Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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FDR’s D-Day Prayer

...which deserves to be ranked among the best presidential prayers.

Here are some thoughts: They don’t pray ’em like this any more. Here’s more evidence of the tendency emerging in one of the threads to see some statesmanship in FDR after all. And notice that it’s Newt who’s trying to rekindle our memory of this wonderful example of American piety and greatness. I never denied that Gingrich has some fine ideas! The story of D-Day, which I’m not competent to tell, is of a triumph of American courage and ingenuity over some pretty flawed planning. Imagine how that war would have gone had our forces been repulsed that day.

(Thanks to Rob Jeffrey.)

Discussions - 21 Comments

I happened to be up very early this morning to catch Bill Bennett playing the audio of that prayer. I was really very struck by it. I could not help but admit to myself that if such a prayer were offered today--even by a Republican, to say nothing of a Democrat--it might even make me shift in my seat in discomfort. Although I am certain it was sincerely offered at the time, I couldn't help be feel skeptical about it--corrupted as I must be by the times. It seemed so foreign to me. My ears are so unused to hearing such things uttered outside of church that I could not even get my mind around it. And I have been thinking about it all morning and wondering why I had that reaction. I think it's partly the unfamiliarity with that kind of talk in today's public square but also, I must say, the protestant nature of the prayer. Because we don't pray as a nation anymore, I am not too comfortable with protestant prayers. I usually only hear Catholic ones (which are more formal and less stream-of-consciousness). I think that was part of it too. (I admit, a bit of prejudice on my part--which speaks to the goodness of a time when there was some common thread/style of prayer for all citizens and even Catholics would feel at home with a protestant-type prayer if offered in this context.) I'm curious if other Catholics in my age range had the same reaction. I think we are all too sheltered these days in our own religious circles.

I've never understood why FDR deserves so much credit for patriotism and for things like the D-Day prayer. An equally plausible explanation is that he was a shrewd politician and a man of his times. That FDR knew he led a patriotic and religious nation, and therefore gave the nation what it wanted.

Mr. Frisk seems to be voicing in stronger terms my initial reaction to the prayer. But am resisting that interpretation unless/until it is proven and not just felt.

Actually, no, Julie. My reaction to the prayer itself is favorable, although you're right that we'd never heard it -- I'd say from almost anyone -- today. But I'm one of those Protestants, as was FDR, as was most of the country. I'm simply saying that we shouldn't read statesmanship into FDR simply because he gave a prayer that has a gravitas we rarely see anymore. In 1944, the whole nation -- or rather, the nation as a whole -- had a gravitas we rarely see anymore. FDR understood the nation he led. Not every president does, and it's probably a prerequisite of statesmanship, but that doesn't make FDR a statesman.

David, thanks for your clarification. For my own, I would add that I wish I were more used to such prayers. Maybe I'm entirely off with the Catholic thing.

Supposedly, we are still a religious nation. Why wouldn't a shrewd politician, even our current president, USE prayer today especially if he were already accused of being a religious fanatic? Is it just that it IS prayer, or is it that there is a surety that we are right in that prayer, and that we have a right to ask what FDR asks of God? We have really lost that, haven't we? Relating that to the Democrats at the Sojourner's forum the other day - did or would any of them pray like that in public, even to quoting FDR's prayer? I think not. They talk about prayer, but that is certainly not the same thing.

Protestant tradition is more nationalistic or accommodating to nationalism, and therefore is more likely to express itself in patriotic terms on (we hope) appropriate occasions. Catholic tradition is more internationalist and tends to express itself almost exclusively in terms of humanity or the human person. Not Catholic people, necessarily, but Catholicism as a religion. In addition, Protestants do have a greater tendency to pray for direct action by God, or assistance from God, in the public arena.

Quickly for now, notice the cadences and phrases from the King James Bible. Notice what he seeks to accomplish in the context of the prayer, the strenghthening of the resolve and steadfastness of the citizenry (especially towards the end) and the genuine truth that the outcome rests with God's will but that the character of our sons should give us confidence in God's will. No call for national counseling here. I grew up as a high church mainline Protestant, and this is a typical form of a "Pastoral Prayer." I remember listening to this prayer as a boy in the 50's (I had records, recordings of FDR's speeches) and feeling tingles. It sounds perfect to me. A statesman should be judged on his speeches and deeds, not on his motives. See Federalist 1, 51, and 72, for example. Of course I am assuming that the ends pursued are of primary importance and can best be deduced from those speeches and deeds rather than from speculation as to what is hidden in the breast. More on FDR later.

For the record, I agree with Kate that there is nothing irreligious about a President leading a nation in prayer. What is most depressing is that we have been deprived of the literary sources and reserves of social character that make such a prayer possible.

