Politics and the Church – The Hypocrisy of Politics in the Church [Part 10]

The 1934 New York East Annual Conference derided recovery programs as “only attempts to patch up and preserve a system that has already broken down.”  The New Deal did “not merit the unqualified endorsement of those who desire to build a social order after the pattern of the ideals of Jesus”, they insisted.  One minister aroused applause by protesting against a “blanket condemnation of the New Deal.”  But the conference called for a “new social order.” [“Methodists Find New Deals Weak”, New York Times (May 15, 1934) Page 17].

Harry Ward of the influential Methodist Federation for Social Service was especially outspoken against the New Deal, telling a 1934 Baltimore Annual Conference banquet that government social planning must replace the competitive profit system, which can only operate about 50 percent of the time. [“Minister Urges Social Planning”, Baltimore Sun (June 8, 1934) Page 4].  Ward further complained that FDR “clings to a belief in the profit system.”  He went further to assert that “class conflict is the essence of fascism”, and the New Deal was saving one class at the expense of another.” [Average Man Held Loser by New Deal”, New York Times (December 24, 1934) Page 3]. In 1919 Dr. Ward was accused of being a Bolshevik.  The 1934 New England Annual Conference joined the New Deal’s critics lamenting that “profits” would remain the “criterion by which we measure our national prosperity and contentment.” They also warned against “excessive taxation” and the New Deal’s assault on “morale” and “social confidence”.  [“Methodists Fearful of New Deal Results”, Hartford Courant (June 17, 1934) Page C7].

Of course, Roosevelt Administration officials responded to the New Deal’s critics.  Former Ambassador to Turkey and future Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau in 1934 told a Methodist congregation in Maine that it had been “impossible to continue along the old lines which had caused the collapse of prosperity.” [“Morgenthau Hits Roosevelt’s Foes”, New York Times (July 30, 1934) Page 7].  Agriculture Secretary and later Vice President Henry Wallace, speaking on the lawn of a Louisiana Methodist church in 1934, likened the New Deal to Moses leading the Hebrews through the Wilderness to the Promised Land: “Some wanted to turn back and many wanted the golden calf, but Moses went ahead with his plan and gave them a new land with new laws and a new social era and world similar to the coming New Deal.” [“Wallace Draws on Bible to Illustrate Aim of New Dealers”, Chicago Daily Tribune (July 31, 1934) Page 13].

In 1934 , the Christian Advocate of northern Methodism questioned Wallace’s policy of urging the destruction of farm products to raise prices for beleaguered farmers.  A Baltimore Methodist minister, Albert Day, as head of the Federal Council of Churches, declared that “many goals” of the New Deal were “divine in character” and “indisputably in harmony with the purpose and spirit of Jesus”, while American industry and business “stand at the judgment seat.” [“Council of Churches Calls Aim of New Deal Divine”, Baltimore Sun (August 27, 1934) Page 1].  In a later sermon, Day further warned:”Unregulated individualism destroys the liberties of many and unrestricted freedom of competition always subjects men of conscience, humanitarian impulses, and social outlook to the tyranny of men who have no conscience and who think workers are pawns in their game of utter selfishness.”  He admitted that “delegation of enormous powers” to the government in emergencies could lead to a “dictatorship” and the “crowding out of liberty”. [“Hoover Answered by Rev. Day”, Baltimore Sun (September 10, 1934) Page 4].

Additionally, at the 1934 Illinois Annual Conference there was resistance to a “socialistic” report affirming the New Deal.  “Do we endorse the efforts of the present administration?” one prominent lay delegate asked to the cries of “no” from the floor. “It is time for churches to stop adopting resolutions and then finding out what they mean afterward.”  Where have we heard that recently?  The fact was pointed out that “Bishop McConnell, who was presiding, is a Socialist. He has a right to be, but the Methodist church has no right to join a political party.” [“Lawyer Fights Methodist O.K. for New Deal”, Chicago Daily Tribune (September 14, 1934) Page 19].  Meanwhile, the 1934 New Jersey Annual Conference praised the New Deal for its “progress toward eliminating the exploitation of human life” while stating that “no satisfactory social order can be founded on a purely materialistic basis.” [“Methodists Score Lottery, Divorce”, New York Times (September 5, 1934) Page 17].

