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An American Joseph/ine

By August 16, 2014 No Comments

The sounds of fatigue and sorrow have been pretty constant on this blog of late, and for good reason. So here’s a curveball. No one’s ever mistaken me for an optimist (hoots of derision from family and friends), but I’d like to offer up a late-summer note of hope.

The wise—that is to say, the historians—among you will recognize that I’m retrieving a distinction made by the late great American historian Christopher Lasch. Optimism, Lasch said, is the consummately American delusion that, since we’re nice people and the world’s a nice place, things are bound to get better. Hope, instead, is earned by looking into the face of darkness and not taking it as the final word. So, a word of hope.

Hope, moreover, from an unexpected angle. Right-thinking Christians have taught by one form of liberation theology or another that it is the poor, the marginalized, the disaffected who are first in the Lord’s favor and most likely to speak the prophetic word. True enough. Imagine, though, if relief came from the top. If someone from the very elite of society, pampered in privilege almost unimaginable to the middle-class, much less to the poor, came out foursquare for the suffering, for justice, for the unseen and unesteemed. What if the voice leading us out of our current wilderness of inequality, violence, rancor, and hate is being formed right now in the stratosphere of the 1 percent? Maybe even the .1 percent? Think not St Joseph the Worker (father of our Lord) but Joseph of Arimathea.

The thought arises from the Roosevelt reading jag I’ve been on of late. Mostly Franklin, with a good dollop of Eleanor on the side. The virile pagan Theodore is too much for me; his cousin and niece both suffered crippling injuries that took the edge off. And honed instead the edge of compassion, and outrage, that cut through the crust of their native class and put them, with their considerable inherited advantages, on the side of ordinary folk during the deep valleys of the Great Depression.

Both Franklin and Eleanor grew up as heirs of an East Coast aristocracy that looks unbelievably crass to us today. Maybe it’s that our own lords of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and the oil patch hide their extravagances behind better PR. The circles around the Roosevelts didn’t think they had to. Thought it was all the thing to flaunt them instead. Among Franklin’s kin, a fortune made in the opium trade and multiplied several times over via investments in railroads and New York City real estate, not to mention marriages to Astor heirs, permitted an idle life passed equally between Hudson River estates, Manhattan townhouses, and six-month sojourns at the best hotels in Europe. Franklin’s own father seasoned this mix with sober injunctions to noblesse oblige, but Franklin’s half-brother got exactly none of that message, hung around with pals who took the sporting life to be an entitlement, and regarded social responsibility as a joke.  

For a while Franklin threatened to follow that pattern, merely substituting politics as the coolest sport in town. Entitlements to Groton, Harvard, law school, and sweet interest on a big trust plus good looks and good luck made for a callow ease that bothered some but him not at all. Then, two years of disaster: visiting the battlefields of World War I, being discovered in his affair with the comely Lucy Mercer, and falling victim to polio. By 1921 it seemed that he had lost it all. His recovery took Franklin through prodigies of suffering and determination, and took him to the waters at Warm Springs, Georgia—and into the impoverished countryside thereabouts. He stopped to talk, and listened a lot. His old self-confidence was still in form, but new insight and new compassion had taken deep root.

As for Eleanor, she suffered acutely from the curse of privileged parents. Father Elliott was a younger brother of Theodore the president and felt utterly inadequate in his shadow. TR handled the family’s curse of manic-depression with ever greater exploits of daring and energy. Elliott hit the bottle, and eventually the bottom. He fawned over little Eleanor and doused her in false promises. Meanwhile, her mother, Anna Hall, one of the great beauties of the New York elite, showed a fruitless love to her shaky husband and none at all to somber, awkward Eleanor. Virtually orphaned long before the actual fact, thought to be plain and dull next to the gorgeous glitter of her mother, gifted with three locks on her bedroom door to keep her drunken uncles from night-time assaults, Eleanor took the world to be a capricious, heartless, and terminally lonely place, and herself to be unloved, unlovable. Not quite believing her fortune when she attracted the interest of good-looking cousin Franklin, she knew the world had come around right when she discovered his infidelities.

It was her husband’s most slovenly and cagey political crony, Louis Howe, who took Eleanor under his wing, taught her politics, and effectively gave her a life. She got the reputation for being Franklin’s liberal nag—the constant bearer of news about the plight of this, that, or another suffering population. A paragon of the politics of guilt and pity, smart right-wing Christians would smear her today. Well, there’s lots for rich folks to feel guilty about, and far better for some Eleanors among them to stand up and shout than for her parents’ set to have another drink and say the poor had it coming. More accurately, out of their own suffering Franklin and Eleanor came to anticipate the wisdom that Abraham J. Heschel would voice amid the civil rights battles of the 1960s: that, “indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

The Roosevelts’ great fortune was to be able to turn their many assets—privilege, power, splendid schooling, and perhaps most of all aristocratic confidence—toward the good of little and forgotten people. Their means, their motives, their consequences were mixed, of course, but what a different world from ours when light instead of sneering comes from the top tier of society. May we live in hope for its return.




James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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