Lessons To Be Learned: The Faith Of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

By Christine Wicker

The importance of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Christian faith has been so rarely examined that many people don’t know he was religious at all. But his words, his political accomplishments, and the testimony of those who knew him well show that his political vision reflected the highest ideals embraced by Jesus. He had been taught from early childhood that Christians were meant to be instruments of God’s will.  

Having said that: So what? We know what he did. Does it matter why he did it?

In writing The Simple Faith of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, I asked myself those questions every day.  I looked for spiritual understanding that I could use myself and at the same time, guidance that might help those of us who despair in our current political situation.

I found both. Knowing what motivated FDR tells us who Americans once were. It’s a benchmark that helps us understand the kind of people we’ve become today.  

FDR’s Episcopal faith taught him what was good and what was evil. It gave him language to laude good and condemn evil. It focused him on making life better for average Americans. It gave him the imagination to envision America becoming a place so filled with brotherhood that it sounds more like God’s kingdom on earth than the real United States.

His words from a speech after his second election show that Bible-based vision clearly: “We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world.”

As he begins to describe that world, we see that, like the world Jesus wanted, this one does not come about from a bit of tweaking. Roosevelt believed Americans could be and were being spiritually transformed. He believed they were embracing a radical new understanding of how life ought to be lived.

“This new understanding undermines the old admiration of worldly success as such,” he says. “We are beginning to abandon our tolerance of the abuse of power by those who betray for profit the elementary decencies of life. In this process evil things formerly accepted will not be so easily condoned. Hard-headedness will not so easily excuse hardheartedness.”

To understand how far America’s public understanding of Christianity has fallen, compare FDR’s vision with that of Donald Trump, whose Christian followers are proclaiming him the elect of God.  Trump and his followers think Americans, the most blessed humans in history, are being asked to do too much for others and need to do more for themselves.

This lack of Jesus-like Christian voices in the American public square has been disastrous not only for the “poor and huddled masses” but for all the earth. The world’s most powerful country, a beacon of brotherhood and justice for more than 250 years, has elected as the most powerful leader on earth an utterly amoral man intent on dismantling an international system of brotherhood that has kept us from world war during the last 72 years and spread prosperity beyond the wildest imaginings of the American founders.

An important part of FDR’s faith story is how fervently many Americans of his day embraced his non-sectarian, deeply religious ideas. Businessmen who opposed him launched a well-financed campaign to disempower his Sermon-on-the-Mount spirituality even before he took office. Their first efforts focused on arousing Americans’ own self-interest, but FDR’s influence was so great that they couldn’t get citizens to disavow their sense of being joined with one another.

Success came only years later when anti-Roosevelt forces began to equate Christianity’s freedom to choose or reject God with the choices provided by free enterprise. From there it was only a short step toward making free enterprise a holy tenet, God’s choice even. This kind of Christianity has been so successfully preached that today many Americans think Trump-supporting evangelicals are the true and only Christians.

For many decades, Christians who follow Christ’s highest ideals—the ideals of radical love and brotherhood that non-Christians most expect of them—have been blamed for having a weak, unmoored, and inconsequential faith. But Roosevelt’s deepest faith commitments, paired with extraordinary political acumen, show none of those faults. He brought America through two of its greatest crises – the Great Depression and World War II – while changing the role of the federal government forever.

So how did he do it? Millions of words have attempted to answer that question, but few have paired his faith with his political acumen. It took both for FDR to accomplish what he did.

I’ve picked out five FDR techniques that progressives, faith based or not, might consider in their quest to be heard by the American public:

1. Find the right enemies, target them, and don’t let up.

When FDR called those with great riches the money-changers in the temple during his first inaugural speech, he was just beginning his attack. In address after address, he went after those he considered enemies of American values with all the fury of old Testament prophets. He didn’t worry about hurt feelings. He didn’t care that he was accused of fostering class warfare.

If he were campaigning today, he might choose nearly the same enemies. I suspect he would target fund managers, currency manipulators and Wall Street speculators. Politically speaking, they are the perfect symbol for all that’s gone wrong with America. They’ve garnered enormous fortunes through global trade. They don’t do the kind of work that ordinary Americans understand. They don’t produce tangible products. They get rich fast and don’t give back.

The downside of this tactic is Americans’ hope that they too will be able to get rich quick through similar methods. We have great admiration for wealth, no matter how it’s earned. Undermining that deep-seated aspiration while keeping American hopes high was the kind of delicate trick Roosevelt accomplished with his own high spirits and great faith. His personality and background formed those attitudes; his faith fed them.

2. Always pinpoint what’s good in the American people (or what good they imagine is in them) and praise it loudly.

Nobody likes a nag, and Roosevelt never was one. One of his first tasks in his 1933 inaugural speech was to point out that the good, hardworking people of America were not to blame for their misfortunes. Knowing that Americans love thinking of themselves as winners, hard workers, optimists and most importantly good people, he worked those angles throughout his political career.

3. Always honor Americans’ belief in self-reliance and personal freedom.

Working hard is so integral to American values that it has the force of the sacred. Americans believe they ought to earn money and are entitled to keep it. FDR countered those ideas throughout the Depression by emphasizing his own belief that Americans want to work for their money and that they also want to help others get on their feet so they can work too.

4. Make it fun.

FDR wasn’t a particularly witty man. He liked to tell the same stories again and again, and his favorites were ones with him as the hero. He was saved from being a complete bore by the ability to listen intently, a keen sense of fun, a great laugh and if truth be told, by having power.

One of his speechwriters marveled as how much fun they had as they worked with him. His press conferences were filled with laughter. At Warm Springs’ his efforts to overcome the physical effects of polio weren’t as successful as he once hoped they would be – for him or for others – but his buoyant spirit did something almost as amazing. It helped normalize disability. During a musical revue put on by Warm Springs patients, a group of girls in wheelchairs who called themselves the Powder Puffs sang a song called “I Won’t Dance. Don’t ask me.” The poignancy of that song being sung by girls who couldn’t walk had one reporter wiping tears from his eyes. Catching sight of him, FDR and the girls ruined the moment by laughing.

5. Keep it simple.

Roosevelt never talked down to Americans, and he also never played the egghead by asking them to wade through the complexity of reality. Some said that was because he didn’t understand it himself. But whether he did or not, he liked to cut to the core, and he helped Americans do the same. A famous example was his speech about helping Great Britain before the United States entered the war by passing a lend-lease plan for American ships and bases. He likened the plan to lending a garden hose to your neighbor when his house is on fire. When the fire is out, your neighbor will return your hose, Roosevelt said.

With that simple story, he assured his listeners, “You are good people. You want to help. You can help. And nothing will be lost.” That last point may be the most important one. Change makes people fearful, and fearful people think more about what they might lose than what might be gained.

Christine Wicker is the author of The Simple Faith of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and for seventeen years was the Religion Reporter for the Dallas Morning News. 

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