Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In her 1958 autobiography, Eleanor Roosevelt described an occasion in the early days of the U.N. Human Rights Commission when she invited three key players to her Washington Square apartment for tea. The guests that afternoon were the commission’s two leading intellectuals, Charles Malik of Lebanon and China’s Peng-chun Chang, along with John Humphrey, the Canadian director of the U.N.’s Human Rights Division.

“As we settled down over the teacups,” the former First Lady recalled, “one of them made a remark with philosophical implications, and a heated discussion ensued.”

By Roosevelt’s account, Dr. Chang was “a pluralist and held forth in charming fashion on the proposition that there is more than one kind of ultimate reality.” Malik responded to the remark by an extended reference to the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. The conversation became, as Roosevelt recalled, “so lofty” that she couldn’t even follow along.

“So I simply filled the teacups again,” Roosevelt wrote, “and sat back to be entertained by the talk of these learned gentlemen.”

None of the guests on that occasion would have taken this archly modest account at face value. They were already familiar with her style of chairmanship, in which she did, indeed, “sit back” and let everyone have his or her say—all the while studying how to steer the discussion toward her desired outcome.

In this way Eleanor Roosevelt herself contributed to the odd tendency of some political historians to underestimate her importance. She had been raised in an ethos where women were schooled to be self-effacing. Later, shrewd political actor that she was, she was not above feigning naivete when it suited her purposes.

Perhaps this is why, in the early 1990s, when I began researching Eleanor Roosevelt’s role as chair of the U.N.’s first Human Rights Commission, I found that key aspects of Roosevelt’s life and work had been ignored or underrated by historians and biographers. Although Roosevelt herself regarded her work on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as her single greatest public achievement, diplomatic historians and writers on foreign policy had given short shrift to her role. Even her biographers had not treated her U.N. work in any detail. In fact, most biographies left off with her departure from the White House after the death of her husband in the spring of 1945.

It also struck me as curious that most contributors to the voluminous Roosevelt literature had overlooked the connection between Eleanor Roosevelt’s achievements and the high-minded Protestant Christianity that was so much a part of her public and private persona. One notable exception was Jean Bethke Elshtain’s 1986 essay on “Eleanor Roosevelt as Activist and Thinker,” in which Elshtain pondered why that dimension of Roosevelt’s life had been so frequently ignored—and why feminist thinkers had shown little interest in the ideas of a woman who undeniably had wielded great political influence.

The truth is that few American women have been so admired at home and abroad as Eleanor Roosevelt, and few have left behind such a distinguished record of public service. Her political activities, her zeal for social reform, her empathy for the disadvantaged, her family relationships and friendships have been detailed in scores of books and articles and dramatized on stage and on film. At her death in 1962, the New York Times described her as “more involved in the minds and hearts and aspirations of people than any other First Lady in history” and as “one of the most esteemed women in the world.”

It is in that strange dichotomy—between the public, confident heroine and the shy, retiring observer—that Roosevelt reveals herself at her most mysterious, and most powerful.

Roosevelt regularly hosted small social gatherings for colleagues, believing that personal connections could help to reduce professional tensions. She had brought Chang and Malik together in the hope, as she put it, “that our work might be advanced by an informal atmosphere.”

What she did not mention in her autobiography, but what the U.N. record shows, is that bickering between Chang and Malik, who had emerged as intellectual leaders on the commission, was threatening to become a problem. In such cases it was not her style to take people to the woodshed; instead, she invited them to tea. Although the arguments between the two never completely ceased, Roosevelt did succeed in getting them to work together effectively on the all-important drafting committee.

By the time she assumed the chair of the Human Rights Commission in 1947, Roosevelt had perfected her own, very effective mode of leadership. In so doing, as Elshtain insightfully pointed out, she had subtly transformed the social definition of a lady.

“For Roosevelt,” Elshtain wrote, “being a lady and being tough was no contradiction in terms”none at all”and her explicit fusing of the two turned older understandings inside out.” Roosevelt’s close friend and biographer Joseph Lash reported that she was particularly fond of a passage from a poem by Stephen Vincent Benét in which he described the mistress of a plantation as a woman who was able

To take the burden and have the power
And seem like the well-protected flower.

Her ability to simultaneously exploit and expand the social advantages of her station served her well. But it was not likely to endear her to the hard-line feminists of the 1970s and 1980s.

Roosevelt’s tendency to downplay her accomplishments seems also to have misled several writers on human rights who portrayed her as merely having chaired the U.N.’s Human Rights Commission while Chang, Malik, Humphrey, René Cassin, and others did the heavy lifting. After studying all the commission’s transcripts, I concluded that to underestimate Eleanor Roosevelt’s role is to miss the main drama of the process that, against enormous odds, led to the approval of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, without a single dissenting vote.

