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It’s a bit daunting to follow up Heidi De Jonge here every two weeks. Heidi plumbs her personal and pastoral experience in a deep yet direct way that—to judge from responses—many of you find her posts to be just the thing to start off your day. I venture along those lines from time to time but more often stick to my primary interests of history and politics, with theology popping up once in a while. That’s the sort of mix that the Reformed Journal always observed, and so belongs on The Twelve as the RJ returns to life. Still, my stuff might not be your cup of tea, especially first thing in the morning. Maybe especially first thing this morning….
The ceremonies marking the death and burial of former president George H. W. Bush happened to occur at the same time that I was putting the finishing touches on a religious biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The book, A Christian and a Democrat (due out in July, but you can pre-order now! 😊) is mostly the work of the late Episcopal Church historian John F. Woolverton; I took the project over upon the author’s death and am now seeing it through to publication. In the process I’ve learned a great deal about FDR and have had cause to meditate upon the virtues, as well as the pitfalls, of American civil religion. The Roosevelt-Bush coincidence, however, now has me thinking as well about providence and its chances—about historic opportunities, seized or squandered.
Crisis—and Opportunity Seized
One of the high-water marks of FDR’s career came, as John Woolverton powerfully tells it, at the 1936 Democratic Party convention which nominated him for reelection to the presidency. Roosevelt’s acceptance speech, delivered before a crowd of 100,000 people at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field, still stirs the soul today. The setting couldn’t be more appropriate, FDR told the cheering throng, for just as in 1776 the Founders had risen up in Philadelphia to challenge a regime of “political royalists,” so now 160 years later the delegates had ssembled in the same city to challenge the “economic tyranny” imposed upon the country by another set of royalists: a “small group” of “privileged princes” who under the new industrial order had “concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor—other people’s lives.”
The ordinary Americans on whose behalf the delegates were acting, Roosevelt continued, knew “that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.” Espying, further, the rise of aggressive nationalism in Europe and Japan, Roosevelt saw the struggle playing out on a global scale. “In this world of ours in other lands, there are some people, who, in times past, have lived and fought for freedom, and seem to have grown too weary to carry on the fight,” he warned. “I believe in my heart that only our success can stir their ancient hope. They begin to know that here in America we are waging a great and successful war”—nothing less, in fact, than “a war for the survival of democracy.”
In the course of his speech Roosevelt directly cited his favorite passage of Scripture, 1 Corinthians 13. This was the text to which his old family Statenbijbel lay open every time he took the oath of office, and his Philadelphia speech took some time to expand upon its renowned evocation of faith, hope, and love. He threw The Divine Comedy into the bargain: “Governments can err, Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”
Then followed the lines for which the speech is best remembered: “There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.” Roosevelt stands in the top tier of American presidents—and the people he rallied have been labeled “the greatest generation”—for living up to that challenge. Saving the capitalist order from capitalists and vanquishing fascist tyranny in Europe, Roosevelt laid the underpinnings of the nation’s—and the Western world’s—unparalleled prosperity and (comparatively speaking) a stable geopolitical order.
Triumph—and Opportunity Squandered
All this came to mind as I read and heard the commentary on George H. W. Bush’s life and presidency. Everyone agreed that in personality and character he stood far above the current occupant of the Oval Office, although admittedly, that standard of measure is lower than a toad’s belly. Some commentators emphasized the things Bush accomplished: the ouster of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, final triumph in the Cold War, and dramatic arms reductions negotiated with the USSR. Others attended to things undone, or done badly: callousness in the face of the AIDS epidemic, protection of some old buddies from prosecution for their Iran-Contra crimes, and condoning racism in opposing the Civil Rights Act in1964 and running the Willie Horton ad in 1988.
But what I most remembered from the time of Bush’s presidency, and thought of again during the rites of farewell, was the scale—and the legacy—of an opportunity squandered. In the wake of the Kuwait war and the demise of the USSR, H.W. registered popular approval ratings approaching 90%. That’s political capital that could be harnessed to historic ends. What did he do with it? Campaigned for reductions in the capital-gains tax. That is, pushed for economic advantage for his own class of “privileged princes,” accelerating the plague of economic inequality. He didn’t get his way—had to raise taxes instead. But the signals of his heart were clear.
What if instead H.W. had seized the chance to shape a dramatically different future for the country and the world? What if he had re-directed some of that Cold War military spending and cashed in on his Kuwait war prestige to undertake a ten-year national quest á la John F. Kennedy’s space program to radically reduce American dependence on oil, thus leaving Hussein and his fellow Middle Eastern despots stranded on the shores of obsolescence? What if he had called for public and private funding for conservation, alternative energy sources, and a new transportation grid that would have reduced fossil fuel consumption by 50% in ten years, and 50% more in ten more?
But Bush was an oilman from day 1, you protest; this would have been highly improbable. Yes, like Roosevelt, he would have been regarded as “a traitor to his class.” And these goals would have been technologically and logistically impossible, you further say; just so were the mobilization and production FDR oversaw in World War II, and the Marshall Plan and postwar security structure erected by his heirs.
Paying for the Sins of the Fathers
A rendezvous with destiny is no incremental thing. Its successful negotiation takes bold execution of a grand vision for a giant step forward in human well-being. By all accounts H.W.’s glaring weakness was what he himself derided as “the vision thing.”
The long-term legacy of this opportunity not seen, this task not undertaken, is evident all around us. Bush’s rites came soon after the federal government’s own National Climate Assessment was issued, with warnings just as dire as those sounded by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change a month before. From coral reefs to forests, from shores to rivers, from iconic mammals to the insects that constitute most of the living creatures on earth, all stand in peril owing to the way human beings organize and run their lives, burning up the world. Burning fossil fuels without compunction is the symbol and spearhead of that plague.
The current president laughs at all this and begs for more; there is something breathtaking to his callow arrogance, to be sure. But this is the vision of nihilism, and those who exercise it the God of Scripture dooms by leaving them to their own desires. “Had you but listened in time and learned and corrected your ways,” the prophets mourn again, and again, and again, before the people of God who heard and knew better but just couldn’t change their ways.
Opportunity seized, opportunity squandered. “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”