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Roosevelt’s Political Discourse: Grounded in a Liberal Protestant Worldview

Par Andrew Ives : Maître de conférences - Université de Caen Basse-Normandie
Publié par Clifford Armion le 05/03/2015

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This paper will argue that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s political discourse was profoundly influenced by his liberal Protestant worldview. The paper begins with some background on Roosevelt’s Christian upbringing. It moves on to show how FDR consistently used Protestant precepts and Biblical allusions as a rhetorical tool to gain electoral support. However, the author argues that Roosevelt’s simple yet profound Christian faith went far beyond this purely rhetorical usage and that liberal Protestant teachings in fact structured his political philosophy.


When asked about his political philosophy by a young reporter, Franklin Roosevelt replied in what has since become one of the defining quotes for the great President:  “I’m a Christian and a Democrat, that’s all.” This oft quoted remark has usually been interpreted as proof that FDR was above all else a pragmatist; he functioned by analyzing what was possible in the political climate of his day, and then charted a course for political action without the constraints of a rigid political dogma. Certainly it cannot be denied that the wide theme of pragmatism is one of the keys to understanding the man and the decisions he made during the twelve years and a month he served as president. This interpretation, however, has led many observers to miss something essential in the brief quote, and to overlook the centrality of Roosevelt’s Christian faith when analyzing the policy decisions made during the FDR years. This paper aims to re-evaluate Roosevelt’s political rhetoric by analyzing it in light of his spiritual convictions. We will see that not only did he often win over his American audience by appealing to their deeply held Christian beliefs, but that there was in fact a set of Christian  ideals and principles guiding his action. Along the lines of biographer Kenneth Davis, who wrote that an understanding of Roosevelt’s religious faith revealed “the innermost workings of his psyche,” (1984,5) we will argue that his deepest political convictions were intimately linked to his liberal Protestant worldview.

Roosevelt’s upbringing: Liberal Protestantism

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was baptized as a baby into the Episcopal Church by his parents James Roosevelt and Sara Delano in 1882. The wider Roosevelt family, as their Dutch heritage would suggest, had been associated with the Dutch Reform Church, but James Roosevelt had chosen to join his wife’s Episcopal congregation upon his arrival in Hyde Park. The Episcopal Church in the USA can be traced back directly to the Church of England. Following the War of Independence, it became necessary for the Church to take some administrative distance from the Church of England due to the requirement for clergy to take an oath of allegiance to the monarch, who was officially head of the Church. The newly independent American branch of the Church, however, retained the same doctrine, including the Thirty-nine Articles of Faith as established by Queen Elizabeth I in 1563, and its revised version of the Common Book of Prayer remained for the most part faithful to the English version. Sociologically, it continued to play the same role as its English counterpart by being closely associated with the bourgeoisie. Franklin Roosevelt’s parents were not religious zealots but the Church was very much a part of their lives, as was common for the era; FDR’s father was senior warden of St. James Church in their hometown of Hyde Park, a position which was consistent with his social standing in the community. The young Franklin was brought up with a quiet, conservative style of faith, much in keeping with the Episcopalian denomination. This fits with his public persona: as a political figure Roosevelt was not an openly religious man, and held firmly to the tenet of religious freedom in order to protect the individual’s right to make a choice of personal conscience. In Washington D.C., FDR rarely attended official church services; he attributed this to the desire to keep matters of faith in the private domain, confiding to the Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins: “I can do almost anything in the "Goldfish Bowl" of the President's life, but I'll be hanged if I can say my prayers in it....”(Perkins, 139).