The West Texas Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1934 praised FDR and the New Deal. [“Leaders Endorse New Deal, Roosevelt and Church”, Chicago Defender (November 17, 1934) Page 5]. And so the argument went back and forth throughout 1934 and 1935 into 1936.

At an Asheville ecumenical gathering in 1936, an Oklahoma southern Methodist minister declared that Methodism had more socialists and communist clergy than any other church and that they were “traitors to the integrity of Methodism.”  He complained the southern Methodist youth were “being fed homeopathic doses of socialism and communism through Sunday school literature.” [“Red Influences Seen Pressing into Churches”, Chicago Daily Tribune (August 14, 1936) Page 11].  This same Oklahoma pastor asked:”Why do these Methodist Reds not get passports, emigrate to Russia where they can prostrate themselves daily before the sacred mummy of Lenin and submit themselves to the commands of Joseph Stalin?” [“Methodists Reds”, Chicago Daily Tribune (June 12, 1936) Page 14].  Pretty tough words coming from a Methodist pastor to many in membership.  It gets even worse.

At the 1936 General Conference in Columbus, Ohio, Pittsburgh Bishop Adna Leonard denounced “a planned economy that is alien and godless.”  Further he stated: ” I cannot see how the Christian man can today take the form of Russian Communism and give it any encouragement under the Stars and Stripes.”  This was in reference to the Methodist Federation for Social Services.  New York Bishop Francis McConnell, longtime president of the Methodist Federation for Social Service, responded unapologetically: “We believe in a militant organization and we do not care a hoot about what the great church bodies think about us.”  His attitude was shared by Detroit Bishop Edgar Blake. [“Bishops in Clash on Social Economy”, New York Times (May 10, 1936) Page 43].  No worry about offending there!

Somewhat cautiously, the 1936 General Conference acknowledged there is a “wide divergence of opinion among us as to the meaning of a Christian society.”  Some Methodists want to replace the “profit-seeking economy” with a “planned social economy,” with “social ownership of the resources and plants necessary to its operation,” and where the “struggle for profit is gradually…replaced by mutual aid.”  Other Methodists “utterly repudiate” this “costly pathway of revolutionary change” and prefer free enterprise.  The General Conference chose “not to pass judgment on techniques” for a just economy. [General Conference Reports and Resolutions, Methodist Episcopal Church (1936), Pages 656-658].

In 1936, southern Bishop James Cannon, commented that FDR appealed to “class-hatred with hypocritical suggestion of moral purpose” and was “the most dangerous opportunist” ever to be president. He further commented:”I stood where I stood in 1928.  I am a States Right Democrat…(same group that established the KKK)…and am not for (1936 Republican presidential nominee Alf) Landon as an old-line Republican, but as more really a Democrat than Roosevelt.” [Robert A. Hohner, Prohibition and Politics: The Life of Bishop James Cannon, Jr. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 1999), Page 292].

Bishop Wallace Brown of Chattanooga told a special 1938 General Conference preparing for reunification of north and south, that the “New Deal has become very largely un-American”, though he supported collective bargaining and social security, even if it “has been abused.”  He bewailed that “without the intention of some of our leaders, we are certainly drifting toward a dictatorship.”  The bishop implored:”It is time, at least for us to wake up.” [“Warning Given on Dictatorship”, Los Angeles Times (October 6, 1938) Page 5].  I suppose that over the years nothing has changed.

By 1938 millions in Europe had succumbed to Nazism, fascism, and communism.  Politics had taken a turn for the worse and Methodists would soon turn their attentions to the gathering storm of World War II.  I suppose that for some reason politics still belonged in the church.

– Bob Munsey

“The faith that continues to the end gives proof that it was genuine in the beginning.”

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