Of all the myriad intersections between religion and politics in the United States, perhaps none is at once so significant and so personal as that occurring within the heart and mind of the nation’s executive. Though all U.S. presidents have claimed membership within a faith—indeed, to this point all have claimed strains of Christian faith specifically—the particulars of their religious and political views have varied, and so assumed different forms upon being mixed. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to name one example, was influenced by the Episcopal Church, by the Social Gospel movement, by polio, by poverty and war, and, of course, by Democratic politics. A new religious biography examines these influences closely.
The late John F. Woolverton, an Episcopal priest, taught church history at Virginia Theological Seminary, the College of William and Mary, and the University of Texas, and was the author of Colonial Anglicanism in North America and The Education of Phillips Brooks. After his passing in 2014, his A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt was ushered to publication by James D. Bratt, an emeritus professor of history at Calvin College and the author, previously, of Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat and Dutch Calvinism in North America.
Eric C. Miller recently spoke by phone with Bratt about the book. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Religion & Politics: Your work on this book was somewhat atypical. How did you end up finishing it? What was your process?
James D. Bratt: The editing process was actually kind of fun. Professor Woolverton had done such an excellent job of research in the archives and secondary literature that I didn’t have to worry about correcting or supplementing things. Only one addition was required—the brief chapter on FDR’s death, funeral, and burial rites. The folks at Eerdmans said that readers expect biographies to end with this sort of wrap, and so I supplied it.
For the rest, the job involved trimming and reorganizing the manuscript so as to bring out the main theme of each chapter in clear focus and efficient development. It’s probably easier to do this with someone else’s writing than with your own because you’re looking down at a landscape from some height rather than having hacked out a path thru the thicket in the first place. So I just ploughed along, chapter by chapter.
My copy editors were sharp and kind and saved a number of errors. The most difficult part here was tracking down quotations that had come untethered from footnotes in my editing process. (A couple different word-processing programs had been involved along the way, and weren’t always compatible with the new system into which I integrated everything.) This did set me off sleuthing through FDR’s published speeches and personal correspondence, which is a very revealing road into the nuts and bolts of a person’s life and mind. I managed to track down every reference but one, which felt like quite an achievement, and I got in better touch with FDR as a person along the way.
R&P: Readers are likely familiar with Roosevelt the Democrat. What kind of a Christian was he?
JDB: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a lifelong Episcopalian. He was taken to St. James’ Church in Hyde Park, [New York], as a lad, even though he didn’t much care for it at the time. His father was on the vestry, and Franklin himself became a member of the vestry in adulthood. He was loyal to his church, he knew the liturgy and revered the music, and he cared much more about the ceremonial aspects than about the theology. He loved the social ethics most of all.
His attachment to the liberal branch of Episcopalianism was solidified during the years that he spent studying at the Groton School in Massachusetts, under the famous headmaster Endicott Peabody. Groton at that time was one of the heartlands of the Social Gospel movement. So I think you could say that he was a liturgical Episcopalian and a Social Gospel Christian.
R&P: Did the Social Gospel influence his politics?
JB: Very much so. To understand its influence, you have to go back to his time at Groton. FDR was raised in splendid isolation at the family home in Hyde Park. He only left the house to attend boarding school when he was 14, and at that time his father was a pretty old man. Sara Delano was James Roosevelt’s second wife, and he was old enough to be her father—old enough to be Franklin’s grandfather. He was frail, and sickly, and far removed from his son. So when FDR arrived at Groton, Peabody assumed a paternal role and became a new father figure.
Peabody was also very devoted to Social Gospel thinking. He brought a steady stream of Social Gospel figures to the school to deliver lectures, and the boys were sent out to do social mission work—often in the rough neighborhoods of Boston. I think FDR very clearly absorbed the principles of the Social Gospel and quickly became acclimated to the lifestyle associated with it. The movement sort of burned out following World War I in the prosperity decade of the 1920s, but I think Roosevelt revived and incorporated it into political and social policy during his presidency. Much of the New Deal legislation is very clearly indebted to Social Gospel ideas.
R&P: Can the New Deal be understood as the political expression of Roosevelt’s faith?
JB: That’s very well put! He wasn’t alone in shaping it, of course. Harry Hopkins, who served as Roosevelt’s right-hand man throughout the administration, was a committed Social Gospel Methodist from Iowa. Eleanor Roosevelt had worked in Social Gospel programs following her return from boarding school abroad. And Frances Perkins, who served as FDR’s Secretary of the Treasury for all of his 13 years in office, was very devout and theologically informed, and she was the architect of Social Security, among other programs. She very consciously pursued her political work as an expression of her Social Gospel commitments.
R&P: How did contracting polio affect his faith?
JB: I think it had an enormous effect. By most accounts, FDR struck people for much of his life as a “lightweight,” or as “smug,” or as someone who we might today call “entitled.” This characterization followed him from his youth at Groton to Harvard to his time in the Albany legislature and as assistant secretary of the Navy during World War I. When he contracted polio—or maybe polymyalgia rheumatic, the diagnosticians remain unsure—FDR entered a period of profound crisis, a dark night of the soul. Everything he thought about himself and about his career was thrown into deep question. His mother wanted him to quit public life and become like one of those late Victorian invalid women—an Alice James, or something like that. It was a fairly familiar pattern among the Gilded Age aristocracy.