Roosevelt was thus a discreet Christian raised in the Episcopal faith. This mainline Protestant Church would be categorized today as “liberal” in opposition to conservative or Evangelical Churches. Liberal in this context designates Protestants who see the Bible as allegorical, and who hope to enrich their understanding by adopting a modern perspective to Biblical interpretation. The liberal tradition finds its origins in the19th century theologians who were trying to respond to the ideas of the Enlightenment generally, and to the scientific method, and its discoveries, in particular, from within a Christian belief system. Beyond these theological differences, liberal Protestants are also more open to progressive ideas in the wider society. In the case of the Episcopal Church during FDR’s formative years, it was a Church that was closely associated with the Social Gospel, a late 19th and early 20th century religious movement that was attached to the fraternal message of Christ, and as such, supported a number of social movements that were also championed by political reformers and by members of the nascent union movement (concern about poverty, opposition to child labour, support for improved wages and working conditions, etc.). The Social Gospel movement can be summed up by the desire of these Christians to intervene in worldly events in order to be faithful to their spiritual convictions. Those in the Social Gospel movement were inspired by the famous theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, who encouraged his followers to put the focus on the words “on earth” when reciting the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” (Matthew. VI,10) Evangelical Christians, on the other hand, were more inclined to accept the state of the world as a manifestation of God’s will, and to concentrate their efforts on saving souls for the afterlife.

Roosevelt was thus exposed to the teachings of a mainline liberal Church whose sociological makeup was significantly upper class, but which was active in the fight against poverty, inequality and injustice in the Social Gospel tradition. But it was during his time as a high school student at the exclusive Groton College boarding school, under the influence of the renowned headmaster Endicott Peabody that FDR really forged the Christian ideals that he would later defend during his political career. Peabody was a young Reverend who founded a boarding school which deliberately targeted boys from the upper classes. He sought to change the world by transforming the next generation of American leaders, and by instilling in them a sense of high purpose in service to the wider community. The school’s motto Cui Servire Est Regnare, derived from the Book of Common Prayer, was translated by school officials as “For Whom Service Is Perfect Freedom.”  It reveals Peabody’s mission, which was to make the young men feel a sense of Christian responsibility towards their fellow men; in Peabody’s teaching, fulfilling God’s special mission required people to reach out and serve others. These ideals would come to the fore and play a key role for Roosevelt as a president taking office in the midst of the worst peacetime crisis in American history.

Roosevelt’s rhetoric: Christian references to gain electors

In Roosevelt’s official speeches, his fireside chats and even in off the cuff press conference remarks, references to the Bible, or to widely held Christian precepts, are prevalent. And yet, as we have seen, he had a quiet faith that he sought to contain in the private domain; Roosevelt was certainly not of an evangelical nature with an interest in converting others. The answer to this apparent dilemma is that he was aware of the power of Christian references as a rhetorical tool when addressing an American audience in his era. Roosevelt would at times openly take on the tone of a preacher, but in other instances he subtly played on references that would reach his audience at a profound, yet sometimes unconscious, level. In both cases, Biblical allusions played a key role in his rhetorical strategy.

Examples of the use of Christian references to sway public opinion and gain support can be found in what are arguably the most important speeches he made while President, namely his inaugural and State of the Union addresses. FDR officially took office on March 4th 1933. After soliciting support on the campaign trail by promising “a new deal for the American people” (Acceptance speech, 1932), Roosevelt was under pressure to deliver the goods. From his perspective he knew that success depended on creating a wave of optimism and confidence among the people. This he did by exploiting an impulse among Americans to trust in their Christian faith. Early in the first inaugural speech, just after the famous “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” line, FDR solemnly stated: “In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things.” Roosevelt thus subtly called on Americans to reflect on how, through their profound faith in God, they could face up to any material difficulty, difficulties which, in his view, had to be put in perspective with regard to the more important spiritual questions. Continuing in the same register, he stated: “We are stricken by no plague of locusts”, referring here to the Biblical episode related in the Book of Exodus, but which was overcome by Moses praying to the Lord. In the same paragraph of this inaugural speech Roosevelt went on to evoke “the unscrupulous money-changers.” Through this reference FDR was certainly challenging business leaders of his day, but to do so he chose to call to mind an episode from the Bible; figuratively FDR was promising to throw them out of the temple as Jesus is said to have done in the episode related in the Gospels (Matthew. XXI,12). This became more explicit later in the speech when Roosevelt exclaimed “The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths.” While for a secularized audience today in Western Europe, these references might seem obscure, for Americans, and especially those of the New Deal era, these references were inescapable, and they would likely have had a profound impact by reaching listeners at the level of their deepest convictions.

