George McGovern

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.

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The George McGovern I Remember

Sen. George McGovern in 2011. Photo by Cliff Owen-Pool/Getty Images
Sen. George McGovern in 2011. Photo by Cliff Owen-Pool/Getty Images

 

I will miss George McGovern. The former senator from South Dakota and Democratic presidential candidate in 1972 died in a hospice on Sunday, at 90, surrounded by family and friends who loved him.

Indeed, many of us did.

1972 was the first year I was old enough to vote in an election, and McGovern was the first presidential candidate for whom I voted.

To this day, I am more proud of that vote than most of the others I have cast since.

Some of McGovern’s people contacted me while I was still at seminary during the 1972 campaign. They wanted McGovern to have a chance to meet and talk with evangelical Christians, since his own Christian faith was very important to him — being the son of a Methodist minister and even having studied for a divinity degree himself for a while before deciding to go into teaching history. I agreed to help.

They couldn’t understand why most evangelicals at the time were for Richard Nixon, a man who turned out not to be one of the U.S.'s most honest, humble, or deeply religious presidents.

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