A Christian and a Democrat

A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt

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John F. Woolverton, James D. Bratt
Library of Religious Biography
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , July
     2019.
     280 pages.
     $32.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780802876850.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The thesis of the genrally well-written book is summed up in its title, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an Episcopalian, was, in his own words, “a Christian and a Democrat.”  He was also an unabashed liberal pragmatist, one willing to work with his opponents when the success of his program required it; this was especially true of the compromises he made with the Democratic segregrationists who were an important faction of his party, men who exercised immense power  in Congress. 

Because historians, political scientists, and journalists often overlook the religious views of public figures, especially politicians, the book adds a valuable dimension to the numerous valuable biographies of an important presidential figure.   It also might well spark added research into Roosevelt’s religious life, as well as the lives of other presidents.  The authors, the main one, John Woolverton, seemed pleased to be able to endorse Roosevelt’s view of himself.

Author of a study of the religious life of Richard Nixon, I have looked at numerous religious biographies of political leaders, primarily presidents, and I have just about decided that such volumes should be limited to less than 200 pages under most circumstances. The temptation for authors of books like this one is to fill in large gaps with extraneous material about a topic that is very subjective and difficult to nail down.

The principal author here—like his subject, an active Episcopalian— was quite fortunate that Roosevelt’s personality was not extremely secretive and he was not as reticent about his faith as Nixon was; FDR lived in an era in which people were not censured or criticized when they referred to, for example, praying or going to religious services. The book’s compelling title, A Christian and a Democrat, was Roosevelt’s simple and almost quaint response to a reporter’s query at a press conference about the genesis of his thinking.

Yet despite the ready availability of sources on Roosevelt’s religion—from his subject’s political speeches, Bible readings, and public prayers—Woolverton includes much that could have easily been omitted because of its irrelevance. Woolverton died before this book was completed, so an historian of Calvinism, James Bratt, who knew the main author only by reputation, finished the book.

Bratt claims he left out some of Woolverton’s material about American entry into World War II, but at thirty-six pages, that chapter is still the book’s longest and most irrelevant. Much of it has little to do with Roosevelt’s religious convictions—four and a half pages, for example, are taken up with mere listings of various people who opposed or supported American intervention—and they tell us next to nothing about Roosevelt’s own stance, religious or strategic. It seems clear that Woolverton was personally interested in this period, and I wish that Bratt had cut such lists out.

There are other matters where the authors readily wielded the scissors. Roosevelt’s marital infidelities should have led our authors to question whether these actions compromised the president’s moral and religious standards, but there is hardly a word directly related to this subject.

Roosevelt had affairs with at least two women, and Woolverton knew of their existence for he cites one, FDR’s cousin Daisy Suckley, on other aspects of the chief executive’s life. And the question of war and the Christian faith, a live-wire subject in the decade before 1941’s Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, is also overlooked, perhaps because the Commander-in-Chief had already committed himself to the “defense of Christian democracy” (153).

In addition, the administration’s policy toward the admission of European Jews into the United States before the war, a subject fraught with continuing controversy, is never mentioned. In domestic affairs Roosevelt had already decided that the nation’s political economy required a good dose of loving one’s neighbor as oneself and so embraced a modified “social gospel,” something the authors applaud and defend, even justify, but this transcendent principle was not to be considered as applying abroad when it came to foreign affairs.

One lays the book aside with the sense that Woolverton and Bratt have produced a study anchored on the assumption that since Roosevelt defined himself as a Christian and a Democrat then we should accept him as such, rather uncritically. Or at least, they seem willing to keep their scissors ready to remove any potentially embarrassing problems about Jews or war and peace and never lift the covers to see who’s sharing  the bed with the Chief Executive.

For all this, the book is quite readable, its exploration of Roosevelt’s educational background valuable, particularly in regards to the influence of Episcopal priest Endicott Peabody, founder of Groton School, which the president attended, and its keen analysis of the religious aspects in his public speeches and prayers. Yet for a more salient and briefer approach to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s religious faith the reader might be better served to peruse the thirty-page essay in Gary Smith’s Faith and the Presidency.  Fifth in its publisher’s “Library of Religious Biorgaphy” Series and designed for the general and scholarly reader, the book simply fails to engage with what it means to be “a Christian and a Democrat” while also serving as President of the United States.

About the Reviewer(s): 

H. Larry Ingle is Emeritus Professor of History at University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.

Date of Review: 
June 16, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John F. Woolverton (1926–2014) was Professor of Church History at Virginia Theological Seminary, a pastor in the Episcopal Church, and longtime editor of the journal Anglican and Episcopal History.

James D. Bratt is Professor Emeritus of History at Calvin College and the author of Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democratand Dutch Calvinism in Modern America.

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