FDR concluded this section of his 1933 official address with the words “our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid”, echoing here an oft-repeated message from the pulpit, inciting the congregation to have faith. In this way he called on his audience’s religious beliefs in order to gain their support for a new set of policies that would come to be known as the New Deal. In particular he used their religiosity to legitimate a transfer of their Christian faith towards the banking system, knowing full well that the success of his Emergency Banking Act depended on the average citizen regaining confidence in the banks. Roosevelt chose to end his first inaugural address in an overtly religious tone: “In this dedication of a Nation we humbly ask the blessing of God. May He protect each and every one of us. May He guide me in the days to come.” The Christian message here is so explicit that the audience of his day might well have found itself replying “Amen” in a reflex reaction. Certainly, the spiritual tone adopted by FDR would have incited them to place their confidence in their new President. Building on this confidence he then asked them, in a manner reminiscent of the Mayflower Compact, to pledge themselves to a new program of action, and to join him in a common commitment to “the larger purposes [which would] bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty.” This was truly a brilliant piece of rhetorical flourish: he exploited a historically grounded American tradition of making a pledge towards the wider community, and he gave the promise the quality of a sacred oath.

Even a cursory reading of the other official addresses while at the helm reveals similar rhetorical choices on the part of the New Deal President. In the 1934 State of the Union speech, for example, Roosevelt played on the parable of the good seed as reported in the Gospel According to Matthew to evoke the New Deal projects that were taking root across the country, while in 1935 he confided to his national audience that America could trust in “Divine Providence … for guidance and fostering care.” The 1933 inaugural adress provides yet another example with FDR extolling his “Good neighbor policy,” theme to which he would often return (c.f., the 1936 State of the Union Address, for example). Choosing this expression to define his foreign policy can be seen as a subtle way of playing on the Christian message “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The underlying logic, as presented in the rhetoric, was also a reiteration of the basic Christian tenet of action “Do unto others as you would have them do, unto you.” This was made explicit in the 1936 State of the Union speech when FDR took the time to explain the principle at the heart of this good neighbor policy:

the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others—a neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbors.

Later in the 1933 speech, the President called on his intimate knowledge of the Bible, but this time he used it, not to rally citizens around one of his projects but instead to stigmatize uncooperative business leaders by suggesting that their actions and attitudes were not in keeping with those of a good Christian. He achieved this in a fairly subtle manner by simply quoting a well-known Biblical passage in their regard: "By their fruits ye shall know them." (Matthew VII,16).

Examples abound of Roosevelt exploiting the profound religiosity of his audience in his official annual speeches made while serving as president. But it is interesting to note that Christian references did not only permeate his language on these formal occasions. The fireside chats that FDR presented via the radio were an important innovation in Presidential communication strategies. The new means of communication allowed Roosevelt to invite himself into the sitting rooms of average American families. During these sessions he would adopt a folksy style, punctuated by regular use of the pronoun “you” and phrases like “my friends” in order to give the impression that he was conducting a personal conversation with each one of the estimated forty million listeners (Kiewe, 101) who tuned in to listen on a Sunday evening. This type of communication also allowed FDR to exploit his audience’s Christian belief system to help galvanize support. One example can be found in Fireside Chat N° 4 pronounced in 1933. Roosevelt develops the theme of building a new America, but to reach his audience at a deeper level he cleverly structured his speech around the metaphor of building a temple:

How are we constructing the edifice of recovery - the temple which, when completed, will no longer be a temple of money changers or of beggars, but rather a temple dedicated to and maintained for a greater social justice, a greater welfare for America.

