Listen To Article

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.”

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. The title of his most recent book, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013), is eerily echoed in that of the volume he has edited and completed for the late John Woolverton, which will appear in 2019: “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

10 Comments

  • Heidi De Jonge says:

    Thank you, James, for doing what you do best on The Twelve. This post was my cup of tea (or coffee!) this morning. I am pondering the parallels between pastoral and presidential leadership…

  • James Schaap says:

    Always thankful to read your posts, Mr. Historian.

  • mstair says:

    eschatologically, you have led me to ponder ;
    Although The Holy Spirit’s presence is certainly in attendance within the existing Body of Christ, perhaps His work with the politics of America was completed within The Greatest Generation and the forming of The State Israel in 1948. The apostasy of the American church, the decline of moral guidance in The Presidency, and the inability of Congressional bipartisanship has assuredly accelerated since then … and, along the fringes of social media and local statute enforcement – America’s cultural yearning for a lowest common denominator of values has indicted traditional Biblical assemblies with criticism that looks a lot like persecution …

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Well, I got emotional reading The Twelve yesterday, and I got emotional again today. You can’t write about FDR without moving me to great feeling, despite his wrongs. I’m so glad to learn you’re publishing this book. It was his great-grandfather, I believe, Isaac, who published the English Psalter and Liturgy of the Dutch Church in New York and sold it out of his sugar house. Isaac’s written testimony of his faith in the Lord Jesus may still be read in manuscript in the FDR archives in Hyde Park.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    FDR is my favorite President and so this piece was indeed a fitting way to start my day, James! Yes indeed on surmounting also the daunting challenges facing us, the words from (I think) his “Arsenal of Democracy” speech also ring in my ears: “Let no man say it cannot be done. We say it must be done and therefore it WILL be done.” That kind of leadership changes the world.

  • Matt Huisman says:

    Wasn’t FDR a four-term fascist who was a racist, had extramarital affairs in office and implemented economic policies that extended the Great Depression?

    • James Bratt says:

      Dead wrong on nearly every count.
      1. “Fascist”…. Must I remind you that FDR led a huge Allied war AGAINST Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and militaristic-authoritarian Japan? Accusing him of fascism is right up there with Trump’s Ambassador-designate to the UN saying that D-Day was an example of US-German cooperation. The American fascists at the time were such as Father Charles Coughlin, ancestor of Pat Buchanan, Bill O’Reilly, etc., and Charles Lindbergh whose “America First” slogan might just remind you of someone prominent on the current political scene.
      2. Racist: FDR did as much for world Jewry as the American political situation allowed. Much too little, therefore, but far more than most Americans at the time would entertain. The New Deal and GI Bill were susceptible to anti-Black implementation on the local level but that’s because FDR wanted these bills passed and put into motion quickly, without an entirely centralized bureaucracy to supervise them. His years in office, in fact, marked the decisive turn of African American voters from majority Republican to majority Democratic. They knew who had their interests at heart.
      3. Economic policies: In fact, the New Deal spelled real recovery from 1933 to early 1937. Then, heeding the economic orthodoxy of the time, FDR significantly cut federal spending, throwing the economy back into recession. Full recovery happened with the greatest federal deficit spending undertaken to date from 1940 on as the US re-armed for WWII.
      4. Extra-marital affairs. FDR did carry on one such, with Lucy Mercer (later Rutherford) at the time of WW I when he was Asst Secretary of the Navy. He gave that up at his wife and mother’s insistence once it became known to them. Thereafter, crippled from polio and in a wheelchair, he wasn’t exactly candidate #1 for the role of Lothario. He did have close, emotionally dependent relationships w/ his cousin Dolly and key female staffers, but by all indications these were not physically sexual. He did resume his friendship w/ Lucy later in life, especially under the extreme pressures of WWII, but again his physical capacity for our standard notion of an ‘affair’ is in significant doubt. In short, he wasn’t Jimmy Carter on this front, but he wasn’t JFK or Donald Trump either.

    • Matt Huisman says:

      1) Fascism is in the eye of the beholder, but the idea that resisting other fascists means you’re not a fascist is nonsense. I’m also trying to imagine your reaction to Trump receiving a 1933-style “delegation of powers”, attempting to pack the courts, New Deal price controls, etc. 2) Internment camps. 3) There are any number of economists who will tell you the New Deal made the Depression last longer. But Truman’s Fair Deal went nowhere without a four-term cult figure pushing it. 4) Whatever.

      I’m not really interested in tearing down FDR – just trying to hold up a mirror. It’s either that or the takeaway is that we need a more charismatic figure to get their hands on more power so that they can make more people do good, like FDR.

  • Rodger Rice says:

    I am enjoying your essay with afternoon tea and find myself crying into my cup. What missed opportunities we live with. God help us. Delighted that you are finishing a book on FDR. One of my favorites. I’m eager to get purchase and read it. And keep writing for us afternoon RJ readers. We are here.

  • John Haas says:

    Excellent piece. Thanks. It helped me clarify my feelings about 41. It’s easy to romanticize him when viewed from our current sorry predicament. But you nailed his most significant legacy for the US.

    Btw, I saw Mark Shields around 1994 or so lecturing on recent politics, and he made a brilliant point about 41. “When you’re approval rating is at 90%–higher than FDR’s or any other president–it doesn’t mean Americans love you so much–it means they don’t know who you are.” He went on to say that the first thing you do when you’re at a pinnacle like that is going to reveal yourself to the people, and fix your image in their minds. Bush came out for capital gains tax cuts and with that, said Shields, he’d lost his re-election bid.

Leave a Reply