But FDR determined that the diagnosis would not be the end of him. Without taking it in the evangelical sense, I think you could say that he really was reborn. Part of his self-image and his projected future died and was reborn as something much deeper and more empathetic, with a much more detailed sense of vulnerability. As a consequence, he became a much more humble, wise, and compassionate person. Oddly, even though it made him immobile in a literal sense, the disease increased his mobility in other ways. He spent a lot of his time at Warm Springs, the sanitarium that he built in Georgia. He poured the better part of his personal fortune into financing it, and he had custom-made for himself an automobile with hand controls that allowed him to drive around the Georgia countryside and to get to know the farmers and laborers and other regular people who lived well outside of his previous orbit.
I believe that this conversion experience—this death and resurrection—marked the other strand of his religious narrative, alongside the youthful influence of Endicott Peabody.
R&P: What about his handling of World War II? Did he subscribe to any particular theology about violence or pacifism?
JB: That would be more on Eleanor’s side, I think. Like much of his social class, FDR had been pretty gung-ho about getting America into World War I, and he did not agonize about the casualties of the second conflict in the way that Lincoln had during the Civil War. That’s not to say that he was callow about it all, of course. He recognized the deaths of American soldiers as profound sacrifices. But in his view the prospect of humanity itself was in jeopardy owing to militant fascism and the Second World War was nothing less than a crusade to save democracy.
For FDR, democracy was a political system with a sort of religious value—the closest political correlate with Christianity in that it recognized and provided opportunity for humanity and dignity and all of the good that is in human capacity. Democracy was the political field in which these qualities could be realized. To him, the war was existential. It was much more than an assertion of American nationalism. America was simply the providentially appointed protector of democracy, charged with leading other nations by example.
R&P: Though most of the chapters cover broad, sweeping topics, the book also includes an entire chapter devoted to a conversation that Roosevelt had, over dinner in 1944, with a 29-year-old assistant minister named Howard A. Johnson. Why devote so much attention to that discussion?
JB: Professor Woolverton knew Howard Johnson personally. He met him following a lecture that Johnson had delivered at Virginia Theological Seminary, after learning about the dinner through an anecdote that Frances Perkins had included in her memoirs. So one night, over dinner with Professor and Mrs. Woolverton, Johnson told the story of the conversation he once had over dinner with President and Mrs. Roosevelt.
That conversation is recounted at length in the book because it provides a glimpse into Roosevelt’s mind and his thinking about the problem of evil. As we discussed, FDR had had a pretty sunny religious upbringing within a liberal Protestantism that H. Richard Niebuhr once dismissed as “a God without wrath saving a people without sin through Christ without a cross.” It was a faith perhaps too naïve to process the world crises of the 1930s and 40s. In conversation with the Roosevelts, Johnson complicated that theology by invoking Søren Kierkegaard.
Kierkegaard was behind a major theological reorientation, associated in Europe with figures like Karl Barth, and in the United States with thinkers like the Niebuhr brothers, and offering a sort of rejoinder to this sort of liberal Protestantism. Johnson drew on this discourse to challenge FDR’s thinking, and FDR rose to the challenge. Even though Roosevelt was not a philosopher, he was a very quick study. The conservation showed him going back to his theological origins and struggling to understand profound evil of the Nazi sort.
R&P: The other chapter that may strike readers as a little odd is the 60-page afterward drawing comparisons between Abraham Lincoln, Herbert Hoover, and Roosevelt. Why those three?
JB: This is entirely Professor Woolverton’s work, and at first, I, too, found it a bit peculiar. But then I came to appreciate that FDR’s particular set of emphases emerge in clearer relief when compared to Lincoln on the one hand and Hoover on the other.
Because FDR and Lincoln are routinely ranked among the nation’s greatest leaders, their comparison is one of success with success. Both men saw the nation through immense crises, but they did so with very different dispositions and very different reflections on the meaning of it all. Woolverton draws out the residual Calvinism behind Lincoln’s mature, solemn, almost deistical faith, casting it opposite Roosevelt’s far more benign, benevolent God who calls us to rise up to our obligation given the many blessings that we’ve had.
Hoover was the immediate predecessor to Roosevelt, and is often cast as the terrible failure preceding the great man. But as Woolverton points out at the start of that chapter, Hoover and Roosevelt were very much alike in the 1910s and early 1920s. Hoover was one of the most successful individuals to come out of World War I. He was a great, progressive humanitarian who had achieved remarkable success in civil relief work during and immediately after the war. But there were some aspects of Hoover’s Midwestern Quakerism that prevented him from acting more dramatically in response to the Great Depression, while there were some aspects of FDR’s liberal Episcopalianism that inclined him to pursue the policies that he did. That divergence is important to understanding the religion and politics of both men.
Overall, the closing chapter is strange and idiosyncratic but also very insightful on the interplay between presidential politics and religion in times of crisis.
R&P: In your view, what are the prospects for a comparable Christian Democratic politics in the present? Is a new Roosevelt—maybe running on a “Green New Deal”—in the offing for 2020 or beyond?
JB: Well, you’ve just articulated my daily prayer! The prospects for it, however, may be more difficult. Pete Buttigieg has been the most forthcoming and frank about his liberal Christian commitments, even though his same-sex marriage is a nightmare to the so-called Christians in the Republican Party. Elizabeth Warren has a background in Methodist social ethics similar to that of Hillary Clinton, and may ultimately do a better job of expressing it.
Regardless of the candidate, though, the changed times may make the platform a harder sell. FDR lived in a time when a common Christian—he was the first president to call it a “Judeo-Christian”—tradition was in sync with the values of American democracy. I’m afraid that’s been lost. Christianity has become a sight of contention, especially among white people.
If this sort of politics is to reemerge, I think it is mostly likely to come out of the African American community or the Latinx community, rather than from another white male candidacy. Out of the right sort of mouth—or maybe rather the left sort of mouth—FDR’s brand of politics may reacquire some contemporary plausibility.