“Don't you think it's wrong for people to get things they don't pay for?”
The question came from a man seated in the honeyed glow of the Guild Room of one of Manhattan's
most famous Episcopal churches. Beyond the steamy window pane lay blankets of snow that had all
but paralyzed the city in February of 1948. This gentleman had not paid to heat the magnificent
edifice popularly known as St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue, nor had he
donated its handsome furnishings. Even the lecture he had just
heard had been funded by a legacy.
|The New York Anglicans: Twenty Who Shaped the Twentieth Century
U.S. Secretary of Labor
|Copyright by Donn Mitchell, 2010
|I came to
Washington to serve
God, FDR, and the
poor working man.
|The New York Anglicans
is made possible through
the generosity of the
Historical Society of the
Episcopal Church and the
He was not thinking of those things, of course. His question was about the morality of the income
redistribution mechanisms created by the New Deal, and it was addressed to the woman who was
their chief architect and advocate.
“Why no,” Frances Perkins responded. “I find I get so much more than I pay for.”
|The woman who had conceived, birthed, nursed, and nurtured the New Deal's crowning
achievement—the Social Security Act—was revealing the theological perspective that informed her
long career advocating, shaping, and ultimately implementing social policy. She knew she had not
paid for the earth she walked on or the parents who had raised her. She had not “earned” the breath
in her lungs. All life was an unearned gift from God, as she saw it.
What we “got,” in her view, was a function of grace, not merit or its inverse correlate, sin. A godly
society, therefore, would be a gracious society. Just as God had endowed humankind with the basics
and then allowed them freedom to develop their capacities to create and contribute, so the community
should graciously guarantee basic provision for its individual members while allowing maximum
freedom to make their way in the world.
The recent legislation that dismantled a key component of the Social Security Act was entitled “The
Personal Responsibility Act.” In its own succinct way, the title belies the extent to which concepts
of sin and merit, as opposed to grace, have come to permeate contemporary political discourse. It
also exposes popular American beliefs about the nature and causes of poverty.
The youngest person to cast a ballot for Franklin Delano Roosevelt is now 92 years old. In less time
than we realize, the living memory of a more generous mode of political discourse will have vanished
from our society. By exploring the religious heritage of the New Deal, we gain a window onto the
values and worldviews that lay behind the reasoning and the rhetoric.
Doing so has the potential to provide critical illumination of contemporary patterns of discourse and to
aid in the development of alternatives. It will also provide answers to some questions that continue to
dog serious students of the New Deal.
As recently as 1998, a gathering of 130 scholars at the FDR Library in Hyde Park, New York, gave
evidence of the need for a deeper examination of the religious roots of the New Deal. Entitled “FDR,
the Vatican, and the Roman Catholic Church in America, 1933-1945,” the conference expressed
frustration in attempting to assess the influence of Catholic social teaching on the New Deal, despite
the fact that FDR himself quoted a papal encyclical in one of his campaign speeches.
Had Frances Perkins been there, she could have answered their questions.
As the chief social policy advisor to the Democratic Party leader for twenty years, she more than
anyone would be in a position to identify the sources of inspiration for the New Deal. But there is a
more compelling reason. Perkins herself was the most overtly religious and theologically articulate
member of the New Deal team.
The Anglican Examiner, Copyright by Donn Mitchell, 2010.
Architect of the Gracious Society