Revisiting the New Deal

As the New Deal celebrates its 75th  birthday, it is a fitting time to reflect on the context in which it occurred, its moral and spiritual underpinnings, and its aims. By significantly increasing the size, spending, and scope of the federal government, the New Deal has had a tremendous impact on American life. It laid the foundation for a national welfare system and created programs, most notably Social Security, that continue today.

Both scholars and the media have accentuated the faith and use of religion by politically conservative presidents, especially Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. They have largely overlooked the fact that politically liberal presidents, especially Franklin Roosevelt, also claimed that their policies were inspired in part by their religious convictions.

Franklin Roosevelt is not widely considered one of the nation’s more religious presidents. He only attended church sporadically, had an affair with Lucy Mercer, his wife’s social secretary, and doctored the historical record to make himself look better. On the other hand, Roosevelt served as senior warden of the St. James Episcopal Church in Hyde Park, New York, the entire time he was president. Before each of his four inaugurals and every year on the anniversary of his inauguration, Roosevelt held a special worship service at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington. After his death, Eleanor declared that her husband always considered religion “an anchor and a source of strength and guidance.” She added that he could not have made critical decisions as president “without faith in spiritual guidance.”

Roosevelt repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Bible, prayer, and Christian morality. He frequently urged Americans to pray, thanked others for praying for him, and included prayers in his addresses. Roosevelt lauded the Bible’s “prevailing and persistent power” and insisted that Scripture had played a major role in shaping the republic.

In numerous speeches and letters, the New Yorker urged Americans to work for spiritual renewal, promote social justice, and strive to achieve a more abundant material and spiritual life. He considered himself to be God’s agent, frequently asserted that God directed history, and insisted that the United States would prosper only if its citizens sought divine guidance and followed biblical principles.

Ronald Isetti challenges the contention of other historians that the temper of the New Deal was secular and had little in common with the more religiously-oriented Progressive Movement of the early 20th century. Many historians have ignored or downplayed the “moral and religious flavor and content” of the New Deal and have missed its continuity with the more liberal phase of social Christianity. For all its secular spirit, the New Deal “was firmly anchored in the moral-religious tradition of earlier reform movements in American history.” It was “highly moralistic, prophetic, and even biblical in its inspiration and tone.” Isetti contends that Roosevelt strove to defend, maintain, and advance a “regulatory Progressive state based in political liberalism and Christian humanitarianism, which for Roosevelt were pretty much the same.”

Roosevelt argued that moral and spiritual problems lay beneath the nation’s material ones. His New Deal programs sought to give Americans a reasonable level of physical comfort so that they could focus on spiritual values. “The great objective which church and state” were both demanding, he explained in 1933, was “‘a more abundant life.’” The “object of all our striving,” he added the next year, should be to help citizens realize the abundant life Christ came to bring. Roosevelt wanted to ensure that “all elements of the community” had an equitable share of the nation’s resources. The federal government’s social planning, he contended, was “wholly in accord with the social teachings of Christianity.”

Only through cooperation, commitment to the common good, and dedication to serving others could the abundant life be achieved. “No man lives to himself,” Roosevelt trumpeted, “and no man dies to himself; but living or dying, we are the Lord’s and each other’s.” Efforts to achieve social justice through governmental action were vastly superior to the laissez-faire approach that allowed the “fittest” to triumph. “The thing we are seeking,” he proclaimed, “is justice” guided by the concept of “Do unto your neighbor as you would be done by.”

Roosevelt called for the government and the churches to work hand in hand to devise “a new definition of prosperity” “built on spiritual and social values rather than on special privilege.” The government should exhort the churches to teach the ideals of social justice, while religious bodies should prod the government to promote a richer, more fruitful life. He saw the laws he devised, the agencies he created, the policies he pursued, and the political strategies he employed as the means of enabling all Americans to achieve this more abundant life. It included the right of individuals to have a useful, remunerative job, of every family to have a decent home, and of every person to have adequate medical care, a high-quality education, and material comfort in old age.

Although today’s conservatives and liberals agree that Americans have a responsibility to help the poor, they debate whether this is best accomplished through the government at the federal, state, or local level or the private sector—churches, charitable organizations, and businesses. For Christians, two issues are paramount in trying to decide which approach to adopt: what does the Bible teach and which method has the best results. As we consider these questions, revisiting the New Deal can help us evaluate what to do and what not to do.