Alison Greene, a professor of history at Mississippi State University, reminds us that there was once a time when Christians welcomed government funding. In her piece at “Religion and Politics,” which challenges some historically inaccurate remarks made recently by Franklin Graham about the way government has supposedly replaced the church as a source of welfare, Greene discusses how the New Deal “transformed the roles of church and state.”
When Franklin Roosevelt announced his New Deal, religious leaders cheered. Indeed, many saw Roosevelt’s program as the realization of Christian ideals. As one Mississippi Methodist put it in 1933, “It is gratifying in the highest degree that our government is actually attempting to try out some of these things for which the Christian church has been contending for a quarter of a century.” What is striking about such fulsome praise is that it was widespread, and that clergy from a broad range of theological and political inclinations agreed that the New Deal was necessary—except the substantial number who instead protested that it did not go far enough. Certainly, dissenters spoke from the right as well, but their numbers were sparse in the early and mid-1930s.
Religious support for the New Deal boiled down to three key points. First, religious leaders recognized that the Great Depression had sapped their own ability to care for those in need. Second, many acknowledged that religious bodies had long struggled to provide adequate care even for the select few that they deemed both needy and deserving. Third, many saw the New Deal as the realization, rather than a refutation, of their Christian principles. They argued that only the state had the capacity to raise funds to support those in need. The government’s adoption of welfare and reform programs would allow churches to renew focus on their primary goal of evangelism, and the government’s emphasis on security for families and the elderly reflected the churches’ own priorities.
Here is yet another example of why we need historians to engage the public. Thanks, Alison!