Epiphany this year, January 6, 2016, marked the 75th anniversary of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech. In his 1941 Annual Message to Congress (State of the Union Address), President Roosevelt braced the United States for a looming war against fascism by enunciating four fundamental principles—freedoms—that were imperiled and that he argued had to be defended and advanced as universal goals essential for all of humanity. The first was freedom of speech and expression, everywhere in the world. The second was freedom of worship, throughout the world. The third was freedom from want, meaning economic health sufficient for all nations and people to live free from hunger and material insecurity. The fourth freedom was freedom from fear, which meant the establishment of international conditions and relations for peace and security everywhere in the world.
President Roosevelt’s bold vision for humanity transformed the international system. The ideas articulated in the Four Freedoms were the basis for the fundamental principles of the 1941 Atlantic Charter, an international policy statement that defined the Allied goals for the postwar world. Those same principles drove the United Nations Declaration in 1942, which evolved into the United Nations after Roosevelt’s death in 1945. Finally, the Four Freedoms became the conceptual catalyst for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948 through the work of Eleanor Roosevelt, who consciously championed her husband’s global vision.
Despite popular recognition of the Four Freedoms address as one of the most seminal speeches in American and world history, a salient, crucial source of inspiration behind the speech’s ideals—Franklin Roosevelt’s Christian faith—is generally overlooked by scholars and politicians alike. Because the New Deal policies of the Roosevelt administration are commonly identified as the founding principles of modern American liberalism, both conservative and liberal scholars and politicians share an erroneous, stereotyped view of the role of religion in the life and politics of Franklin Roosevelt. Liberals generally do not consider the possibility that religion could have been important to a modern liberal President like Roosevelt, while conservatives generally do not consider the possibility that a liberal modern President like Roosevelt could have been a man of faith, let alone a dedicated Christian. As a result of these ideological prejudices and assumptions about Roosevelt’s supposedly secular orientation, both ideological camps—conservative and liberal—tend to ignore the role of faith in the President’s life. Nonetheless, the historical reality makes it clear that Roosevelt was a religious man, whose faith informed not only his private life but was central to his worldview and political philosophy.
From childhood to the day of his first inauguration to the presidency in 1933, a convergence of influences shaped Franklin Roosevelt’s moral and political outlook. The two most influential figures in Roosevelt’s life were his father, James, and Rev. Endicott Peabody, Episcopal priest and headmaster of Groton School for Boys, the elite Episcopalian boarding school in Massachusetts, where Franklin was educated as a youth, before attending Harvard University. From these two men, the young Franklin Roosevelt absorbed the lesson he would one day preach to the nation: namely, that everyone is responsible for everyone else, a basic Christian precept with revolutionary social import.
According to one of his most important biographers, the historian Mario R. DiNunzio, Roosevelt drew from both his father and his headmaster a deep sense of social obligation as a religious imperative. Indeed, although the future President Roosevelt’s humanitarianism sometimes arguably flowed from political interests, as many of his critics often pointed out, it was nonetheless deeply rooted in three interwoven ideals: noblesse oblige, belief in human progress, and, above all, a firm dedication to Christian duty, all principles espoused by James Roosevelt and Endicott Peabody.
Rev. Peabody, who became very important to Roosevelt, especially after James Roosevelt’s death while Franklin was still a teenager, understood that paramount to his role at Groton was the development of a religious commitment and a sense of Christian duty in his students. He regularly addressed Groton’s students in chapel, promoting a kind of social gospel that stressed public service as a matter of religious obligation. Indeed, Peabody exhorted his students to take up a vigorous, activist charitable Christian concern for the good of society. Underscoring Roosevelt’s close lifelong bond with his former headmaster, Rev. Peabody officiated at Franklin’s marriage to Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as at the weddings of their children.
Not surprisingly, religious commitment became an integral part of Franklin Roosevelt’s worldview and political outlook. Yet, because Roosevelt, in keeping with his Episcopalian sensibilities, did not make a public spectacle of his faith, many historians and politicians have wrongly characterized him as decidedly secular, while his most extreme detractors have sought to identify him as a force for Godlessness in American public life. Such fallacious representations of Roosevelt are the products of ideological prejudice, ignorance, or hostility.
It is difficult for most current aggressive secular liberals, on the one hand, and self-anointed religious conservatives, on the other hand, to recognize and understand Roosevelt for who he actually was: an admittedly imperfect, but, nonetheless, sincere Christian. After all, our current rigid and polarized political culture and corresponding social intolerance no longer accommodate or provide a place for a political leader like Franklin Roosevelt: a progressive East Coast aristocratic, public servant, and politician who was also a man of genuine faith—in short, an elite, urbane, religious, liberal.
