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davidtrump

Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Christian and a Democrat

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Of all the myriad intersections between religion and politics in the United States, perhaps none is at once so significant and so personal as that occurring within the heart and mind of the nation’s executive. Though all U.S. presidents have claimed membership within a faith—indeed, to this point all have claimed strains of Christian faith specifically—the particulars of their religious and political views have varied, and so assumed different forms upon being mixed. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to name one example, was influenced by the Episcopal Church, by the Social Gospel movement, by polio, by poverty and war, and, of course, by Democratic politics. A new religious biography examines these influences closely.

The late John F. Woolverton, an Episcopal priest, taught church history at Virginia Theological Seminary, the College of William and Mary, and the University of Texas, and was the author of Colonial Anglicanism in North America and The Education of Phillips Brooks. After his passing in 2014, his A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt was ushered to publication by James D. Bratt, an emeritus professor of history at Calvin College and the author, previously, of Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat and Dutch Calvinism in North America.

Eric C. Miller recently spoke by phone with Bratt about the book. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Religion & Politics: Your work on this book was somewhat atypical. How did you end up finishing it? What was your process?

James D. Bratt: The editing process was actually kind of fun. Professor Woolverton had done such an excellent job of research in the archives and secondary literature that I didn’t have to worry about correcting or supplementing things. Only one addition was required—the brief chapter on FDR’s death, funeral, and burial rites. The folks at Eerdmans said that readers expect biographies to end with this sort of wrap, and so I supplied it.

For the rest, the job involved trimming and reorganizing the manuscript so as to bring out the main theme of each chapter in clear focus and efficient development. It’s probably easier to do this with someone else’s writing than with your own because you’re looking down at a landscape from some height rather than having hacked out a path thru the thicket in the first place. So I just ploughed along, chapter by chapter.

My copy editors were sharp and kind and saved a number of errors. The most difficult part here was tracking down quotations that had come untethered from footnotes in my editing process. (A couple different word-processing programs had been involved along the way, and weren’t always compatible with the new system into which I integrated everything.) This did set me off sleuthing through FDR’s published speeches and personal correspondence, which is a very revealing road into the nuts and bolts of a person’s life and mind. I managed to track down every reference but one, which felt like quite an achievement, and I got in better touch with FDR as a person along the way.

R&P: Readers are likely familiar with Roosevelt the Democrat. What kind of a Christian was he?

JDB: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a lifelong Episcopalian. He was taken to St. James’ Church in Hyde Park, [New York], as a lad, even though he didn’t much care for it at the time. His father was on the vestry, and Franklin himself became a member of the vestry in adulthood. He was loyal to his church, he knew the liturgy and revered the music, and he cared much more about the ceremonial aspects than about the theology. He loved the social ethics most of all.

His attachment to the liberal branch of Episcopalianism was solidified during the years that he spent studying at the Groton School in Massachusetts, under the famous headmaster Endicott Peabody. Groton at that time was one of the heartlands of the Social Gospel movement. So I think you could say that he was a liturgical Episcopalian and a Social Gospel Christian. Read the Whole Article

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