The Gospel According to George McGovern

WHEN MOST PEOPLE remember George McGovern, the longtime South Dakota senator who passed away in 2012, they probably don’t think first of his evangelical Christian background or see him as a model for evangelicals today.

But McGovern, the Democratic nominee who ran against President Richard Nixon in 1972, actually serves as a worthy exemplar of evangelically rooted social action.

The source of McGovern’s progressive and moral political views may be surprising to some. He was a son of the evangelical church. His father, Rev. Joseph McGovern, was an ordained minister of the Wesleyan Methodist Church (now the Wesleyan Church). It was founded in 1843 as a protest movement against the larger Methodist Episcopal Church. Simply put, they thought slavery sinful and left the denomination to make clear their moral opposition to the “peculiar institution.”

George McGovern enjoyed a good relationship with his father. His childhood was shaped by the rhythms of church life—three or four services on Sunday, prayer meeting on Wednesday night, and daily prayer and Bible readings. The annual family vacation was a two-week campout at nearby Mitchell Holiness Campground. Revival services were conducted nightly.

Those who knew him best and close observers of his political career see a direct line from the Wesleyan Methodism of his youth to his humanitarian and political accomplishments. In a recent dissertation titled “A Caucus of Prophets: George McGovern’s 1972 Campaign and the Crucible of Protestant Politics,” Mark Lempke argues that McGovern largely abandoned his Wesleyan Methodist heritage for the social gospel of the United Methodist Church. Lempke is partially correct in his excellent work on the link between McGovern’s faith and politics. McGovern himself said the prophetic zeal of the Wesleyan Methodists against slavery inspired him. Yet this same zeal, from his perspective, was lacking on pressing mid-20th century issues such as poverty, war, ecology, racism, and hunger.

Clearly, whatever the ascendant theological or ecclesial influence, the ethics of Jesus and the Old Testament prophetic tradition were foundational to McGovern’s political vision. He often quoted or referred to them in his political speeches. For McGovern, the social gospel confirmed the Wesleyan Methodist insistence that authentic faith must lead to good deeds. Deep Christian faith meant addressing social problems in the name of Christ, not evading them—whether slavery in the 1840s or hunger, war, racism, and poverty in his own time. He transferred, in contemporary language, the universal gospel imperatives and prophetic theological vision of the Wesleyan Methodists he learned as a boy to the most pressing moral and political issues of his day. I think the Wesleyan Methodist experience of evangelical faith coupled with a progressive social witness is perhaps the best lens to view McGovern’s political life.

LATE IN LIFE, McGovern received two awards that are among the world’s most prestigious: the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, and the World Food Prize. Both affirm the worldwide impact of his moral political vision.

The Medal of Freedom citation highlights a major paradox of McGovern’s political life. He was a bomber pilot in WW II, yet two decades later he was a voice for peace and a leading critic of the Vietnam War. He was one of the first American politicians to publicly decry the war while a large majority of Americans still supported it.

For most of the 1960s, he struggled to stop the war though speeches, votes, and persuasion. All failed. He then sought a legislative solution to wrest power to wage war from the administration of President Nixon. In the spring of 1970, McGovern teamed with Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield, a prominent and outspoken evangelical, in co-sponsoring the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment. The bill would “defund” the war within six months of passage and withdraw all troops from Vietnam by the end of 1971.

On Sept. 1, 1970, before the final roll call on the amendment, McGovern took to the Senate floor with a blistering speech aimed at fellow senators. He charged that the Senate “reeks of blood.” Every senator, he said, was partly responsible for the “human wreckage” at Walter Reed Army and Bethesda Naval hospitals. It is easy, he continued, for senators to support a war when “it is not our blood that is being shed.” And if we do not end this “damnable war,” he went on, those young men who fought it “will some day curse us.” The amendment was eventually defeated, but almost 40 percent of the U.S. Senate publicly supported ending the war. Hatfield said the vote marked the end of the Vietnam War.

The World Food Prize is awarded for “Nobel-like” achievement to individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world. Most winners are scientists. In 2008, however, McGovern and Senate colleague and 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole received the award together. For McGovern, the World Food Prize was the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award.

 In the late 1960s and early 1970s, McGovern and Dole had worked together on the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. They expanded school lunch and food stamp programs. They established the WIC program, a supplementary food program for women, infants, and children.

With the domestic success of their programs, McGovern and Dole took the U.S. school lunch program international. The concept was simple. Feed hungry children across the globe using schools as feeding stations. World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, the Red Cross, and Mercy Corps, among others, operated some of these school feeding stations. By the mid-2000s the results were breathtaking. Twenty-two million children in 41 countries have received a nutritious lunch at school through the initiative, called the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program. It has enjoyed continuous bipartisan support in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations.

Some say the best speech of McGovern’s political career was his acceptance speech for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 1972. The theme was not “America must change,” but “America ought to return to her enduring values”—from deception, war, wasteful military spending, tax inequities, and racism to truth, democracy, and the values that made the U.S. great. Lempke points out that that speech and most of McGovern’s presidential campaign speeches retained the revivalist cadences of his youth. He used biblical quotations as easily as Abraham Lincoln.

Although reticent to speak about his personal faith during the presidential campaign and throughout his public life, he was clear and vocal about the intersection of Christian faith and politics. Christians were obligated to live out the universal imperatives of Christianity in the public square.

As he looked back on a lifetime of public service, McGovern identified, of all votes and issues, three great political and moral causes of his life: ending hunger, encouraging peace, and curing alcoholism. Perhaps these three moral causes could become a foundational platform for a new vision of Christian political engagement. The world yearns for moral leaders committed to addressing vexing political issues such as hunger, health, education, poverty, the environment, and peacemaking, and encouraging the best scientific insights to understand and treat varied addictions.

Could it be that the peacemaking bomber pilot and son of the evangelical church bequeaths a new and distinctive political vision to other younger sons and daughters of the evangelical church?

Could it be that McGovern’s humanitarian political and social vision, inspired by scripture and the historic and evangelical Christian faith, may rouse again evangelical Christians, weary of cultural wars going nowhere, to a new vision and better expression of the integration of their biblical faith and political commitments? 

Robert G. Duffett, president of Eastern University in St. Davids, Pa., is former president of Dakota Wesleyan University, where he led efforts to build the McGovern Center for Leadership and Public Service. Duffett spoke at McGovern’s funeral in 2012.

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