FDR and the Judeo-Christian Tradition

Rachel Gordan

For those of us who teach and write about 20th century American religious history, 1950’s civil religion often seems best explained by President Eisenhower’s 1952 remark, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is." It’s a perfect statement for evoking the vague, non-theological brand of 1950’s religion. It also usually gets a chuckle. But a terrific recent article about the history of the Judeo-Christian tradition by Healan Gaston (in Relegere), reminds me of the need to complicate what seems so simple. “Judeo Christianity” is a term with an evolving and contested meaning, Gaston explains. It held varied significance to Jews and Catholics and Mormons, just as its meaning in 1940 was very different from its meaning in 1970.

 Recent work on FDR has helped me think about Gaston’s call to re-examine the dimensions of Judeo-Christianity. We tend to associate Judeo-Christianity with President Eisenhower, but considering FDR's role in the creation of this “tradition” reveals the term’s evolution and its tensions. Andrew Preston’s Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith (2012) clarifies how FDR’s simple, non-intellectual Christian faith helped him succeed “in enshrining religious pluralism at the heart of the American national faith.” Preston takes FDR’s religion seriously, notwithstanding its lack of theology. “He was a Protestant Christian who respected faith in general, and thus was the most instinctively ecumenical president since Lincoln,” Preston writes. FDR once said of his ancestors, “In the dim distant past they have been Jews or Catholics or Protestants. What I am more interested in is whether they were good citizens and believers in God. I hope they were both.” It is a startling comment from a man of FDR’s social caste. FDR’s patrician parents instilled in him the noblesse oblige that encouraged tolerance toward Jews, but the president had many anti-Semitic friends and relatives, including his wife.

 It’s hard not to compare the recent and dramatic shift in Americans’ perception of the GLBT community with the changing perception of Jews during the 1930’s-1950’s. America’s postwar embrace of Jews and Judaism (although quotas and “gentleman’s agreements” certainly kept bigotry alive) was preceded by the general acceptance of anti-Semitism. Eleanor Roosevelt is a case in point. After attending a party in honor of Jewish financier Bernard Baruch, Eleanor Roosevelt commented, “The Jew party was appalling. I never wish to hear money, jewels, and sables mentioned again.” As the authors of FDR and the Jews (2013), Richard Breitman and Alan Lichtman, explain, Eleanor had “acquired harsh and commonplace stereotype of Jews as pushy, social inferiors.” More sheltered than her husband, she did not have the kind of friendships and interactions with Jews that ultimately helped inform the president’s tolerance -- and, in time, affected Eleanor's views of Jews. 

When it came to Jews, historians Breitman and Lichtman demonstrate that FDR’s approach was similar to his attitude toward women. Having appointed the first woman (Frances Perkins) to a cabinet position in U.S. history, FDR reflected, “I am willing to take more chances. I’ve got more nerve about women and their status in the world.” FDR liked women. He also liked Jews. Still, his comments show his awareness that Jews were not natural insiders. Including them required some “nerve.”

Lynne Olson’s Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindberg, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 (2013) vividly portrays what FDR was up against in shifting American attitudes from isolationism to intervention. As Americans debated intervention in the war, no less a national hero than Charles Lindbergh broadcast to the nation that their duty as Americans was to remain detached, never allowing “our sentiment, our pity, our personal feelings of sympathy, to obscure the issue or to affect our children’s lies. We must be as impersonal as a surgeon with a knife.” 

It is, thankfully, nearly impossible to imagine those words being spoken today by a national hero. It would be nice to say that, in opposition to Lindbergh, FDR carved out an early “comforter-in-chief position,” countering Lindberg’s hardness with compassion, but the scholarship on FDR shows that the path was not that straightforward. FDR did provide comfort to the American public, most famously through his fireside chats, and frequently with religious and biblical rhetoric. “FDR may have been less theologically informed than Woodrow Wilson,” Andrew Preston writes, “but his public faith was more pronounced.” In his speeches, Preston demonstrates, FDR expanded Christian American into its “Judeo-Christian” form by ascribing Protestant ideas about individual autonomy, the separation of church and state, and democracy, to Catholic and Jewish Americans, as well. “Building on Lincoln’s ecumenical civil religion, Roosevelt was the first president to prioritize faith itself, as opposed to Protestantism or even Christianity, as the essence of American democracy,” Preston explains.

That FDR played a significant role in establishing the Judeo-Christian tradition in America is apparent when we compare his rhetoric with that of other anti-Nazi figures of the era. As Lynne Olson shows, Dorothy Thompson, America’s leading journalistic critic of Hitler, believed Nazism was “ a complete break with reason, with Humanism, with the Christian ethics that are at the base of liberalism and democracy.” Her views resembled those of the president’s, but FDR had begun to use more inclusive language. Guarded and pragmatic by nature, FDR was cautious about including Jews in the American mainstream. He knew that the overwhelming majority of the country still considered America a Protestant country. I'm not convinced that FDR didn't believe this, too. His famous comment to the Catholic economist, Leo Crowley, "Leo, you know this is a Protestant country, and the Catholic and Jews are here under sufferance," may have been uttered in half-jest, but like most jokes, it revealed the traces of a worldview. FDR was a masterful politician, and he seems to have understood that the tide was turning -- that as Henry Luce called it in 1941, it was the "American Century." A more tolerant and pluralistic attitude was required for a world leader. In this way, FDR became a midwife to the idea of Judeo-Christianity.  


Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks for this. Gaston's recent JAH essay on Will Herberg also has some important insights on the anti-secularist dimensions of Judeo-Christian discourse. Kevin Shultz's Tri-Faith America and Matt Hedstrom's Rise of Liberal Religion take up the issue as well.
Thank you for this post, Rachel. FDR and religion/ civil religion holds together so much of 20th century religion and politics, and that role needs always to be further discussed!


Popular Posts