A Christian and a Democrat (John Woolverton)

A CHRISTIAN AND A DEMOCRAT: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt. By John F. Woolverton with James D. Bratt. Foreword by James Comey. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019. Xvii + 291 pages.

Sometimes books come out at just the right moment. At a time when the President of the United States displays an utter disregard for the teachings of the Christian faith (as well as, it seems, the Constitution of the United States), even as he garners wide support from within portions of the Christian community, what might we learn from the life of another President, one who embodied a very different sense of himself and his faith? To find out, one should read John Woolverton’s biography of Franklin Roosevelt titled A Christian and a Democrat.

Having already read the biography of Eleanor Roosevelt in Eerdman's Library of Religious Biography series, which I found very illuminating about her faith-driven activism, I was curious about this biography. What might it say about a man who was by all measures ambitious and at times ruthless as a politician? We know from history (and from the biography of Eleanor) that he was a man with many flaws. Yet, according to this biography, when FDR was asked about his political ideology, he declared that he was a "Christian and a Democrat." The question then is, what does this mean?

Before getting to that question, I should take note of the author. The primary author was the late John Woolverton, a longtime professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary and editor of Anglican and Episcopal History. It is this latter responsibility that links the author to him, as he published a number of my early scholarly articles, and is one of the reasons why I wanted to read the book, which lay unpublished at his death. This is where James Bratt comes in. Bratt is professor emeritus of history at Calvin University, He took up the project of editing Woolverton's manuscript at the suggestion of David Holmes, a professor at the College of William and Mary. In taking up the project, Bratt chose to reduce the text by one quarter, making it a more readable work.  I am impressed with the work he did to bring the book to publication. Then there is the author of the foreword. You might recognize it as the name of the former head of the FBI, who, as we’ve discovered has an affinity for Reinhold Niebuhr. Comey came to know Niebuhr through John Woolverton, with whom Comey studied when Woolverton was a visiting faculty member at the College of William and Mary. All of this makes the book all the more intriguing.

As regards Roosevelt, who described himself as being simply a Christian and a Democrat, he came from a wealthy and politically connected family—Theodore Roosevelt was a relative. He was raised with a sense of social responsibility that drew upon his upbringing in the Episcopal Church. Perhaps the most important influences in his development as a Christian and a Democrat were his parents and then the years spent at Groton School. It was at this boarding school in Massachusetts, that FDR came under the influence of Endicott Peabody—the headmaster and an Episcopal priest who had a strong Social Gospel bent. Peabody would be a strong influence until well into FDR's presidency. Woolverton speaks of Peabody as FDR's spiritual father. In many ways, he also served as a surrogate father, as his own father was an older man during these important years of FDR’s life. The form of Christianity Peabody passed on to FDR was a muscular social Christianity that drew from figures such as Charles Kingsley and Phillips Brooks. Thus, a liberal form of Christianity was passed on to FDR that welcomed scientific discoveries and sought to address social problems confronting the nation and world. Woolverton notes that this social gospel version of Christianity offered a positive, happy vision of the future. It envisioned ongoing progress. This is important because at the end of the book Woolverton shares the stories of conversations between FDR and a young Episcopal priest from St. John's Episcopal Church across from the White House, conversations that introduced FDR to Kierkegaard, which helped him better understand his adversary during World War II. While Groton provided the foundations, Harvard provided further grounding. But there would be other influences, including two women: his wife Eleanor and Francis Perkins, who was a leader in the labor movement and a future Secretary of Labor. All of this forms Part 1 of the Book—titled “Formation.”

Part 2 is titled "Faith." It's here that we discern the true nature of both FDR's faith and his politics. The first three chapters in this section are titled "Hope," "Charity," and "Faith." These terms are taken from his favorite text—1 Corinthians 13. Chapter 4 (the first chapter in the section) deals with FDR's response to contracting polio and then the realities of the Great Depression. It is the same sense of hope that enabled him to overcome the effects of polio that helped him deal with the effects of the Great Depression with both compassion and vision. He drew upon his faith to face the realities of life with polio, and the two together gave him a sense of compassion for others who faced difficulties (the Great Depression).

