George McGovern, 1972, and the "City on a Hill"

Over the past few days I have been working my way through Jefferson Cowie’s riveting and deeply satisfying Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (The New Press, 2010).  I must confess that I am reading this book less out of a responsibility to “keep up with my field” and more for pleasure.  As a child of the 1970s and a product of the white ethnic working class, Cowie’s book is helping me to contextualize some of my memories.

Last night I read Cowie’s chapter on George McGovern and the 1972 presidential race.  Cowie’s primary focus is on McGovern’s inability to tap into the white, ethnic, masculine working class–many of whom supported George Wallace in the Democratic primaries.  His failure to win the support of organized labor and unite the working class, blacks, and anti-war liberals (a vision he inherited from Bobby Kennedy) led to a divided Democratic Party and a landslide victory for Richard Nixon.

But I was most taken by Cowie’s description of McGovern’s campaigning in the closing weeks of the campaign.  By Autumn 1972, McGovern realized that his chances of victory in November were slim and he began to return to his roots as the son of a South Dakota Methodist minister.  Newsweek called it “McGovern’s Politics of Righteousness” and compared the candidate to William Jennings Bryan.

In a campaign stop at evangelical Wheaton College, McGovern invoked “A Model of Christian Charity,” John Winthrop’s famous “City on a Hill” speech of 1620.  As Cowie writes:

For McGovern the invocation of a city on a hill came with an absolute convictions that America had veered from the path of spiritual righteousness.  The vote on Tuesday, he claimed on the eve of the election, will be “a day of reckoning and judgment.”  Eight years later, Reagan would later invoke the same sermon as an affirmation of national greatness.

After reading this short section of Cowie’s book, I am convinced that we need a good religious biography of McGovern.

Here is another taste of Cowie’s description of McGovern’s righteous campaigning:

Richard Nixon, he implied, was an agent of not just political death and darkness, but spiritual death as well, who had led the people away from the promise of America.  On the war, he railed against four more years of “barbarism,” reminding Americans of the “thousands of Asians” who were “burning bleeding, and dying under the bombs that fall from American planes.”  “What is it,” he queried the nation, “that keeps a great and decent country like the United States involved in this cruel killing and destruction?  Why is it that we cannot find the wit and the will to escape from this dreadful conflict that has tied us down for so long?” he asked.  McGovern found Nixon’s formula of sparing American casualties by engaging in the massive carpet-bombing campaigns morally reprehensible.  In an address titled “They Too, Are Created in the Image of God,” McGovern subverted the logic of nearly two hundred years of imperial conquest by boldly equating the value of an Asian life to an American life.

Who is up to the task?  David Swartz?  Brantley Gasaway?

2 thoughts on “George McGovern, 1972, and the "City on a Hill"

  1. I like the idea too. I treat McGovern (and the group Evangelicals for McGovern) in a chapter of Moral Minority. His father had ties to Houghton College.


  2. Great idea, John. I, too, have found McGovern a fascinating figure.

    But I've actually (almost) committed to doing a similar project on Jimmy Carter, using the stages of his life as lenses for understanding religious developments in terms of both politics and theology. Carter's evolving (and now ended) relationship to Southern Baptists and his career as an evangelical Democrat fascinate me.


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