to be present at every meeting of the vestry. His upbringing led him to believe that “Christian faith and democracy were inseparable” (31).
The influence of Endicott Peabody on FDR’s life and thought is the subject of chapter two. Peabody was the headmaster of Groton School, the boarding school from which FDR received his high school education during the years 1896-1900. FDR’s years at Groton and at Harvard University (1900-1904) receive attention in chapter three. During these years he began to manifest interest in politics, developed in his religious thought, edited the Harvard Crimson, and received a reputation for being a bit arrogant.
Part two, “Faith,” covers FDR’s mature years. Chapter four, “Hope,” covers his early years in politics (he was elected governor of New York in 1929 and 1931). This was less than a decade after he contracted polio. Comparing FDR’s physical paralysis to the nation’s economic paralysis of the Great Depression, Woolverton notes that FDR’s polio taught him to have hope, which hope served him well as a leader during the depression era. His famous fireside chats held out this hope to his American disciples.
Chapter five, entitled “Charity,” covers the years from his first term as president (beginning in 1933) to the onset of World War Two. Roosevelt’s “charity” primarily manifested itself in the New Deal which he envisioned and worked to accomplish, improving the earthly lot of many.
Roosevelt needed “Faith” (chapter six) during his later years in the White House, for two reasons: first, these were the war years, and second, some of his initiatives met with significant political opposition. His faith was manifested, among other ways, in his D-Day prayer (145ff.).
The titles of chapters four through six are based on the triad of spiritual gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13:13. This was FDR’s favorite Bible text, and at each of his six inaugurations, his hand was placed on a Bible opened to this passage. He believed that faith, hope, and charity promised a society in which “greater fairness, opportunity, and equality could be realized” (80). However, Woolverton’s imposition of this triad on FDR’s political career is forced. For one thing, Woolverton’s structure leaves the impression that FDR manifested one of those spiritual virtues during one era of his life, and another during another era, not all three at once. For another, “the greatest of these is charity” (2 Cor. 13:13)—but in the book’s structure, FDR’s era of charity was followed by his era of faith.
Concluding part two is the seventh chapter, “Prophet, Priest, and President—FDR in World War II.” As “prophet,” FDR spoke of an inevitable victory that America and the allies would enjoy, though at great cost. As “priest,” he was both America’s intercessor and her pastor (“priest” in the Episcopalian sense). And as president, he introduced another New Deal to help members of the armed forces find jobs and an education.
Part three is entitled “Interpretation.” The eighth chapter explains that FDR, who had a positive view of humanity, could only make sense of the evils of Nazism by adopting Kierkegaard’s notion of humanity’s brokenness. As previously noted, chapter nine covers FDR’s death and burial. The “Afterword” compares FDR to two other presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Herbert Hoover, with respect to their politics and religion. Although I read the afterword with interest, I claim no ability to evaluate Woolverton’s view of the relationship between these three politicians.
FDR, the Politician
Without question, FDR served as president at a critical time in America’s history—the era of the Great Depression and World War II. None can disagree that FDR found a way to gain the nation’s trust, and to hold out hope for America. Indisputably, with his New Deal, he contributed to the modernization of America, put the unemployed back to work, and encouraged advances in agriculture. Americans today take for granted much of what FDR worked to achieve. From an earthly standard, he was a great president.
The reader who did not know what FDR’s New Deal entailed will know it by the time he finishes reading the book. How broad its scope! Initially, it provided for the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Public Works Administration, The Tennessee Valley Authority, the Rural Electrification Association, and the Works Progress Administration (99-105). Later, FDR worked to implement the Home Owners Loan Corporation (intended to keep homeowners from defaulting on their loans), Social Security, capital gains tax, and a host of other attempts to provide better housing, better wages, better working conditions, better health, fair prices, and all that goes with it (117-121). All this would give security, that is, happiness (116)!
The book’s title states prominently that FDR was a “Democrat,” but the book itself makes rather little of that point. Perhaps Woolverton is suggesting that FDR could accomplish all he did because he was a Democrat, and could not have had he been a Republican. But the book does not explicitly defend that thesis; at the most, it assumes it. In fact, the book’s title comes from FDR himself. When asked at a press conference regarding the source of his “political philosophy,” the president said, “that he was a Christian and a Democrat” (1). The primary emphasis of the book is that FDR was a man of faith, and that his faith influenced his politics.