The metaphor we have just seen that was developed in one his fireside chats allowed FDR to build up a sense of national cohesion in service of a collective project. His campaign speeches provide further examples of a rhetorical strategy that permeated his communication, namely to hark on a common Christian heritage to create national cohesion and to make use of Biblical references to consolidate his political base. The 1936 Madison Square Garden speech has legitimately been recognized as one of FDR’s best. This is the speech remembered for the line “I welcome their hatred!” in response to the anti-Roosevelt campaign orchestrated by the American Liberty League. Roosevelt played the card of taking a clear-cut left-wing stance; he took on the mantle of the champion of the common people, asking his supporters to unite against the vested interest of what he called “organized money.” But beyond the famous line, a careful reading of the speech also reveals subtle use of universally recognized Biblical references. To stigmatize his right-wing opponents as being responsible for the Depression, Roosevelt cried out “Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge!” To evoke the excesses of the Roaring Twenties, excesses which, in FDR’s view, had culminated with the Stock Market Crash of 1929, he chose to use the image of a “golden calf.” For his audience this would have immediately called to mind the Old Testament episode related in Exodus in which, in Moses’s absence, the people of Israel had abandoned their faith in Jehovah and instead had begun to worship a golden calf of their own making. Through the intervention of Moses, the Lord accepted atonement for the sin of the Israelites, but he punished them with a plague. The parallel with the “plague” of the Great Depression was obvious, but the point was not belabored. Instead FDR allowed the reference to function at an unconscious level. Later in this speech, when Roosevelt insisted on his desire to continue helping the needy unemployed he once again employed a Biblical reference, saying: “Your Government is still on the same side of the street with the Good Samaritan.” This famous Madison Square Garden speech – a speech often analysed as one in which FDR chose to adopt the language of class confrontation ((Many academics have noted an attempt by FDR to exploit the class antagonism that was prevalent in the early to mid-1930s. The reality of class-based antagonism in this era is witnessed in the rising popularity of parties with an openly Marxist political discourse, and also by the popularity of populists like Huey Long who were playing the card of stirring up class-based hostility. However, we should be careful to note that Roosevelt was certainly not a Marxist, and that he was adamant about avoiding class-based analyses in the interests of national unity. In the very speech under study here, FDR makes his position clear on this point. Certainly, it cannot be denied that the New Deal labour reforms were well received by working people, and that union members became a category that voted consistently for the Democrats. In short, the new political coalition behind the Democratic Party that came out of the FDR years did indeed include the working class. However, FDR always refused to apply a Marxist analysis. As has been argued throughout this paper, his position was not class-based but instead was based on being faithful to a doctrine founded on Christian brotherhood.)) – ends with an openly religious reference and a call on Americans to remember the fraternal message of Christ: “That is why we need to say with the Prophet: "What doth the Lord require of thee - but to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God."” This is proof again of the prevalence of religious markers in Roosevelt’s rhetoric. Whether he was making an official address, a fireside chat or a speech on the campaign trail, Christian references were a mainstay.

Roosevelt’s political philosophy: concomitant to his belief system

Up to this point, the paper has focused on Roosevelt’s use of his audience’s profound Christianity as a rhetorical tool, and as a means of building support for his program and consolidating his electoral base. This aspect of the question should not be underestimated. FDR was truly a political animal; keenly interested in questions related to political strategy and obsessed with winning elections, rhetorical choices were made in view of ensuring electoral success. However, it would be an error to suggest that Roosevelt was a hypocritical manipulator of the masses, and that his use of Christian references was in some way insincere. A close study of his career reveals that Roosevelt’s political philosophy, if that term can be used in the wide sense of a general framework for managing public policy, was in fact grounded in the liberal Protestant worldview to which he had been exposed to as a boy and especially as an adolescent at the Groton School. The set of New Deal policies that came out of the Depression era were consolidated during the Second World War. They would go on to set the tone for the post-war consensus not only in the USA but around the world. Although these policies were secular in their formulations, and although similar policy initiatives were applied effectively across a variety of political cultures in Western Europe and beyond, the policies of the New Deal were developed in a spirit that was consistent with liberal Protestant teachings.

Roosevelt’s political rhetoric is marked by the idea of constructing a political project of social progress for his fellow men, and of moving towards an ideal. This ideal was intimately associated with his Christian beliefs. One clear example concerns his vision of what constituted the good life. The 1933 inaugural speech allowed FDR to evoke what for him made life worth living:

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits.

