Richard Norton Smith’s outstanding new biography of Nelson Rockefeller does not directly focus much on the religious beliefs of the wealthy scion and long-time presidential aspirant. But there are enough tidbits to imply that he was a Social Gospel Christian, very much the product of his family’s targeted philanthropy and devotion to liberal Protestantism.

The grandson of America’s first billionaire, Rockefeller was born into a pious Baptist home where liquor, smoking and profanity were prohibited, family prayers were a daily ritual, and the Sabbath always sacred. His grandfather, John Sr., the builder of an oil empire, was a conventional but not very theologically minded Baptist. His father, John Jr., the heir and only son, was devout but committed to modernizing Christianity under the guidance of experts he would fund. His counsel for philanthropy was Raymond Fosdick, a backslidden Baptist who championed cautiously progressive causes. Fosdick was brother to the great liberal preacher Harry Emerson, a zealous foe of “fundamentalism” who had survived a Presbyterian heresy trial.

John Jr. so admired Rev. Fosdick that he funded his tracts and built a cathedral for him on New York’s upper West side, Riverside Church, where Protestantism and modernity were merged together by Fosdick’s sermons and the church’s progressive iconography. The church was and is next door to Union Seminary, once Baptist, and long an academy of liberal Protestantism, also supported by the Rockefellers. In the same neighborhood in the late 1950s the Rockefellers also built the soaring Interchurch Center as headquarters for liberal Protestant denominational and ecumenical agencies.

Earnest, chaste, sober, punctilious, generous, and committed to social uplift, John Jr. and his more exuberant wife Abby raised their five sons to be conventionally moral but theologically liberal Baptists who would perpetuate the family tradition of high-minded philanthropy. Their exertions were partly successful. Young Nelson, himself still chaste, married an upright woman whom he admired, quickly fathering five children. For most of his life he avoided hard liquor, profanity, and smoking. His work ethic never wavered. His commitment to humanitarian causes, political reform, and the arts was perpetual.

After helping with the management of Rockefeller Center during the Depression, he spent the rest of his life in public service, starting with appointive positions in FDR’s administration, despite his Republicanism. Always a fervent patriot, Rockefeller worked to counter Nazi and later Communist influence in Latin America. He conferred and socialized with FDR, who remained his lifelong beau ideal as President, and who helped further instill in Rockefeller a lifelong confidence in the power of government to sweepingly reform society.

Rockefeller served but did not as zealously admire Truman and Eisenhower. Against expectations, he was elected governor of New York in 1958, a big year for Democrats, the first of four unprecedented terms that would change the face of then America’s most populous and wealthiest state, instantly making him a major presidential contender.

Supposedly former Governor Tom Dewey once told Rockefeller, “I like you but I can’t afford you.” Across nearly sixteen years Rockefeller taxed, borrowed and spent, building highways, hospitals, schools, museums and an ever more expansive social welfare state. He had every confidence that few social problems could not be solved with enough funding and the right experts. Equally lavish with his own personal generosity towards charity, the arts, friends and subordinates, Rockefeller devoted himself to a life of giving. He was garrulous, empathetic, personable and approachable. He wrote long hand-written thank you notes. He charmed elevator operators. He may have had a rich man’s sense of entitlement but he was not a snob and mixed easily with all sorts, including unionized construction workers who appreciated his endless love affair with concrete and construction.

Rockefeller was devoted to fighting poverty, environmental degradation, disease, urban blight, and racism. He funded Martin Luther King, Jr., claiming almost no public credit. He was an enthusiast for American democracy and hated Communism. One campaign aide who worked for him, Reagan, and Goldwater claimed Rockefeller was the most passionately anti-Soviet of all of them.

As governor of New York, through the force of his personality, his political acumen, and his private wealth, he was the unquestioned dominant force across three decades. New York Mayor John Lindsey sarcastically called Rockefeller’s Fifth Avenue apartment “Berchtesgaden,” the name of Hitler’s alpine retreat. Nixon called him one of only three men then in American politics who understood power (including himself and John Connally). Even William F. Buckley acknowledged that Rockefeller, although liberal, would have been a great president.

Supposedly Rockefeller expended his life trying to become president. He ran three times, always haltingly, and throwing away his best chance in the lead up to 1964, when he divorced his wife of thirty-two years to marry a woman who was divorcing her own husband who retained custody of their children. Republican U.S. Senator Prescott Bush, patriarch of his own political dynasty, spoke for many by asking, “Have we come to the point in our life as a nation where the governor of a great state can desert a good wife, mother of his grown children, divorce her, then persuade a young mother of youngsters to abandon her husband and children and marry the governor?”

Rockefeller lost and never regained his lead over Barry Goldwater. He was and remained a chronic adulterer. A liberal Christian focused on saving the world, Rockefeller led his children in prayers, prayed on his own, supported the church his father built on Riverside Drive, plus the more modest ecumenical chapel his family built near their estate outside the city. There is no evidence in Smith’s book that Rockeller, so often thoughtful in other human interactions, was morally troubled by his marital infidelities. Morality was societal but not always personal.

It’s no surprise that Rockefeller led New York to become among the first in the nation to liberalize its abortion laws. His family had long supported population control, and his father had dabbled in eugenics. In 1970 he signed legislation allowing abortion during the first two trimesters. A Catholic-supported campaign to repeal the new law nearly succeeded in 1972, with the legislature voting to overturn, and President Nixon writing Cardinal Cooke of New York backing the church’s stance against the law. But Rockefeller vetoed repeal, just a year before Roe v. Wade. While studying the issue, he found an article citing Aquinas, cluelessly asked a staffer to arrange a meeting, and laughed when told he was theologian of centuries before.

Seven years later, arch-liberal Rev. William Sloane Coffin presided over Rockefeller’s funeral at Riverside Church, which featured favorite hymns like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” From the pulpit, Henry Kissinger, a longtime protégé, eulogized his patron’s conviction that for America “it is not a burden but God’s blessing conferring an opportunity to oppose tyranny, to defend the free, to lift up the poor, to give hope to the disadvantaged, and to walk truly in the paths of justice and compassion. “

Kissinger also added, in a quote that Smith doesn’t include: “I have known no public figure who so often reflected about the spiritual. The Brotherhood of Man and the Fatherhood of God was not a cliché for Nelson; it was a call to action, the motive force of his life. He practiced his faith, but he was too humble to preach it. He fought against injustice and fostered equality, but he thought it unseemly to adopt the clamoring tone of protest. He helped the downtrodden, but he thought it demeaning to publicize acts of Christian love.”

It was a eulogy of which the Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, the iconic modernist Protestant chaplain to the Rockefellers, would have fully approved. 

Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.

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