Oct 22, 2012

The religion in the politics of George McGovern

September 1, 1970 saw a moment critical to the history of religion in American politics. A moment that doesn't fit the standard narrative of what religion-in-politics in American means, yet was, nevertheless, an example of one of the important ways faith has spoken in the public square, but is dismissed as being somehow not real, not counting as really religious.

On that day in the US Senate an amendment came up for a vote that would have ended the Vietnam war. It was drafted by two Christian men, two men whose liberal politics were informed by their Christianity: Mark Hatfield and George McGovern.

The Hatifled-McGovern amendment was known as the "amendment to end the war." It linked military funding to a deadline for troop withdraw from Vietnam. It was the strongest opposition to the Nixon administration and the never-ending military conflict at the time, and McGovern made it stronger by giving a speech that could rightly seen as in the tradition of Old Testament prophets. Right before voting started, McGovern said:
"Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land -- young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes ... if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us. So before we vote, let us ponder the admonition of Edmund Burke, the great parliamentarian of an earlier day: 'A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood.'"
Hatfield's religious commitments have been noted. The late Oregon Senator was called "Saint Mark," and is something of a symbol of the possibility of a religious left. A committed evangelical, Hatfield believed that the pressing moral issues of his day were war, racism, and the unjust distribution of wealth. He believed that evangelicals should rise up to oppose the "Biblical Nationalism" that was being propagated in their name.

McGovern's religious commitments are not particularly a part of the public character, "McGovern."

He, after all, was famously tarred as the candidate for draft-dodger's amnesty, abortions, and acid.

His name, after all, has become a synonym for loony liberalism, and everyone knows that that's the Godless wing of American politics.

A closer look, though, shows that the life and politics of George McGovern, who died yesterday at the age of 90, was deeply informed and rooted in his Christianity.


McGovern, prairie populist and lifelong Methodist
McGovern, as every obit has now noted, was the son of a Wesleyan Methodist minister.

In the last book he wrote before his death, he recalls Summer tent meetings on the banks of South Dakota's "Jim River," where he would watch altar calls and conversions from the back of the tabernacle. He himself didn't go forward, as he represents it in the book, but was impressed by their earnestness and their commitment, an earnestness and commitment he attempted to imitate in his own love for God.

As he told a Methodist audience late in life: 
"The church gave me certain things that stayed with me .... 'whosoever would save his life shall lose it; whosoever would lose his life for my sake shall find it.' I think that the life well lived is the life spent in service to others. That verse I’ve just quoted suggests it also has to be in service to God. But there’s another verse that says, “if you don’t love your fellow man who you have seen, how can you love God whom you’ve not seen?” So I put the emphasis on public service to others, maybe being a teacher, being a clergyman, being a doctor, being a journalist, being an honest day laborer. Service to others is the key in my opinion to the good life, and that verse says it all."
In another context, McGovern notes that it was not for nothing that scripture quotations were sprinkled throughout his political speeches. His "populist and sometimes radical political views" were informed by, inspired by, and based on "the Christian Social Gospel."

McGovern's early successes in politics came, as South Dakota State University political scientist Gary Aguiar has argued, from "conceptualizing his constituents as peaceful Christian agriculturalists," and staking out positions that reflected that ideology. His later successes came from advocating policies that reflected the "gospel imperative" to care for the poor. 

This is perhaps most directly seen in McGovern's work as director of the Food of Peace program and the World Food Programme, to feed the poor around the world, and his work as a Senator to establish school lunch programs, food stamps, and The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

As Methodist minister Donald E. Messner writes, McGovern believed that feeding the hungry was an essential expression of the Christian faith. It was "a Gospel imperative as well as integral to a civilized society." Messner says, "McGovern’s deepest personal and political passions were to end war and eliminate hunger. He often acknowledged that he did not see much hope in eliminating humanity’s sinful proclivity for using violence but that he did believe that hunger could be ended in his lifetime."