This quote reveals a man who shared with the English liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill the same conviction in the importance of creative individuality. For Mill, when a man or woman expressed his or her unique personality, they were achieving what was the essence of a person’s fundamental nature. As such, in Mill’s view, allowing individuals to enjoy the individual freedoms that would allow them to pursue their own chosen path and to find personal fulfilment should constitute the founding principle for any respectable civil government (Mill, 1859). If Roosevelt adhered to the same principle as Mill, he founded his own vision of the ideal government on its capacity to allow the greatest number of citizens to pursue happiness in their own way as had been announced as a founding principle in the Declaration of Independence. However, for FDR this secularized principle to be guaranteed by civil government fit together perfectly with a liberal Protestant belief system in which each individual had been endowed by their Creator with free will. The individual freedom granted by God as an inalienable right allowed people to pursue their own personal path and to endeavor to achieve their own potential; in so doing, they could also achieve their ultimate purpose and save their soul, as was made explicit in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew, XXV, 14-30). In Roosevelt’s liberal Protestant belief system, in spite of the Christian teaching which incited the faithful to practice charity and to love their neighbor, each individual retained his free will and was ultimately responsible for his or her actions. This can be seen in a quote from the 1939 State of the Union address: “Religion, by teaching man his relationship to God, gives the individual a sense of his own dignity and teaches him to respect himself by respecting his neighbors.” FDR thus, in a manner reminiscent of a Reverend, incites his fellow citizens to choose the righteous path of solidarity with his fellow man. The quote reveals also, below the surface, a belief in the Christian adage that man was created in the image of God. This belief was declared explicitly in the 1942 annual address before Congress:

We are inspired by a faith that goes back through all the years to the first chapter of the Book of Genesis: “God created man in His own image.” We on our side are striving to be true to that divine heritage. We are fighting, as our fathers have fought, to uphold the doctrine that all men are equal in the sight of God.

The importance that Roosevelt placed in the political objective of equal opportunity can thus be seen as flowing out directly from a founding belief that each person had been created in the image of God, and that, as a result, each was equal in dignity. It was therefore in keeping with his belief system to promote the advent of a political regime in which the state would play an active role in ensuring equal opportunity, and thus to allow each person to pursue his or her own dream.

Another point of interest that reveals a spiritual conviction underlying Roosevelt’s political philosophy can be found by focusing on one element in the short passage from the 1933 speech quoted above, namely, FDR’s rejection of the limitless accumulation of capital as an end in itself, as witnessed by his reference to “the mad chase of evanescent profits.” What on the surface might be seen as a secular statement was in fact linked to FDR’s Christian morality. This can be proved by noting FDR’s repeated tendency to stigmatize the rich as being in the grips of Mammon. The term Mammon to evoke an evil deity revering material wealth and greed appears several times in the New Testament, most famously in a passage from Matthew: “ Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth…  But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. (…)Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.” We see FDR make direct references to Mammon in his 1932 acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination (“Let us be frank in acknowledgment of the truth that many amongst us have made obeisance to Mammon”), but also in a speech delivered in Atlanta in 1935 in which he tried to show how America had changed since the days of the Republican Party administrations (“Yes, in those days Mammon ruled America”).

For those who might need more substantial proof of the religious nature of Roosevelt’s rejection of excessive material wealth, FDR provides it clearly in the lines that follow directly after the passage quoted above from the 1933 speech: “These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.” FDR thus harks back to one of the founding principles of Protestantism, namely the concept of “the priesthood for all believers”, and uses the tenet to legitimate a more equitable redistribution of wealth. The speech continues with the words: “Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This Nation asks for action, and action now.” Roosevelt thus transforms a doctrinal principle for Protestants into a call for resolute action of each man and woman towards ending the economic crisis.

Far beyond the specific historical context of this one speech, the quotes above reveal another fundamental guiding principle for Roosevelt, namely the sanctity of the individual and the importance of allowing each person to undertake self-directed action. These concepts, although they have been introduced into secular liberal ideology, have their origins in the Protestant reformation. His New Deal programs were never designed in the optic of taking care of the people, but instead were based on the principle of providing individuals with the opportunity to take their destiny into their own hands. In this conviction he was again illustrating his liberal protestant upbringing. Roosevelt was clear about this distinction in his 1935 State of the Union Address when he said:

Continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America. Work must be found for able-bodied but destitute workers. (…) I am not willing that the vitality of our people be further sapped by the giving of cash, of market baskets, of a few hours of weekly work cutting grass, raking leaves or picking up papers in the public parks. We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination.