In two ways, our society has moved far beyond Roosevelt’s New Deal. FDR was one of the first to propose the idea of health insurance. The American Medical Association opposed the idea, preferring “the private-entrepreneurial nature of American health care delivery” (119). If the AMA today still prefers that, it certainly has lost the battle; President Obama’s “Affordable Care Act” has seen to that.
Also, Roosevelt’s New Deal not only included giving money to the unemployed but also work. Many unemployed, collecting a check from the government, could earn their check by helping build and rebuild America’s infrastructure. Today, during the COVID-19 crisis, over eighty percent of Americans are under stay-at-home orders, and told “don’t work!” (Of course, the stay-at-home order is more nuanced than just a simple “don’t work,” but the effect for many is simply that: lack of freedom to work.) But don’t worry, a government stimulus check is coming! Meanwhile, in Michigan, the roads . . . .
But I digress. I am not a politician, and am in little position to evaluate the politics of the book. What about FDR, the Christian? This review examines this question in two headings—his theology, and his practice.
Although FDR was not a theologian, he was guided by theological convictions and presuppositions. The book brings to light four distinct tenets to FDR’s theology. First is his view of divine providence: God exists, He orders and guides all things including world events, and “people in positions of authority must apply themselves and be in touch with that guidance” (94). Ultimately, FDR was convinced that this God of providence helps those who help themselves; “man’s feeble powers” work “with God’s great power” (85), and “God was on the side of those who worked in that direction” (the direction of progress, 80-81). This tenet of his faith had an antithetical aspect to it: liberal philosophers and theologians were undermining the idea of the existence of a God who governed all things. FDR rejected their notion.
Second, FDR had a distinct and positive view of eschatology (the end times). God’s creative work was continuing and civilization was improving. FDR rejected the hopeless fate of Darwinism, but also rejected a view of a utopia because he saw suffering. Nevertheless, the world was becoming a better place. FDR’s was an earthly hope.
Third, FDR had a distinct anthropology (view of man). He viewed humanity as essentially good, and consciously dismissed the doctrines of original sin and total depravity (127). He redefined, rather than dismissed, the idea of sin: “Sin for him was the destruction of community and fellowship by self-love exhibited in the denial of security for all by the greed of some” (127).
Not until FDR was confronted with Nazism in the 1940s did he reconsider his view of humanity’s essential goodness. Chapter 8, as earlier indicated, treats FDR’s reexamination of his anthropology. After Howard Johnson, a young Episcopalian cleric in Washington, DC, introduced the president to Kierkegaard, FDR adopted a view of original sin as something that each human brings on himself, and so must work to overcome (193). He also expanded his view of sin: “Sin was not vice or moral turpitude, a lack of virtue; sin was distrust, betrayal, a lack of faith” (198). But man, essentially good, can work to overcome his sin.
The “Social Gospel” was the fourth main tenet of his faith. This is no mere inference on the reader’s part; the term is used explicitly and often throughout the book. Christ left us a legacy that those who were more privileged should help those who were less privileged. When everyone does what we all can to help each other and to help society, the world becomes a better place. That was FDR’s gospel. FDR was a reader and had a personal library. In that library were books authored by Walter Rauschenbusch, the great advocate of the social gospel. These books gave evidence of having been read.
That these tenets of FDR’s faith do not reflect orthodox Protestant Christianity, every Reformed believer can sense. In fact, they do not even accord with the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (1563). However, Episcopalians today view the Thirty-Nine Articles as having no binding authority, and do not call that document a confession or creed.1 That a man with such unorthodox views could be a vestryman and senior warden of his parish says something about the Episcopal Church in FDR’s day.
For FDR, Christianity was not what one believed but what one did. He said, “We call what we have been doing ‘human security’ and ‘social justice.’ In the last analysis all of those terms can be described by one word; and that is ‘Christianity’” (110).
Accordingly, Woolverton says that FDR viewed his New Deal as “the works of righteousness that amounted to Jesus’ test of ‘true religion’” (98). The chapter on “charity” emphasizes that seeking social justice is love. Love drove FDR to provide unemployment welfare and to protect the “security” of the citizens of this country. This love was both universal and particular: it manifested itself in a love for all men and love for America. But such love still had enemies, not only abroad (Hitler), but also at home: those who used the nation for their own economic gain (112-113), or who sought to become dictators (such as Senator Huey Long, and General Douglas MacArthur, 135-142), were enemies. Even the love of the social gospel is not, in the end, a love for each and every person head for head.