The commission she chaired was composed of eighteen strong-willed personalities with all sorts of competing and conflicting loyalties—not to mention such personality conflicts as those between Chang and Malik. All the members except Roosevelt and Hansa Mehta of India were men, at a time when most men were unaccustomed to female leadership. The linguistic and cultural differences among eighteen persons from eighteen nations added to the problem. And as if those challenges were not enough, Roosevelt, as an American, found herself opposed at every juncture by four hard-nosed, hostile, and often rude Soviet-bloc representatives. The Palestine crisis was erupting, conflict was breaking out in China and Korea, the Cold War was deepening, and the Berlin blockade was threatening to plunge the world again into a hot war.

In other words, Roosevelt’s assignment—to get a multicultural group to prepare a human-rights declaration and to get it approved by the General Assembly—appeared a near-impossible task.

I see Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in the framing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as like that of George Washington at the Constitutional Convention. He, too, “only” presided; but historians agree that without the force of his personality and the great respect of his colleagues, there would have been no Constitution.

The transcripts of the Human Rights Commission shed an interesting light on Eleanor Roosevelt’s view of the scope and limits of the role of government in addressing the social and economic problems that were of deep concern to her. The most heated debates concerned how the declaration’s social and economic rights were to be implemented. Roosevelt and other representatives of liberal democracies wanted not to dampen private initiative or to give too much power to the state. As chair of the drafting committee, she favored leaving each nation broad room for choice and experimentation with a range of means for implementing the new rights—governmental programs and policies, market dynamics, voluntary private initiatives, and so on. Implacably opposed were the Soviet-bloc delegates, who insisted that the state must be the sole guarantor of rights to health care, education, and other social services. The Soviet-bloc delegates’ failure to obtain language to that effect was one of the main reasons why they abstained from the final vote.

Recent biographers have tended to omit discussion of Eleanor Roosevelt’s religious beliefs. It is hard to believe that this results from mere oversight. That aspect of her personality was taken for granted in memoirs by contemporaries such as Joseph Lash and William Turner Levy, who knew her well. Roosevelt herself referred frequently to the importance of Christianity in her daily life. A prolific writer of books, articles, newspaper columns, and letters, she often discussed her beliefs, her prayers, and her journey from a strict religious upbringing to a more personal faith.

Born in 1884, Roosevelt was raised in households that vigorously fostered habits of piety. The Rev. William Turner Levy, an Episcopal priest, recounted that she once told him that her grandmother’s insistence on the literal truth of every word in the Bible had “discouraged me from asking any questions, and that was a very unhealthy situation.” But she also rejected the dogmatic atheism of her beloved boarding-school teacher and mentor, Mlle. Marie Souvestre. Reminiscing about Mlle. Souvestre, Roosevelt told Levy: “She simply refused—and I suppose it was pride—to acknowledge that she was following standards she hadn’t invented. She was following love, as we all must, and that is to follow God.”

Although Roosevelt abandoned the severe religiosity of her grandmother, she kept her habits of regular prayer and church attendance. She also retained from her upbringing a stern sense of duty. The conviction that much is expected of those to whom much is given”together with empathy born of the loneliness and loss she had experienced in childhood”helped to fuel her passionate commitment to those she regarded as disadvantaged.

The Christian sensibilities of the mature Eleanor Roosevelt are on prominent display in The Moral Basis of Democracy , a short book she published in 1940. The opening sentence explains the purpose of the book in the rather preachy style to which its author was sometimes prone: “At a time when the whole world is in a turmoil and thousands of people are homeless and hungry, it behooves all of us to reconsider our political and religious beliefs in an effort to clarify in our minds the standards by which we live.” The Tocquevillean premise of her book is that democracy depends on moral foundations and that religion is the main source of morality. “We do not begin to approach a solution of our problems,” she wrote, “until we acknowledge the fact that they are spiritual.”

Even more than other forms of government, she maintained, democracy requires “a spiritual, moral awakening.” She did not consider that such an awakening need “necessarily come through any one religious belief, or through people who regularly go to church,” but she did take for granted that the principal wellspring of morality in the United States was the Christian religion. “The citizens of a Democracy,” she wrote, “must model themselves on the best and most unselfish life we have known in history. They may not all believe in Christ’s divinity, though many will; but His life is important simply because it becomes a shining beacon of what success means.” “We may belong to any religion or to none,” she went on, “but we must acknowledge that the life of Christ was based on principles which are necessary to the development of a Democratic state.”

Deploring the pervasiveness of poverty and the scandal of racial discrimination in America, Roosevelt framed her political message in religious terms: “It is quite obvious that we do not practice a Christ-like way of living in our relationship to submerged people, and here again we see that a kind of religion which gives us a sense of obligation about living with a deeper interest in the welfare of our neighbors is an essential to the success of Democracy.” It distressed her that many Americans “who call themselves Catholic, Protestant, or Jew, behave as though religion were something shut up in one compartment of their lives. It seems to have no effect on their actions or their growth or on their relationship to their surroundings and activities.” If Americans would only “develop the fundamental beliefs and desires which make us considerate of the weak and truly anxious to see a Christ-like spirit on earth,” she exhorted, “we will have educated ourselves for Democracy.”