McGovern wasn't alone in this understanding of the gospel. When he met Pope John XXIII, the pontiff reportedly grasped his hand and told him, "Mr. McGovern, when you go to meet your maker and he asks, 'Did you feed the hungry?'  You can say, 'I did.'"

Nor was it the case that McGovern's faith was entirely political. He was a member of a United Methodist church in South Dakota as an adult and had a deep affection for the "old hymns," which he reportedly sang "with gusto."

None of that has mattered to the public image, though. Another narrative worked better, and was embraced. His concern for peace was re-cast as anti-Americanism, reckless radicalism, and cowardice.

Richard Nixon ordered campaign hacks to say McGovern's plan was going to "cost a billion dollars just to buy enough white flags for America." Robert Novak, a conservative columnist who specialized in smears, popularized the accusation that McGovern and liberals more generally didn't stand for America, but for "amnesty, abortion and acid." Pro-war labor leader George Meany attacked McGovern as "an apologist for the Communist world," the political leader of a rabble representing not good middle class Christians, but "people who looked like Jacks, acted like Jills and had the odors of Johns."

Such were the identity politics of the 1970s. Such was the culture war, though it wasn't called that then. Opposing a war, having a nuanced position on abortion, thinking homosexuals could be decent citizens, that the democratic process should be open to those who hadn't consolidated power and that government should benefit especially those who needed help -- these were successfully reframed as positions no sober citizen and no real Christian could hold.

Ideas that McGovern got from listening Methodists preach the gospel were understood by the electorate as crazy.

As Michael Leheay of the Washington Post reflected, The Nixon "campaign pounced on McGovern's liberalism, turning the word into an albatross for decades to come .... Nixon's campaign portrayed McGovern as a patsy whose stances would open the door to economic decline, national dishonor and communist expansion"

Such, too, is the culture war in our day that McGovern is not remembered as a critical figure in the history of how Christianity has been expressed in American politics. His faith has more or less been erased from the record, and is remembered, if at all, only as a private detail.

There's a sense that his religion, if he was religious at all, wasn't of any import to his public life. There's a sense that he wasn't really religious. Or that if he was religious, his religion, because it advocated a positive role for the state in caring for the poor and critiqued American nationalism, doesn't count as religion. The sense seems to be that when we talk about religion in politics, we're not talking about religion that's religious like that.

It's a strange bias, that gets us here. It has nothing to do with the facts of McGovern's life, and everything to do with the ongoing struggle in American culture over the normative definition of "Christian."

Maybe it is the case that McGovern was the "wrong sort of Christian," or not "really" a Christian, or wrong about what sort of social action the teachings of Jesus entailed. There are serious theological arguments to that effect. It would be a mistake, though, to take those normativized claims of what Christianity is at face value and so dismiss or just miss the way that McGovern and those like him acted as they did because of their commitments to Christianity.

It's not an accident that the two men who started a global school lunch program were both Methodists.

It's not incidental that the two men who took a strong stand against the Vietnam war in September 1970 both belonged to churches that came out of the tradition of the Second Great Awakening.

It's not irrelevant that McGovern sand "the old hymns," and wrote when faced with his daughter's death, he found comfort in the "lovely old song of the faith," "I Need Thee Every Hour."

Religion in contemporary American politics is not just Jerry Falwell and Ronald Reagan fetishism. It's also this liberal Senator recalling the lines of a nineteenth century Baptist hymn, "I need Thee every hour, most gracious Lord / No tender voice like Thine can peace afford." It's also programs that make sure poor infants don't die of malnutrition in a developed nation like America, and excess American produce doesn't rot while poor people don't starve in undeveloped nations around the globe. Whatever else religion-in-politics is in America, it's also this liberal telling the senate "This chamber reeks of blood," and, when chided for that and told his speech offended his colleagues, responding "it was supposed to."

McGovern's politics were informed by his faith. That's also part of this story.


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