The book’s first part indicates that FDR’s view of Christianity was ingrained in him from his youth, and reinforced by his high-schooling at Groton. The book underscores the importance of teaching our children the principles of Scripture from a young age. It makes this point not by indicating that FDR was taught the principles of Scripture, but by revealing that he was taught another gospel that is no gospel (Gal. 1:6-7). Furthermore, FDR read the likes of Charles Augustin SainteBeuve and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who taught that the gospel accounts laid the foundation for true democracy and that Christianity consisted of moral principles that did not pertain to any one religion (73-75).
Analysis of FDR’s Christianity
Not only was FDR’s theology suspect, but his view of Christianity was also wrong. His Christ was a teacher and a doer; but FDR did not apparently speak of Christ as the Son of God who took on Himself the human nature in order to atone for sin by dying on the cross. He did not know, apparently, the risen Christ who arose in the body to bestow on us true happiness and to work in us the sure hope, not of the advancement of culture and of a prosperous earthly life, but of sinless perfection with God and the saints in heaven. Whether FDR even knew of these doctrines is an unanswered question. If he knew of them, he certainly did not confess them.
Regarding faith itself, FDR denied that it was assent to propositions (131). FDR viewed faith as “consent of one person to another” (131, quoting John Rawls). Faith is placed, not in Christ nor in God, but in man. Every child of God agrees that faith is not merely the reciting of words or the knowing of certain content. Nevertheless, true faith always does speak, “I believe . . .” (Rom. 10:9-10, 2 Cor. 4:13).
Consequently, when Woolverton speaks of what nurtured FDR’s faith, he does not mention the Bible (though FDR did read that), but rather “the tradition of Christian literary expression” (150), referring to any book, person, or speech that reflected Biblical terminology and symbolism.
I found Eleanor Roosevelt’s analysis of her husband’s faith to be a judgment against him.
I always felt my husband’s religion had something to do with his confidence in himself. . . . It was a very simple religion. He believed in God and in his guidance. He felt that human beings were given tasks to perform and with those tasks went the ability and strength to put them through. He could pray for help and guidance and have faith in his own judgment as a result.2
Perhaps she meant it positively. Were my wife to analyze my faith in these words, I would consider that an indictment.
Some charged that FDR’s faith was merely a civil religion, not the true biblical religion. Woolverton devotes a section to defending him against this charge (142-144). The author refers specifically to FDR’s D-Day prayer (145), which included petitions for faith in God, in the armed forces, in humanity, and in the cause of the Second World War, and ended with the words “Thy will be done. Amen.” But Woolverton’s defense is not convincing. FDR used biblical imagery, words, symbolism, and ideas, but he used these in the service of national politics. His religion was civil. This is not to suggest one should not pray for one’s nation, or that the president may not do so. The point is rather that Woolverton presents FDR as nothing more than a nominal Christian who manifested his nominal Christianity as president.
Although Woolverton puts FDR in a good light in the book, he does not completely ignore FDR’s warts. His college classmates had reason to think of him as arrogant (70). He was guilty of sexual sin at least once (82). And he could be ruthless and deceptive in politics (86, 91).
Two bold statements, both made in an attempt to put FDR in broader context, are questionable as to their accuracy. One is Bratt’s, who said that President Trump is “the most forthright pagan ever to occupy the Oval Office” (xi). I do not challenge his negative assessment of the faith of our president. I challenge his assertion that past presidents did not equal or surpass him. The second is Woolverton’s, who called John Calvin “the godfather of early American theology” (81). To be clear, some early Americans were Calvinists. But it is arguable whether such a thing as “American theology” exists now, or ever did in the past. If one successfully defends that proposition, it is then arguable whether Calvinism ever was that theology. In fact, Woolverton seems to view Calvin’s theology in a political light, just as he viewed FDR’s Christianity.
This reviewer does not dispute that FDR’s faith shaped his politics. This reviewer does dispute that FDR’s faith was the faith of true Christianity; both in its tenets and in its social gospel presentation, FDR’s faith appears to be different from true Christian faith.
The book itself can still be read with profit. Anyone interested in the political history of the United States of America, or in FDR specifically, will read this book with pleasure. Earthly pleasure, that is. But regarding Christianity, be followers of others, not FDR (1 Cor. 4:16, Eph. 5:1, Phil. 3:14, Heb. 13:7, 1 Pet. 2:21).
1 See https://episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/thirty-nine-articles-or-articles-religion, accessed April 14, 2020.
2 The quote is from Eleanor Roosevelt, This I Remember (New York: Harper and Row, 1949), 69-70.