Joseph Lash, who was Jewish, recalled that Roosevelt used to carry in her purse an inspirational message by Henry Van Dyke, enjoining one to “think seldom of your enemies, often of your friends, and every day of Christ.” He noted that she had circled the phrase about Christ. “As completely as she could she wanted to live according to Christ’s teachings,” Lash wrote.

But the biographer also noted that he was “struck by her hostility” to the Catholic Church. “Somewhere deep in her subconscious,” Lash speculated, “was an anti-Catholicism which was a part of her Protestant heritage. In her great-grandmother Ludlow’s Sunday-school exercise books, there were lessons on the dangers of popery. Enlightened Protestantism had long since outgrown such primitive prejudice—she had ardently supported Al Smith in the 1920s—but her fear of the Church as a temporal institution was reawakened from time to time by its political operations.”

When Roosevelt was publicly accused of anti-Catholicism during a celebrated tiff with Cardinal Spellman over government aid to parochial-school students, her main defense was that she had supported Catholic candidates for public office. But that did not pass muster with Lash, who believed that “her distrust of the church as a temporal institution was one of the reasons for her strenuous opposition later to John F. Kennedy’s bid for the presidential nomination.”

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had divergent ideas about religion, as they did about many matters. The president was not a regular churchgoer, nor does the historical record disclose much about his convictions. “He had a strong religious feeling and his religion was a very personal one,” Eleanor wrote in This I Remember. “I think he actually felt he could ask God for guidance and receive it . . . . He never talked about his religion or his beliefs and never seemed to have any intellectual difficulties about what he believed.” His beliefs, as she rather condescendingly concluded, were those “of a child grown to manhood under certain simple influences.”

After FDR’s death, according to her son Elliott, Eleanor would “put on her old blue bathrobe, and by the bed with its uncompromising hard mattress, she knelt to say her prayers.” When the Rev. Levy asked her, in the 1950s, whether she still read the Bible, she told him, “I try to read it daily, at bedtime, even if it’s only a page or two. The trouble is that I’m usually so tired—I’m ashamed to say it, but I sometimes fall asleep in the middle of my prayers!” Levy said she seemed relieved when he told her that the same thing often happened to him.

In 1951 Eleanor Roosevelt attended a meeting in Brussels at which thinkers and religious leaders from all over the world gathered to discuss how an individual’s spirituality could affect his or her actions in public life. Afterward, she reflected on the conference in her newspaper column, My Day . She began with a remark that sounds like an implicit judgment on her late husband’s happy-go-lucky spirituality. She confessed her fear that when one asks for guidance from God, one might subconsciously confuse “a feeling of guidance” with one’s own desires. She then discussed her own convictions:

It seems to me that there is the chance that we were given our intelligence and our gifts as a part of God’s plan, and it might well be that each and every one of us should develop our faculties to the best of our ability, that we should seek information from others. In fact, we should explore all avenues that would help us to meet our own problems.

This is not saying that we would feel able to decide without God’s help. But the deep religious feeling of many people will not, of necessity, mean that on each action that they take they feel direct guidance from God. Rather, it may mean that what they have learned and the effort they have made to live, if they are Christians, according to Christ’s teachings, will have so molded their characters that unconsciously they will do the Lord’s will.

Regarding religious differences, Roosevelt went on: “I think I believe that the Lord looks upon His children with compassion and allows them to approach Him in many ways . . . . But I do not think that anyone can feel there is only one way, since what may meet someone’s needs may not of necessity meet another’s needs. And one must even beware of too much certainty that the answers to life’s problems can only be found in one way and that all must agree to search for light in the same way and cannot find it in any other way.” It seems Eleanor Roosevelt’s mature faith encompassed a loving God, a Christ who has shown the most perfect way to live, and a sense of the responsibility of each and every human being to search for, and cooperate with, God’s will.

In view of the importance that Eleanor Roosevelt attributed to religion throughout her life, how can one explain that few contributors to the Roosevelt literature have connected her religious beliefs to her well-known empathy? Roosevelt was famously committed to helping the hungry, the homeless, the jobless, the dispossessed, and the victims of war, disease, and injustice. How did that relate to her faith? Jean Elshtain put her finger on the right answer in 1986: “Eleanor Roosevelt’s deeply devout and intensely felt religious convictions, her determination to bear witness and to serve as Christ did, and her unabashed openness about all of this, is more of a scandal to us than to her contemporaries.”

To ignore that dimension of Roosevelt’s persona is to separate her public positions from what she herself maintained were their deepest springs. An analogous phenomenon is the increasing tendency by many who did not know the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to refer to him as Dr. King—and to omit discussion of the religious convictions that motivated him in his nonviolent quest for racial justice. Likewise, no portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt will be complete that does not include her career as a gifted diplomat, her understanding of the importance of the institutions of civil society, and the religious convictions that gave life to her impassioned commitment to social activism.

Mary Ann Glendon, a member of the First Things editorial and advisory board, is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons. Image cropped.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift