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One of the most striking moments in Ken Burns’ 2014 documentary on The Roosevelts comes when Franklin contracts what was diagnosed in 1921 as poliomyelitis. A former polio patient himself, historian Geoffrey Ward is visibly overcome as he tries to describe the depth of terror that FDR must have felt as a highly active, athletic adult who suddenly could not move his legs. Among other responses, says the narration (written by Ward), FDR “momentarily lost his religious faith, could not understand why God, who had favored him for so long, now seemed to have turned away.”
Rewatching that scene recently made me realize that I’d given no thought to the faith of Franklin Roosevelt. I didn’t know his religious upbringing, nor how religion shaped his rhetoric or policies as president. I hadn’t considered if spiritual doubt or reassurance accompanied the sudden onset of his illness and the agonizing pain of his recovery. It hadn’t even occurred to me the religio-political connection that James Tobin points out in his book on FDR and polio: that the 1920 Democratic vice-presidential candidate and his advisers feared that future voters would see his illness as “God’s punishment for mysterious sins Roosevelt had committed in the past. There was also the traditional view, as a midwestern editor would later put it, that ‘a physical cripple is inclined to become an emotional and spiritual cripple’”
Copy - HW - Brands - Biography - FDR
So when I picked up a copy of H.W. Brands’ biography of FDR, Traitor to His Class, I kept flagging the infrequent, but significant mentions of religion:
FDR’s upbringing as an Episcopalian whose prep school principal, an Episcopal priest named Endicott Peabody, not only officiated the wedding of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, but presided over a private worship service for FDR and his cabinet after the 1933 inauguration;
Roosevelt - Response
Roosevelt’s enthusiastic response to what he called...
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