"Unnecessary and Artificial Divisions:" Franklin Roosevelt's Quest for Religious and National Unity Leading Up to the Second World War

By Polk, Andrew | Church History, September 2013 | Go to article overview

"Unnecessary and Artificial Divisions:" Franklin Roosevelt's Quest for Religious and National Unity Leading Up to the Second World War


Polk, Andrew, Church History


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I am indebted to Edward Blum and, especially, Amanda Porterfield for their insights on this essay and their support of the larger project it reflects. I am also grateful for the generous assistance of the archivists at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in collecting the research for this essay.

The letters were portrayed as a goodwill gesture toward the three more dominant religious traditions in America and, as far as President Franklin Roosevelt was concerned, the world. After being carefully constructed over the preceding weeks, they were held in strict secrecy until they were released to the media on December 24, 1939. Each was written to the leader of his respective religion: as president of Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Cyrus Adler represented American Jews and George A. Buttrick, president of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America (FCC), received a letter on behalf of American Protestants, with the last letter going to Pope Pius XII, head of the Roman Catholic Church. Each letter was, at least ostensibly, a Christmas greeting.47 Roosevelt offered each man warm wishes and his hearty thanks for all that he had done for his people and the world. Yet Roosevelt also noted the fear and uncertainty of the time. War had again come to Europe and threatened to envelop the globe. It was the responsibility of all people of goodwill, Roosevelt argued, to come together in any way they could for the cause of peace. He hoped the three men, and those they represented, would put aside religious differences and join together for the common good.48

Granted, the Roosevelt administration might have had ulterior motives behind the letters, not least of which was the assumed positive public reception of such overtures on the eve of an election year. The administration would make a similar political calculation less than a year later, when it attempted to garner support for the first peacetime draft in American history through a contrived media campaign promoting religious solidarity. However, President Roosevelt, at least, seemed sincere in his desire for a unified religious effort against the war. Germany and the Soviet Union had invaded Poland merely three months prior to the Christmas letters, and the conflict only intensified throughout 1940. In a series of events too long overlooked, Roosevelt thought that if he could get American Protestants, Catholics, and Jews to at least publicly cooperate in matters of humanitarian aid and present a united front to the world, it would go a long way to securing the peace each tradition sought.49

As a lifelong Episcopalian and member of the vestry of the St. James Episcopal Church, he treasured religious liberty and did not want to push the boundaries of church and state power.50 However, he also ardently believed that America desperately needed to enter the war--he was convinced it would soon do so--as a unified front, and he needed America's religious leaders to cooperate for such a united front to emerge. The way he sought this united front betrayed his misunderstanding of, and general lack of concern for, the many theological and social distinctives that had historically separated the groups. The Christmas letters were his first public overture toward such collaboration, and he was initially optimistic in his first real foray into the religious realm. He would soon be sorely disappointed.

I.

The Christmas Letters

It was amid a flourish of both religious conflict and an increasing rhetoric of unity and reconciliation that President Roosevelt wrote his Christmas letters of 1939, hopeful that, for the sake of the nation and the world, a spirit of cooperation and goodwill might truly arise. Several Protestant groups, many of whom had originally split in the years leading up to and during the Civil War, began to reconcile and merge. Yet this propensity toward unification came about even as conservative and liberal Protestants became further divided on theological, doctrinal, and political grounds. …

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