Roosevelt here resolutely calls on the value of work as a means of instilling in men a sense of Christian purpose, calling to mind a long-standing Protestant tradition that saw men being put in spiritual danger through inactivity, as seen in the oft-cited proverb “the devil finds work for idle hands”. This idea can also be seen in the 1932 Convention speech in which he lamented on how America had lost its way before the 1929 Crash through its choice to take “the easy road without toil.” This same speech reveals that Roosevelt had internalized a commitment to the Protestant work ethic, and established a clear-cut link between moral values and regular work. Beginning his treatment of the issue with a rhetorical question, he provided the answer in no uncertain terms:

What do the people of America want more than anything else? To my mind, they want two things: work, with all the moral and spiritual values that go with it; and with work, a reasonable measure of security - security for themselves and for their wives and children. Work and security - these are more than words. They are more than facts. They are the spiritual values, the true goal toward which our efforts of reconstruction should lead.

These quotes reveal a vision of self-realization through work which had been instilled in the great President early in life through his Protestant education. 

It has become a well-established tradition for American presidents to take their oath of allegiance with the right hand raised and the left hand on the Bible. Franklin Roosevelt did not diverge from the tradition; on the contrary, for each inaugural ceremony, he made a specific choice to make his oath with the Bible opened onto a specific chapter, namely chapter 13 of Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. The official FDR Presidential Library even takes the time to indicate in its website home pages that this was his favorite Biblical passage. We can therefore safely assume that this passage provides a clue to FDR’s deepest convictions. The passage in question can be summarized with the quote “And though I have the gift of prophesy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing” Certainly, this quote allows us to appreciate Roosevelt’s concern for those suffering during the Great Depression; we get a feeling for the sincerity of his commitment to the innovative idea that the State had a responsibility to provide aid and assistance. In developing the New Deal programs, his Administration was remaining faithful to its Christian duty of charity. The importance of this Corinthians passage is also illustrated by Roosevelt’s choice to quote it directly in one of his key speeches, namely the acceptance speech for his re-nomination as Democratic party candidate in 1936. In this speech FDR paraphrased the following Biblical  passage “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” with his own “We do not see faith, hope and charity as unattainable ideals, but we use them as stout supports of a Nation fighting the fight for freedom in a modern civilization.” Roosevelt continues in the vein of President-theologian by sharing with his audience his interpretation of this famous passage written by Paul:

Charity— in the true spirit of that grand old word. For charity literally translated from the original means love, the love that understands, that does not merely share the wealth of the giver, but in true sympathy and wisdom helps men to help themselves.

The exercise in text explication allowed Roosevelt to reiterate his commitment to a certain type of public policy that would not perpetuate relief programs, but instead would allow people to take control of their own lives and to begin a quest for self-realization.

Perhaps the most important way in which Roosevelt’s religious convictions influenced his policy decisions was in a deeply felt belief that his presidency was in itself the proof of the mysterious working of Providence. Biographers have pointed to FDR’s remarkable composure; in the midst of periods in which he was placed under enormous stress, at times when the decisions he made would have great consequences for the whole world, he appeared outwardly serene. This was undoubtedly linked to the solidity of his faith. It was also due to an inward conviction that he had been designated by God to play a role at a watershed moment in world history. Whatever role he had been called to play he was determined to do so humbly. This is illustrated by an important passage with which he concluded his 1936 State of the Union Address. Presenting the passage as a quotation, and attributing it to an unidentified “wise philosopher” - presumably his former Groton School Headmaster Endicott Peabody – FDR solemnly announced some profound convictions and in so doing revealed the source of his serenity:

What great crises teach all men whom the example and counsel of the brave inspire is the lesson: Fear not, view all the tasks of life as sacred, have faith in the triumph of the ideal, give daily all that you have to give, be loyal and rejoice whenever you find yourselves part of a great ideal enterprise. You, at this moment, have the honor to belong to a generation whose lips are touched by fire. You live in a land that now enjoys the blessings of peace. But let nothing human be wholly alien to you. The human race now passes through one of its great crises. New ideas, new issues—a new call for men to carry on the work of righteousness, of charity, of courage, of patience, and of loyalty. . . . However memory brings back this moment to your minds, let it be able to say to you: That was a great moment. It was the beginning of a new era. . . . This world in its crisis called for volunteers, for men of faith in life, of patience in service, of charity and of insight. I responded to the call however I could. I volunteered to give myself to my Master - the cause of humane and brave living. I studied, I loved, I labored, unsparingly and hopefully, to be worthy of my generation.

