Most Historians Fail to See How Strongly FDR Was Motivated by His Christianity

Anyone acquainted with author and journalist Christine Wicker knows how much she relishes a challenging assignment. So it's not surprising that her most recent book, The Simple Faith of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, delves into one of the most-written-about figures in U.S. history.Yet Wicker not only has plucked out a thread previously unexplored, she makes a compelling case that faith was at the heart of all of Roosevelt's efforts to lift up the lives of his fellow Americans. As she puts it, "all the ways he failed to be a good Christian didn't keep him from being an effective Christian."Your book argues that the vision FDR had for America came straight of scripture. Would Roosevelt see it that way?I think he would. FDR's spiritual consciousness was deeply embedded in his life. Once when asked his philosophy, he replied, "Philosophy? I am a Christian and a Democrat. That is all." His vision of what was possible resembled God's kingdom on earth so much that I sometimes found myself laughing with disbelief. Some say he was just playing politics. So let's say he was using God for political ends. If you look at what he created — Social Security, the G.I. bill, minimum wage, safer work conditions, the Rural Electrification Act and more — it's easy to believe God was using him too.FDR used scripture publicly and privately for everything from damning his enemies to nicknaming his friends. The money men ruining America were the money changers in the temple. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis was "old Isaiah." While preparing the United States for a war he believed was inevitable, Roosevelt also sent private pleas for peace to Mussolini and Hitler. Only a leader of great humility and unquenchable faith would have given Hitler such fodder. The German read one of FDR's messages mockingly to his supporters. Everyone laughed.Roosevelt prayed before and after big decisions. He looked to God for signs that he was doing what he ought to. During the war when Churchill was desperate for FDR's support, the British prime minister planned their first meeting in minute detail. Knowing how important religion was to Roosevelt, he included a shipboard religious service and the singing of FDR's favorite hymns. Afterward Roosevelt said to his son Elliott, "If nothing else happened while we were here, that would have cemented us. Onward Christian Soldiers. We are, and we will go, with God's help."You write that history's understanding of FDR has been distorted because of our failure to understand that his core motivation came out of fidelity to Christ. What do you mean by that?The great importance of his spiritual faith has been rarely closely examined by historians, and most people don't seem to know he was religious at all.But according to Eleanor, FDR's spiritual life was the source of his strength, his confidence and his ability to make the hard decisions. It also gave him the vision to believe with utter certainty that America could be a far better place. If his legacy is stripped of its religious motivation, the monumental changes he authored to make life in America better can be diminished as though they are merely ordinary examples of political maneuvering. They become no more valuable than policies that benefit the selfish interests of greedy people. For that reason, knowing his motivations is important.FDR was elected 85 years ago to a country far more divided than the one we see today. How did he use his Christian values to navigate his presidential course?He held up the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount as models for government nationally and internationally. That alone is fantastical. Jesus said loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself were the basis of all the laws and commandments. These ideas are not good business. They are not going to make you rich or powerful. But FDR's spiritual perspective caused him to understand that we are all inter-related, which is a religious idea that transforms everything.In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes all the attributes that mean so much to humans — power, wealth, prominence, respect, pride — and says God will reward other virtues than those the world values. Imagine how much that meant to people in the Great Depression who had been respected members of the community and found themselves standing in bread lines, living on the streets, watching their homes and farms be foreclosed on.When we talk about FDR's faith, we're talking about his invincible faith in God, in himself and in the American people. That faith was so great that in his first two speeches as president, he transformed the mood of the entire country from utter despair to a buoyant, even giddy hope. People so fearful that they could think only of themselves quite suddenly saw themselves as part of something strong and good. People who had been hoarding money and gold, not only stopped hoarding, they showed up in droves to re-deposit in the banks.What can we learn from this that might help us in 2017? Or has our nation changed to the point that FDR-era tactics are obsolete?I don't know if Scripture could be used so effectively now because so few people are familiar with it. But an adroit politician could still summon the better angels of the American nature and I believe the people would respond.That said, some of FDR's other tactics are still being used effectively. FDR promised to drive the money-changers from the temple; our current president promised to clean out the swamp of Washington.Both used imagery to avoid naming anyone specifically and at the same time, address many Americans' feeling that the system wasn't working.Neither worried about hurt feelings or cared if they fostered class warfare.Were he around today, I suspect FDR would target fund managers, currency manipulators and Wall Street speculators. They've garnered enormous fortunes. They don't do work that ordinary Americans understand. They don't produce tangible products. They get rich fast and often don't give enough back.What other political parallels would you draw between the two presidents?If you want to be successful, it helps to make it fun. FDR wasn't a particularly witty man, but he liked to have fun. He had a great laugh and he used it often. His buoyant spirits raised everyone's energy.Trump isn't very witty either. But he is outrageous, and at his rallies, he really does seem to be enjoying himself. Old Donald is always giving it to someone, right in the kisser. It's a mean kind of fun to watch him do what others are afraid to do.Democrats, sad to say, aren't fun. They're pious. They're earnest. They're well meaning. And boring. That makes them hard to root for.You've said previously that, in the eyes of non-churchgoers, the dwindling flock of Christians falls into one of two categories: weak or mean. What does that mean for the future of Christianity and where do you see it heading?American Christianity is clearly in trouble. The number of so-called "nones," those who check no religion in surveys, is at 20 percent and rising. A newer group called "dones," those older people who've spent their lives in church and have now dropped out, is also on the increase. Adult conversions have been almost zero for decades.But an advantage of having never had state-sanctioned religion is that American faith practices are entirely free to change. Lots of new practices are breaking down the walls, offering hope that Christian thought and practice could have new relevance.Specifically, how is Trump's presidency affecting the religious landscape in America?Evangelical Christians' embrace of Republican politics hurt their reputation in the culture at-large but hadn't completely killed the aura of sanctity around them. Now evangelical leaders are claiming that God has put in power a president who, in fact, violates every tenet of what the world considers Christian behavior.The situation is made worse because evangelical Christians have been the only Christians heard in the public square for decades. They represent the entire faith for many outsiders. In the wake of evangelical support for Trump, what reason will these outsiders have to believe that Christianity itself has integrity? As the preachers used to say when I was a Baptist kid, "It hurts their witness."So what's your best guess about what FDR's reaction to this book would be?I've never thought about it. He might use it politically if he thought it would help him. But maybe not. He didn't like the attention he got from public worship and even though he was criticized for not attending church more often, he said that he wouldn't say his prayers in the "fishbowl" that such services became. He was an extremely private man. On the other hand, I haven't hidden his weaknesses and bad decisions. Like a lot of us, he might overlook the compliments and defend himself on the criticisms.This Q&A was conducted and edited by Dallas Morning News editorial writer Sharon Grigsby, who has known Wicker personally and professionally since their early days in journalism. Email: sgrigsby@dallasnews.comChristine Wicker is a writer in Dallas. Email: FDRsimplefaith@gmail.comWhat's your view?Got an opinion about this issue? Send a letter to the editor, and you just might get published.  Continue reading...

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