Both secular liberals and religious conservatives buttress their imagined constructions, their respective caricatures, of Franklin Roosevelt and faith by pointing to the fact that as President, Roosevelt was conspicuously absent from regular church services in Washington. This observation underscores the unexamined superficiality of such views. Roosevelt’s many serious biographers make it clear that he did not often attend church services in Washington because of the lack of privacy, not because of a lack of faith. Indeed, both before and during his presidency, Roosevelt attended services regularly at his family’s parish when he was in residence at his home in Hyde Park, away from public intrusion. In short, Roosevelt did not regularly attend church serves in Washington precisely because he took church attendance, worship, and prayer seriously.
Roosevelt had little apparent interest in formal theology or doctrinal debates, but he was very interested in and knowledgeable about world religions. He had close ties to many religious leaders in the United States, including Archbishop Athenagoras, the head of the then Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, whom he counted as a personal friend. Roosevelt was acutely conscious of the importance of faith in his personal life and religion in the public and cultural life of the nation. Indeed, Roosevelt often read the Bible and was fond of quoting from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. He routinely asserted the importance of the Bible in American history, declaring, "we cannot read the history of our rise and development as a nation, without reckoning with the place the Bible has occupied in shaping the advances of the Republic." He felt strengthened by prayer and freely expressed a connection to Christ as a real, meaningful part of his life. He referred to religion quite naturally and drew from Christian ideas and principles about how to improve the human condition.
For Roosevelt, universal freedom of worship was a matter of paramount importance that grew out of his dedication to both democratic principles and Christian ideals and duty, which he understood as mutually supportive. Roosevelt invoked freedom of worship in his famous Four Freedoms speech, not as a freedom of expression concession to the supposedly less enlightened who continued to cling to religion, but because he himself was a person of faith, who earnestly believed that religion itself was crucial to the progress of humanity, and that humanity could not realize its full potential without God.
Frances Perkins, President Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945 (the first woman appointed to the US Cabinet), and a key figure in building the country’s New Deal coalition, observed that, “Roosevelt saw the betterment of life and people as part of God’s work, and felt that man’s devotion to God expressed itself by serving his fellow man.” Eleanor Roosevelt, who embraced an intensely Christian identity in her own work, often discussed the importance of faith to her husband’s self-confidence and judgment, helping him through difficult decisions. Reflecting on this aspect of Roosevelt’s life and political career and choices, Eleanor commented succinctly, “Franklin believed in God and His guidance.” In an intensely revealing moment on a train to Washington for his presidential inauguration in 1933, Roosevelt’s thoughts turned to religion, which, he said in a conversation with his campaign manager, Jim Farley, “will be the means of bringing us out of the depths of despair into which so many have apparently fallen.”
A year after his Four Freedoms speech, in the 1942 State of the Union address, delivered to Congress less than one month after the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese and entered World War II, Roosevelt framed the conflict in religious terms: "Our enemies are guided by brutal cynicism, by unholy contempt for the human race. 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."
Franklin Roosevelt regarded faith in God, Christian duty, and American democracy as joined by history in common purpose for the salvation and progress of humanity. Before closing his Four Freedoms speech, in which he ultimately posited “freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere,” Roosevelt told the American people that, “This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and hearts of its millions of free men and women; and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God.” The extent to which public moral sense has changed since Franklin Roosevelt spoke those words is evident in the fact that among the pitiable dearth of recent federal government acknowledgements of the anniversary of the Four Freedoms speech, all appear to reproduce that part of the speech’s conclusion emphasizing “the supremacy of human rights everywhere” while none include “faith in freedom under the guidance of God.”
It is a sad irony that Franklin Roosevelt’s own exercise of free speech expressing his faith in God is now sidestepped and expunged from official remembrance of his Four Freedoms speech. The increasing public discomfort with religion, in general, and the intolerance of militant secularist positions, in particular, does not account for the loss of commitment to Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms in the United States, but it is not irrelevant to explaining our failure to protect those freedoms. Ambivalence towards religion undermines our ability and willingness to take into account and to respect the Christian sources of Roosevelt’s social and political philosophy, ultimately articulated as universal human rights. Given our neglect to recognize the inspiration and full purpose of the Four Freedoms, it is perhaps then not surprising that we have thus far failed to realize Roosevelt’s vision of a world free of oppression, persecution, hunger, and fear.
Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.