7: Kate, there are people far more qualified than myself to answer your question, but here's a quick stab at an answer: Our religiosity is not what it was 60 years ago. Today, we increasingly have the therapeutic side of Christianity (and of theism). GWB exemplifies this nicely. I doubt that FDR was as much of a believer as GWB, and I certainly doubt that Christianity was as central to his life (someone please correct me if I'm wrong). But he spoke to a more seriously and deeply religious nation than we have today, at least in this prayer.

Let's not overlook the contribution of our brave friends, the British. That was a day of American courage, but it was also a day of British courage.

And we should note it.

David, so Americans today would identify more seriously with Hillary Clinton's prayer about her weight than the sentiment within FDR's words. The pattern of Protestant prayer today IS different as well as our relative religiosity. I have never read of FDR that he had much interest in Christianity. I wonder who he had listened to, as Robert listened to him, to get the prayer to sound so grounded and correct in the way it is put together.

FDR must have had an appreciation, a democratic appreciation, of the utility of religion in the nation. It is the nationalism inherent in his prayer that we turn from today. Did people take FDR seriously as a man of faith in his day? Did they care, as people seem to care if GWB is a serious Christian.


I have no time to edit. Sorry, but I want to have my question answered!

Did anyone watch the movie version from Newt.org? Great transition from WWII to our current conflict. I played this for my high school classes before showing the episode from Band of Brothers -Day of Days. My students found it incredibly powerful and several appauded at the end of the speech. In other words I think that our response to evil, regardless of the era, will be similar. We rise (are called?)to the ocasion. Prayer does work. They understood it in 1944 and we understand it today.Think back to the days following the 9/11 attacks -how many Americans, Brits, Francs, et al harkened back to the plight of WWII and emmersed themselves in prayer. It just seems that the pace of society, the media, the lack of a visable or easily idenitfiable enemy, or any other distraction kept our attention from the true problem. As a follow up I might suggest C.S. Lewis "Mere Christianity" -after all he was asked to write this/speak on this during the Blitz to inspire British resolve.

12: Kate, again, others are more competent than I am to discuss America's "habits of the heart" circa 1944. But my sense is that the current anxieties about whether a president or a candidate is or is not a Christian, is or is not a strong believer in God, reflect religion's weakness in our society. In a society where religion was truly strong, as I believe it was in the 1940s and earlier, we wouldn't worry about a president's beliefs because we were confident about where society was. In a society that has been breaking down for decades, we grasp at straws, such as President Bush's very sincere faith, for comfort. How much they really mean in terms of results is questionable.

To Kate's questions, one way to put it is that what one thinks of GWB's profession of faith is to take a side in a culture war, at least so far as it is played out politically. Not so of Roosevelt. So citizens wouldn't have "cared" the same way, as David rightly points out. The public attack on religion had yet to come. And there was generally a higher tone to both political and religious life in those days.

As for FDR's religiosity, he was a pragmatic but socially cultivated high Protestant. He knew the Book of Common Prayer and could quote many parts of the Bible. (He was read enough in the classics to allude to them as well.) He became more evidently religious in his last years, speaking of it often both privately and in public addresses such as Christmas Eve talks on the radio. Molotov asked Harriman as early as 1941 if Roosevelt, "being an intelligent man, really was as religious as he appeared, or whether it was all for political purposes." One cannot imagine such a question being asked about Churchill, and one wonders if this made FDR more mysterious to Molotov than WSC. This is in part the continuing mystery of Christian America to Europe. FDR was too American not to exemplify her. Conrad Black also recounts that FDR's reading of Kierkegaard during his later years helped him to begin to account for the evil of our enemies and that he even prayed in public for them (I forget the occasion). This seems sincere to me. His struggle with polio also no doubt increased his sense of dependence on God. However, like most intense public men, his form of devotion was mostly the spending of his body and soul for the public weal as he understood it. More on FDR in general coming.

Very interesting details. They dispose me somewhat more favorably to FDR, assuming they're true.

Why would this prayer make anyone uncomfortable?

Because we, as a Nation, have bought into the sham that is called 'seperation of church and state'. Today, that phrase means something entirely different than when the Constitition was written and, in my opinion, a total distortion of the Constition and of what this country is about.

Dale, Yes, but, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." The phrase you cite is not in the Constitution.

Rob, That is very interesting about FDR. You keep saying "more about FDR, anon, anon," but we seem to be getting him from you piecemeal and as needed. It is very nice to have a resident expert on the man.

David, "In a society where religion was truly strong..." you mean strong enough to have a greater impact on the culture and public morality of the people than is the case today. It is the questionable results in the current case that is distressing, as well as the form or maybe tone is the word, that public religious expression takes. I keep wondering and hoping that we as a nation might get to the place where we say, "ENOUGH!"

Tucker, I hope you are right that we rise to the occasion. I might have to go read some of Mere Christianity for a little while just to cheer up.

