My Brother's Keeper

George McGovern and Progressive Christianity

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Mark A. Lempke
Culture, Politics, and the Cold War
  • Amherst, MA: 
    University of Massachusetts Press
    , April
     2017.
     264 pages.
     $90.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781625342775.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

For many casual observers of post-World War II era politics, South Dakota Senator George McGovern was the idealistic and naïve 1972 Democratic Party presidential candidate who suffered a crushing and ignominious defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon. Mark Lempke argues in My Brother’s Keeper: George McGovern and Progressive Christianity that the three-term senator, two-term congressman, and decorated war hero was also an exemplar of the critical role that the social gospel and social justice worldview played in both American politics and American religion. Part biography and part analysis of the divide between mainline prophetic liberalism and nationalistic conservative evangelicalism, My Brother’s Keeper situates McGovern in the larger context of shifting religious cultures and political expectations.

The son of a preacher, McGovern grew up in the traditional Methodist church before finding a home in the more theologically-progressive Methodist Episcopal Church. Several influences shaped McGovern’s newfound theology: his understanding of, and affinity for, Old Testament prophetic traditions; his time in seminary along with his graduate work in history; his immersion into the social gospel conceptualizations of Walter Rauschenbush and others; the impact of some professors at Dakota Wesleyan, Garrett Theological Seminary, and Northwestern University; his military service as a bomber pilot; the troubled lives of some of his children; and a broader sense of America’s mission in the world. McGovern becomes, in Lempke’s view, an American Amos decrying war and excess, and calling for a political “dialogue between affairs of the soul and the affairs of the state” (51). Indeed, McGovern belongs on the short list of presidential candidates whose political sentiments were profoundly shaped by their religious sentiments.

The McGovern that emerges in the pages of My Brother’s Keeper is thoughtful, intellectual, and biblically literate, but also ambitious, impatient, and prone to gaffes. Compassionate, kind, and devoted to service on behalf of others, the South Dakotan seemed quick to plot his next foray toward a higher office, and surprisingly bitter when he felt he had been wronged. A professor, a preacher, and an estimable debater, McGovern often struggled to articulate his ideas to a wider audience including to the evangelicals, who he was more likely to alienate than convince. At staunchly evangelical Wheaton College, the senator argued for the role of a religious calling to uplift society, yet undoubtedly played to his audience’s worst fears of liberal Christianity by noting that “the concept of personal salvation is not an unimportant one” (155). After spending a significant amount of time crafting his theologically-themed and powerful 1972 Democratic convention acceptance speech, “Come Home America,” the senator’s mishandling of the convention proceedings resulted in the speech being delivered at three in the morning, when few Americans were awake to hear it. A Democrat who successfully represented an overwhelmingly Republican state, McGovern is perhaps best known for his lopsided losses in 1972, and in his final senate campaign of 1980. To be sure, McGovern was profoundly shaped by the faith of his youth and a lifetime of examining the scriptures, but voters across the country found it plausible to believe that he was the candidate of “amnesty, abortion, and acid,” and that a vote for McGovern was a vote of confidence for the hippie culture. In part, this was due to his sense of humility—few Americans even knew of his military service—convincing themselves that the senator’s strong denunciation of the Viet Nam War was an indication that he was too soft to be trusted with command during the Cold War.

 McGovern-the-prophet could be a scold—challenging the country to do better on matters of race, poverty, and peace—but sounding like he had lost faith in an America that was changing, if only too slowly and too narrowly for his tastes. The senator made religious allies with fellow travelers such as clergyman James Armstrong, the National Council of Churches, Religious Leaders for McGovern, Evangelicals for McGovern, and the World Council of Churches, but few of these individuals or organizations proved capable of making an electoral difference. More to the point, the differences among the Religious Left may have been greater than their common ground, a point Lempke makes in his theme that prophetic leftists were less prone to unity than more the nationalistic and salvation-oriented members of the Religious Right. For all of McGovern’s activism, his ability to reach and transform a wider audience was limited. Perhaps McGovern’s greatest impact came with Food for Peace and other global hunger initiatives, yet today—five years after the senator’s death—food insecurity remains national and international challenge.

Lempke successfully weaves a variety of religious and political influences into this short and readable volume which is suitable for specialists in twentieth-century American religion, politics, and presidential history, as well as informed general readers.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeff Frederick is professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

Date of Review: 
July 7, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark A. Lempke is visiting instructor, SUNY Buffalo, Singapore campus.

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