Flannery O'Connor's Christian Politics

By Evans, Robert C. | Cithara, May 2016 | Go to article overview

Flannery O'Connor's Christian Politics


Evans, Robert C., Cithara


Flannery O'Connor's (1925-1964) politics have been relatively little studied. Partly this is because O'Connor herself had very little to say-at least in her public pronouncements-about political matters. Even in her private letters, however, she rarely discussed politics very explicitly or at length. In a recent essay, I have argued that O'Connor was essentially a Christian conservative who valued the writings of conservative political thinkers such as Russell Kirk. But O'Connor's Christian conservatism did not in any way imply a reluctance to criticize the American society of her day. In fact, just the opposite was true. She was highly critical of American materialism and deeply suspicious of mere jingoism. Although a strong antiCommunist, O'Connor knew that her own country was flawed, partly because she believed that all humans, everywhere and always, were contaminated by pride and original sin. Her hope for a solution to America's shortcomings lay not in any particular politician, political program, or political party but rather in her deep Christian faith. She hoped that if more Americans turned to Christ as the center of their existences, America might become a better, more just, society. But she knew that humans were too essentially imperfect for pure justice ever to prevail on earth.

As it happens, new evidence of O'Connor's political philosophy has emerged in the form of a little-known political pamphlet written by her good friend Brainard Cheney and published in 1956. A copy of this pamphlet- titled A New "Crown of Thorns "for the Democratic Party/by a Life-long Democrat (hereafter abbreviated as "NC")-exists among the Cheney papers at the Jean and Alexander Heard Library at Vanderbilt University (box 38, file 14). The pamphlet was "distributed by" the so-called "Committee for Renewing the Democratic Party." This committee was in fact a fiction; it consisted of friends of Cheney (along with his wife) who agreed with his views. Its members were listed as "Ashley Brown, Carolyn [sic] Gordon Tate, Flannery O'Connor, Frances Neel Cheney [Brainard's wife], Tom Carter, and Lee C. Jessup" (reverse of title page). Brown, Gordon, and Frances Cheney were, of course, well-known friends of O'Connor. Brainard Cheney had asked O'Connor if he could use her name as a member of the "dummy committee" for his pamphlet and she had instantly agreed, even before seeing what he had written (Correspondence, pp. 38-39). Cheney could not reveal his authorship openly lest the pamphlet prove controversial and damage the political career of Tennessee governor Frank G. Clement, Cheney's patron and sometime employer.

One purpose of the present essay is to outline, in some detail, the contents of Cheney's pamphlet. Another purpose is to indicate specifically how Cheney's views seem to have accorded with those of Flannery O'Connor and why she was so readily willing to have her name listed as one of its backers. In the present essay, I focus particularly on O'Connor's political views in the period from the late 1940s up to the end of 1956. It was in mid1956, after all, that Cheney's pamphlet was published-just a few months before the presidential election of that year.

I.

So as not to violate copyright, I have chosen to paraphrase Cheney rather than frequently quote him, although in a very few instances I have used quotations when Cheney's phrasing struck me as either unclear or especially crucial.

Cheney begins his pamphlet by suggesting that the Democratic party of his day needs to offer voters different options than it has offered in the past. Its previous emphasis on socio-economic benefits are less attractive to Americans because so many Americans have now attained them. He mentions, for instance, that many American families not only now possess one car but actually possess two. Cheney contends that American values are fundamentally changing; Republicans are too wedded to the old order to embrace these changes; Democrats have an opportunity to align themselves with the new values; and that unless they do so they are doomed (NC, p. …

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