"Who Is Kierkegaard?" Franklin Roosevelt, Howard Johnson, and Soren Kierkegaard

Article excerpt

On the evening of 19 February 1944, the assistant minister at St. John's Church, Lafayette Square, dined with the president and Mrs. Roosevelt at the White House. He was Howard A. Johnson, twenty-nine years old. Though not in uniform (clerical garb excepted) , he served his country and his president well that evening. Throughout Johnson did most of the talking. Roosevelt listened more than he held forth, asked questions, took notes, and kept the young curate late. As Frances Perkins subsequently wrote of that evening: "He [Roosevelt] spoke of it a number of times, so that one may assume it was an important intellectual experience for him."1 Broadly the related subjects of conversation were the evil of Nazism on the one hand and its relation to the Christian doctrine of original sin on the other. In an animated and critical way Johnson spoke of both and introduced Roosevelt to the thought of the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. This chapter recreates that evening and examines those aspects of the thought of Kierkegaard relevant to what for the president was the enigma of Nazi evil, and adds to Secretary Perkins's account.

Who was Howard Johnson? He was a bright and promising theologian, sophisticated in conversation, cheerful in manner, even witty. Born in Atlantic, Iowa, in 1915, he graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1936 in political science. Johnson then spent the next three years at the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Virginia from which he graduated cum laude, the school's highest academic honor. As a theological student, he experienced religious doubts and was ready to abandon both the ministry and his faith. Then on his own he discovered Soren Kierkegaard's "Philosophical Fragments." From this treatise and increasingly from others by the famous nineteenth-century Danish philosopher, he "learned the point of view," as he said, "which enabled anything that I was being taught in the seminary to fall into place and make eminent good sense."2 Having grown up in what Kierkegaard derisively called "Christendom," Johnson had discovered a "living" Christianity. It reanimated his faith. The treatise, "Philosophical Fragments," brought him to the vital center of the New Testament and influenced what was said in the White House on the evening of 19 February 1944 and, more importandy still, what was heard.

In 1940 Johnson was ordained to the ministry of the Episcopal Church. Before going to St. John's Church, Lafayette Square, in 1943, he took up graduate studies again, this time in philosophy at Princeton University. There he met and was befriended by Walter Lowrie and his wife who, childless, took him in and treated him like a son. Lowrie, a leading Episcopal liturgical scholar, had been rector of St. Paul's Within the Walls in Rome where he had written on early Christian art. In the 1930s he was also the translator and introducer to the American scene of both Karl Barth and Soren Kierkegard. He taught himself Danish for the latter task - astonishingly and fairly accurately-as he went along. In this enterprise Johnson collaborated. While their early and eulogistic view of Kierkegaard as revitalizer of die faith, has been surpassed in subdety and complexity,3 they broke new ground. Lowrie and Johnson were largely responsible for the enthusiasm that occurred in the first days of Kierkegaard's reception in America. With the world at war, however, continued study at Princeton did not seem fitting to Johnson. Short of enlistment as a chaplain, he and others felt he would be of more help at a strategic location in the nation's capítol, in this case at St. John's Church directly opposite the White House. There he functioned as a parish priest with added emphasis on teaching and preaching. He also taught a course in Kierkegaard at the Virginia Theological Seminary across the Potomac River.4

On 16 January 1944 at the invitation of Johnson, Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at the parish's Supper Club. …