The Common Good

Obama and FDR: Rallying the churches

Date: February 20, 2009

President Obama has appointed a 26-year-old Pentecostal minister as his White House chief of faith-based initiatives. Himself comfortable with religious language, Obama's campaign appealed strongly to liberal-leaning Christians. Inevitably, self-professed "social justice" religionists will have White House access. Evangelical left activist Jim Wallis has already boasted of the administration's appreciation for his viewpoint.

The National Council of Churches (NCC) has also boasted of its presence at recent Obama events. But the NCC, as primarily the organ of diminished Mainline Protestantism, is only a ghost of its former prestigious self. It's been decades since a U.S. President has addressed an NCC event. In 1995, President Clinton did receive in the Oval Office an NCC delegation, which "prayed" with him to be "strong" in resisting the new Republican Congress. But Clinton declined to address the NCC on its 50th anniversary in 2000.

In headier days, presidents paid more attention. In 1933, facing a more drastic economic crisis, Franklin Roosevelt addressed the 25th anniversary of the NCC's predecessor, the old Federal Council of Churches (FCC). Founded in 1908, the FCC was liberal from the start, focusing on labor rights, and largely siding with theological modernists against "fundamentalists." Infamously, Methodist Bishop Francis McConnell, FCC president from 1928 to 1932, had once asked: "Is not this tendency to deify Jesus more heathen than Christian?" Many FCC elites were openly socialist and to FDR's left, espousing pacifism and state ownership of industry.

The FCC's founding social creed originated with Methodist activist Harry F. Ward, a Union Seminary professor. Ward fumed that FDR's New Deal "works top-heavily in favor of big businessmen and bankers" and aims at "recovery for the profit system," which is "the exact opposite of what liberals, including leaders in the social movement in the churches, have envisaged.…"

More temperately, the FCC as a whole would say of the New Deal: "The measures proposed are of human origin and therefore fallible. But the purposes sought are divine."

Despite the disappointment by some FCC elites about FDR's commitment to preserving capitalism, he was received warmly at the DAR Hall in Washington in November 1933. His speech to the group representing 25 denominations and 22 million church members was broadcast nationally by radio. Listeners across America heard some loud applause from the churchmen, especially when FDR denounced recent lynchings.

Roosevelt denounced "pagan ethics" as he acclaimed the churches for standing ready to "lead in a new war of peace -- the war for social justice." And he insisted that "government is seeking through social and economic means the same goal which the churches are seeking through social and spiritual means," to achieve for every American a "more abundant life."

"We recognize the right of the individual to seek and to obtain his own fair wage, his own fair profit, in his own fair way -- just so long as in the doing of it he does not push down or hold down his own neighbor. And at the same time, we are at one in calling for collective effort on broad lines of social planning -- a collective effort which is wholly in accord with the social teachings of Christianity."

FDR aroused the loudest applause from the FCC audience when he denounced lynching as "that vile form of collective murder." Lynchings had recently occurred in Maryland, Mississippi and California. FDR roared: "We know that it is murder, and a deliberate and definite disobedience of the Commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill.'" A San Jose lynching had received tacit support from California's governor, whom FDR rebuked, if not by name. "We do not excuse those in high places or in low who condone lynch law."

Afterwards, African Methodist Eiscopal Bishop John Gregg of Kansas City praised FDR: "Every Negro in America lifted up his head this morning and thanked God for the statement of President Roosevelt on lynching last night."

But FDR mostly heralded economic issues. "The churches, while they remain wholly free from even the suggestion of interference in Government, can at the same time teach their millions of followers that they have the right to demand of the Government of their own choosing, the maintenance and furtherance of a 'more abundant life.'"

After FDR's speech, FCC President Albert Beaven, a Baptist minister, acclaimed the New Deal as embodying "Christian social ideals for which we of the churches have long contended." Yet Beaven lamented: "Altogether too easily have we accepted the thesis that men would not act unless they could selfishly gain." And he bemoaned: "All too eagerly have we fallen down to worship the gods of gold, only to find the very temples of our selfishness come crashing about our heads."

The FCC was not unmindful of another recently elected world leader, Adolf Hitler. As a guest speaker, Swiss Bishop John Nuelsen of Zurich cautioned the FCC "not to praise or denounce but to understand" the Hitler regime, which he called the "work of the new generation" and the "revolt of youth."

"Whatever his mistakes, and some of them are serious, Hitler has turned the current that was sweeping Germany into the chaos of Godless communism," Nuelsen claimed. "He saved Germany and then Europe from the Red communist revolution, and he has put a new spirit into millions of hopeless aimless, almost depondent young men and women." The bishop insisted that Nazism's "crudities, stupidities and the ferocities" were due to the youth of its leaders. According to the New York Times, the FCC audience laughed when he asserted that some German Christians see Hitler as the "chosen instrument of God" for restoring the Jews to Palestine.

The FCC was thankfully not sympathetic to Hitler, despite the foolishness from Nuelsen. But neither was the FCC prepared to surrender its post-World War I pacifism. "Unless the churches put an end to war they might as well close their doors," one FCC official disclaimed. "For war is the enemy of every human interest and especially the enemy of the moral and spiritual welfare of mankind."

FDR had supported the recent repeal of Prohibition, and the FCC declined specifically to criticize him for it. But one delegate did grouse that FDR's stance had contributed to a "moral sag" in the nation. Commerce Secretary Henry Wallace, a Methodist, told the FCC that he was "appalled" by the "great amount of social drinking in Washington among extraordinarily decent people," which he had never seen before.

Today's National Council of Churches, as the FCC's successor, is not likely to chide the Obama Administration for any social drinking. But the church council, and other liberal religionists, will certainly give enthusiastic support, until the new President fails to live up to exalted expectations.