28 Mar Frances and Faith offers its first book review, a look at the faith of the president behind the New Deal.
The Simple Faith of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Religion’s Role in the FDR Presidency by Christine Wicker. Smithsonian Books, 2017.
FDR’s faith is not a major theme in studies of his life and presidency even though these studies are often thick tomes. Journalist and author Christine Wicker effectively addresses this significant shortcoming in her compact volume, The Simple Faith of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which I found inspiring at many points.
Wicker avoids the mistake of presenting FDR as flawless. She observes that “There is a lot to criticize about FDR, but all the ways he failed to be a good Christian didn’t keep him from being an effective Christian. In that there’s hope for all of us, no matter what kind of faith we try to follow.”
As a priest of the Episcopal Church, to which Roosevelt belonged all his life, I doubt that anyone is “a good Christian” in the conventional sense. All of us are redeemed sinners. Here on earth we remain travelers on the way; we have not yet reached our destination. To be an effective Christian, however, is possible. An effective Christian remains open to the grace of God and is not afraid to take risks in God’s service. Wicker makes a compelling case that Roosevelt was an effective Christian who touched countless lives for good.
In doing so, she identifies two major characteristics of FDR’s simple faith. The first was the sense of calling that he felt. He believed “that God had a mission for him, and that the Almighty would help him accomplish that mission. Roosevelt would do his part and God would
do his. It’s an idea that gives life meaning, sustains optimism about the future, and provides believers with a sense of power beyond what they might have on their own.”
The second major characteristic is action based on the belief “that each group is interconnected with every other group. If one suffers, the others will suffer, too. If one prospers, the others prosper, too.” While this is a common religious belief, politicians often do not accept it and act on it. FDR embraced this belief and tried to teach it to the nation. Aware that doing so made him numerous and powerful enemies, he persisted nevertheless.
Christine Wicker devotes a chapter to the enemies of FDR and his New Deal. They often promoted their views as faithful to Christianity. These opponents and their ideological heirs are the subject of a book Wicker references, One Nation under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Princeton history professor Kevin M. Kruse, published in 2015. Kruse details the way special interests, promoting themselves as religious and patriotic, invested and continue to invest great sums of money to obscure how Roosevelt’s New Deal was founded on a decency and sense of justice that Christianity endorses. In the late twentieth century, the Religious Right was a prominent agent of such attacks on the New Deal.
The Simple Faith of FDR delivers a timely rebuttal to the toxic blend
of libertarianism, nationalism, and inadequate theology that passes for Christianity among many Americans. This valuable book accurately presents FDR’s aim as president: to help America become more truly
a nation marked by grace, generosity, and kindness.