The lengthy excerpt reproduced here is certainly not of an esoteric nature replete with hidden meaning. On the contrary, Roosevelt was making a public demonstration of how he viewed his function: he, like his contemporaries who were listening, had received a calling. We can see that he sincerely believed he had been placed in a moment of historical significance. He had been “touched by fire.” But responding to the challenge required him simply to humbly place his trust in God. With a quiet faith in the inevitable “triumph of the ideal”, he pledged to do his utmost to make the world new again, and thus to be worthy of his generation. What transpires in the passage is his profound serenity, an abiding calm that undoubtedly found its source in the conviction that, although he could nothing more than his best effort, this would be enough because his presence that day in front of Congress was seen as being part of God’s great plan.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt was truly an historic figure; he was directly involved in events that changed the course of history. He transformed the role of the president in the American political system, ushering in what has become known as the modern presidency; he presided over a realignment in the coalitions that structure partisan politics in the USA that is still visible today; he was commander-in-chief of the American armed forces during the Second World War and played a central role in putting in place the Pax Americana that structured the post-war world. All of this constitutes an impressive legacy. But most important of all he managed to gain acceptance for a modern American liberalism constructed around the idea that ensuring the conditions for individual self-realization should be the principal objective of civil government. As such it became legitimate for the state to take on a new expanded role, with the theoretical objective of ensuring equal opportunity for all citizens. This became the new paradigm around which was structured the post-war consensus. The modern liberal regime that owes so much to FDR has since become highly secular. It seems therefore surprising to contemporary observers to discover how much of Roosevelt’s motivation was related to his Christian belief system. This paper has attempted to show that Christian references were not only at the heart of his political rhetoric, but that they were at the core of his whole political philosophy. FDR’s deepest motivation can be found in his desire to develop a political program that was consistent with the ideal of Christian brotherhood.  Roosevelt provides an example of a man who had interiorized the synthesis between his liberal Protestantism and the modern liberal ideology; it was this synthesis that would define the post-war consensus. 


Primary source citations

Citations from the Bible are from the King James edition.

Roosevelt speeches (presented in order of citation)

- Acceptance speech for the Democratic Party candidacy. Chicago. July 2, 1932.

- First inaugural speech. Washington, D.C., March 4, 1933.

- 1934 State of the Union Address. Washington, D.C. January 3, 1934.

- 1935 State of the Union Address. Washington, D.C. January 4, 1935.

- 1936 State of the Union Address. Washington, D.C. January 3, 1936.

- 1939 State of the Union Address. Washington, D.C. January 4, 1939.

- 1942 State of the Union Address. Washington, D.C. January 6, 1942.

- Dedication of Techwood Homes. Atlanta, Nov. 29, 1935.

- Acceptance speech for the re-nomination as Democratic Party Candidate. Philadelphia, PA. June 27, 1936.

- Fireside Chat N° 4. October 22, 1933.

- Madison Square Garden speech. New York, NY. October 31, 1936.

- John Stuart Mill. On Liberty. London: Walter Scott publishing,1859.

Secondary source citations

Davis, Kenneth. “FDR as a Biographer’s problem.” Key Reporter. Vol.50, N°1, 1984.

Kiewe, Amos. FDR’s First Fireside Chat: Public Confidence and the Banking Crisis. College Station: Texas A &M University Press, 2007.

Perkins, Frances. The Roosevelt I Knew. London: Penguin Classics, 2011. (first published in the Viking Press, 1946).

Cette ressource est issue d'une communication donnée lors d'une journée d'étude sur le programme de l'agrégation, organisée à l'Université de Caen le 23 janvier 2015. Organisation : Penny Starfield, avec la collaboration de Christophe Gillissen, Armelle Parey, Mickael Popelard et Andrew Ives.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Andrew Ives, "Roosevelt’s Political Discourse: Grounded in a Liberal Protestant Worldview ", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mars 2015. Consulté le 26/05/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-americain/les-grands-courants-politiques/roosevelt-s-political-discourse-grounded-in-a-liberal-protestant-worldview