A Christian and a Democrat:
A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt
by john f. woolverton and james d. bratt
eerdmans, 280 pages, $32
A Christian and a Democrat gets off to an inauspicious start, with a foreword by former FBI director James Comey denouncing President Trump and his evangelical supporters. Comey, of course, mismanaged a spurious investigation of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and was later fired for cause after seeking a warrant to conduct surveillance on Donald Trump’s campaign on the basis of material he knew to be false. His endorsement does not inspire confidence. Nor does the book’s preface, which laments that white Protestant American Christianity had “overwhelmingly endorsed Donald Trump, the most forthright pagan ever to occupy the oval office.”
This book is an ambitious effort to portray Franklin D. Roosevelt as a virtual Manchurian candidate of the Episcopal church. No minutiae are too obscure to be used in portraying him as a man formed intellectually and temperamentally by his parents and by his school headmaster, Endicott Peabody, founder of Groton School. They supposedly crafted a human rocketship targeted to go through life advancing the cause of Episcopal meliorism.
In his first inaugural address, FDR said: “Our common difficulties . . . concern, thank God, only material things”—a direct challenge to Marxist materialism, which denies the importance of the spiritual. In his campaign wind-up in New York in 1936, he implicitly rebutted both Marxism and fascism by emphasizing the ethnic and sectarian diversity of America, as well as its spirituality: “Above our political forums . . . stand the altars of our faiths.” In his State of the Union message of January 1941, he established all the subsequent foreign policy of the United States by adapting the Scriptures: “We must always be wary of those who with sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal preach the ‘-ism’ of appeasement.” And during the Normandy invasion of June 6, 1944, he led the nation in prayer:
These men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. . . . They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home. Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, thy heroic servants, into thy kingdom.
Always, he used American diversity to assert opposition to Nazi racism, and invoked religious faith and ethics to rout the greed and unscrupulousness of his domestic and foreign enemies. But it was never clear where the balance was between his own religious beliefs and his tactical political adroitness. John F. Woolverton and James D. Bratt are certainly onto something, as Roosevelt was undoubtedly by conventional contemporary definition a religious man. But because he was enigmatic in all things, it is hard to know exactly how much his religious views influenced his conduct as a statesman. The authors touch only lightly on FDR’s penchant for bending the truth and manipulating events to his advantage. An important element of his success was his deployment of this shady talent to the general good of the nation and the Allied cause. But the authors subscribe to Arthur Schlesinger’s view that Roosevelt was “not really Machiavellian.” I had this discussion with Schlesinger when I wrote my book about Roosevelt. The fact is that Roosevelt was a far more sophisticated manipulator of men and events than Machiavelli could have imagined.
The authors struggle to deal with the problem faced by all biographers of Roosevelt: that, in Henry Wallace’s (for once) insightful words, “no one knows him, no one knows anything about him.” And an opponent of Wallace and his successor as vice president, Harry Truman, who owed much to Roosevelt and greatly admired him, said, “He was the coldest man I ever met. He didn’t give a damn personally for me or you or anyone else in the world as far as I could see. But he was a great President.” This is not the Episcopal Church Militant.
Beneath his overpowering personality and bonhomous exterior, Roosevelt’s notion of friendship does not seem to have gone much beyond the fishing party, the card table, and the normal pastimes of gregarious youth. He confided in no one, gave contradictory indications of his intentions to everyone he spoke to, and almost never answered direct questions. When he died, the highest officials in government had not the slightest idea of his postwar plans. His intentions can be determined only retrospectively, by examining his actions.
The authors of this book have done their very best to read profound meanings into casual assertions Roosevelt made at various stages in his career. They clearly share the social patrician high-church altruism of Roosevelt’s headmaster Peabody. So it is only natural that they would believe Peabody exerted a great influence on Roosevelt. I suspect that, as he did in most of his relationships, Roosevelt sometimes flattered and echoed Peabody, used him and his connections for his own purposes, took his counsel seriously in some areas, and genuinely revered him to some extent, but kept his own counsel and set his own course. Others who were apparently close to Roosevelt likewise served relatively narrow purposes. Louis McHenry Howe, an early political adviser, was a highly valued family friend and pacifier of Eleanor. Eleanor herself was more a piece of the puzzle than an intimate. Roosevelt successfully played her off against his overbearing mother, until it all blew up with the discovery of his romance with Lucy Mercer in 1919.
The book sometimes veers into mind-reading and speculation. It is not conceivable to me that Roosevelt had a blinding revelation of the nature and sources of Hitler’s evil as a result of a dinner conversation in 1944 with a twenty-nine-year-old clergyman who introduced him to the writing of the then less renowned Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Roosevelt saw through Hitler from Hitler’s first day as German chancellor, if not before. Like a true Machiavellian, he was repulsed by ideological fervor.
The ambition of the authors to attach American presidents to relatively precise religious views is not confined to Roosevelt. They identify Jefferson, who is generally thought to have been a Deist, as more of a Christian than most experts allow. Their contrasts among Roosevelt the Episcopalian, Hoover the Quaker, and Lincoln the troubled low-church Protestant are interesting but not rigorous.
Roosevelt believed equally in a divine intelligence and his own aptitude and duty to do great and good things. He coupled these beliefs with a recognition of and respect for the persuasive power of the Scriptures, but this does not make him the Christian statesman the authors imagine.
Peabody was not as impressive as the authors think he was, and Roosevelt was much more complicated. But it is an interesting book that must be respected for both its high Christian tradition and the heartfelt approach of its authors. The sincerity of the effort raises the project above the preface’s outrageous defamation of the incumbent president, who is doing more to uphold Christian values in the United States and the world than any president since Ronald Reagan, a program that Franklin D. Roosevelt would have heartily approved. Whatever his reservations would be about some of the other foibles of his current successor in the White House, Roosevelt would certainly have approved of Trump’s opposition to late-term abortion; his opposition to compelling Catholic institutions to pay for contraceptive, abortifacient, and sterilizing procedures; and his public emphasis on Christmas.
Roosevelt was a believer in God and in the right to free religious practice, a right he frequently exercised. But he was not fervent or pious, did not speak of his beliefs, and disliked being seen at prayer. He was an optimist by nature, but also a mysterious and complicated cynic. The authors, while attributing to Roosevelt their own beliefs, have ambled into a good deal of (often interesting) conjecture. This is perhaps inevitable for anyone trying to explain a man at least as enigmatic as he was great.
Conrad Black is the author of Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other.