Chapter five focuses on Charity—that is, we discover how love served as his social ethic and the foundation of his political goals. In his understanding of things, the good work of charities and social service agencies needed to be aided by the government (at all levels). We see this in the development of programs like the CCC and the WPA. In other words, he believed in the value of work, and if the private sector couldn't provide it the government should. For FDR, charity is to be understood as social mindedness. As Woolverton describes his understanding of charity, it was connected to democracy: "Charity, properly understood, involved fellow feeling and the simple rules of human conduct: justice for the poor, sufficiency for all." (p. 128).

As for Faith (chapter 6), Woolverton notes that FDR was at heart a "very simple Christian." That is, he wasn’t a deep theological thinker. Nevertheless, he held his beliefs close, and drew from his Christian faith in his governing principles. He drew from the faith passed on to him by his family and by his time at Groton. It was rooted in the Book of Common Prayer and the hymns, which he had sung throughout life. As noted in chapter seven, he functioned as "prophet, priest, and President" during the years of World War II. He led a nation that at least until Pearl Harbor was largely isolationist and noninterventionist. How do you prepare for war, without entering into it? During this period, he provided leadership that drew upon public prayer, which he found himself leading.

Hope, Charity, Faith. These were terms he embraced, along with Jesus teaching on loving one's neighbor. His was an optimistic faith, rooted in the traditions of the Episcopal Church as understood in light of the Social Gospel. In other words, this was a progressive Christian vision. But was it sufficient?

Part 3 is titled "Interpretation." The penultimate chapter of the book (chapter 8) is fascinating. Titled "Who is Kierkegaard?" It riffs on a series of conversations between FDR and a young priest —Howard Johnson—who would later serve on the faculty of Virginia Theological Seminary with Woolverton. This chapter draws on Johnson's recollections of a series of conversations that occurred at the White House in 1944. Johnson had been working with Walter Lowrie, who was translating Kierkegaard, and thus he was intimately acquainted with the Danish philosopher. During conversations with FDR, who was trying to make sense of Hitler, Kierkegaard came up. Being unfamiliar with the philosophy, FDR asked who he was, and that led to conversations about Kierkegaard's more dour view of humanity and the reality of radical evil. What is important here is that these conversations are among the few records of deep theological conversation on the part of the President.

In an afterword, Woolverton compares and contrasts Roosevelt with Lincoln and Herbert Hoover. In doing so the author can help us understand Roosevelt's character and motives. I found the section comparing the Episcopalian Roosevelt with the Quaker Hoover. We think of Quakers as pacifists, which they are, but what we see here is the individualism that is present in Quakerism that informed some of Hoover's intransigence on government engagement. He believed strongly in private relief, but not government relief. This chapter is intriguing and worth spending time with.

Why read this biography at this point in time? The answer is easy, at least for me: FDR is considered one of America's greatest Presidents and the current occupant is not fit to hold the office. The contrast is greater than any we’ve had before. Although he was a man of ambition, he also was compassionate (in part fueled by his religious training but aided as well by his experience with polio). He was wealthy and yet he believed in equality of all, which fueled his social programs. Like most of us, he was complex. He was devout and yet earthy. He had his flaws. He wasn't a deep thinker, but as Woolverton notes, he knew how to connect the dots. Hoover (an engineer) got caught in the minutiae and couldn't catch the big picture. That was FDR's forte. He understood the big picture, and thus he was a successful President.

As noted at the beginning, in light of the current situation, this is a biography that needs to be widely read. We can thank John Woolverton for the foresight to write this manuscript, and for David Holmes and James Bratt for realizing that it needed to be published (even if in an edited version). Being a book for our times, we can heed this word from James Comey, who suggests that if Woolverton was still preaching he might say that "things are a mess, but that only increases the urgency to step into the public square." As we do so, as we approach our fellow Americans, "we must approach them with Christian love and true humility as we try to heal our divisions" (p. viii).


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