I know I have been "anonning" as the Shakespearean Kate notes, so, before I attempt to rise to Peter's challenge in a more recent post, let me say a few provisional words about FDR's statesmanship. I am not really an expert, and it has been years since I gave the history of the New Deal(s) the attention it deserves, in part because the histories on both sides tend to be partisan and, frankly, because I thought I understood the essence of it. All the more reason to be grateful for Conrad Black's biography, which is written for a conservative and thoughtful mainstream audience, attempting to make a case for FDR (though being frank about his faults--not at all a hagiography) and to renew the interest of serious students of politics in this period. Good histories are good antidotes for overly theoretical people like me, but in addition to this Black truly understands the intricacies of statesmanship, for example the difficulties of the prudential adjustment of means to ends, hierarchies of ends, and the often tragic consequences of having by necessity to prioritize one's ends for the sake of the preservation of the country or to rid the world of the greatest evil. He also seems to have read everything there is to read about Roosevelt including original sources (some of which he apparently purchased). He is somewhat of a Plutarchian as well, choosing throughout the choice and fascinating details that illuminate the character of the man and the times and the concrete political situation. So I have been rethinking FDR as a result. I hadn't intended to. I just picked the book up and started reading, but it turns out it is a good moment to rethink it, both for me sort of autobiographically (I was raise a New Dealer in a very political academic family), but because of the break-up of conservatism, which break up is plausibly due in part to the inadequacy of some aspects of it.

So what am I thinking or seeing? First, more continuity in practical terms than one might expect, partly due to the gap between some of FDR's words and his deeds. The First New Deal was really successful in a practical sense; in fact, although it is true that rearmament did in the end mobilize the entire nation, the trend lines through the 30's were good economically, with the only downturn the result of FDR's recurrence to tight money and balanced budgets (Morgenthau's plan) at the beginning of the second term. True, one can criticize the ND from a growth or supply side perspective, but no one seemed to be thinking that way in the 30's and FDR was not by any means a socialist ideologue but rather an empirically minded pragmatist when it came to saving the social fabric of the nation. In part because America was a smaller nation back then, the public works initiatives like the WPA really did work and were well run. They also were one way FDR was able to increase arms production toward the end of the decade. More essentially, FDR faced a tremendous social and political problem in 1933. He successfully and brilliantly maintained a center majority, not just by tacking left and right at the right moments, but by isolating and weakening the leaders on the extremes. He maintained and built majorities to sustain a common good against capital and labor on the one hand and communism and fascism on the other. AND, he succeeded not just because of his intuitive political genius, but because he understood the American people, something evidently lacking in GWB's "leadership," for example. FDR was always alive, maybe too much alive for some, to the political conditions for success. But he was certainly not just a party manager like Stanley Baldwin. He pursued grand political ends, but he agreed with Lincoln that you can't get too ahead of public opinion, and you can see this especially in his long and frustrating and patient and politically demanding leadership of reluctant and naive Americans to take part in the war--and everything DID depend on his winning the third term. I was surprised by how early FDR sized up Hitler, by how he understood the Hitler threat both morally and strategically (he seemed to know early on it would be FDR vs. Hitler, and it is a good complement to my concentration on Churchill to have a real sense of this). I do not find myself averse in principle to the sort of presidential discretion he exercised, though some was over the top. The worst thing about the New Deal was probably the wholesale adoption of business style organization and planning to government, but it's hard to blame FDR for this since it was the fruit of capitalism and of the frame of mind that was typical in the era of mature industrialism. FDR agreed with Lincoln and Marshall and Hamilton that America was a political regime, a constitutional order in true sense. New Deal social measures were tame by contemporary standards and were all adapted to achieving the political objective of saving the regime. FDR did not seem to think he was changing it fundamentally, as Wilson had seemed to intend. Bob Eden points out rightly in his review of Black's book that there is insufficient attention paid to FDR's words, the words that we teach in Am Pol Thought, for example the Commonwealth Club Address and the new Bill of Rights. Black calls the former speech silly, but they did seem to have long term consequences, or at least to reflect long term intellectual opinion, though this needs more thought. Finally, Black is very good in indicating that FDR's faults of excess, in word and vindictive deed, were due more to character than intellect. In other words, his political goals were sound, but the measure was sometimes off. Black does not believe this affected the ultimate positive fruits of FDR's statesmanship. FDR was a fascinating man. The sources of his genius, more intuitive than Lincoln's, remain mysterious. He was certainly large, larger than I remembered. Two quibbles I have with the book. Black is prejudiced toward the South (even though the South made it possible for us to rearm, for example) and he includes errors of fact about the course of Churchill's awareness of and opposition to the Hitler threat. But the book is a treasure, and I'm not through with it--1200 pages. Random thoughts.

Was FDR a good listener? Is it possible that he was great politician because he actually listened to people and absorbed what they said into his understanding, making it part of his perspective? Of course, he could get political information more quickly than Lincoln because of modern communication. You speak of his understanding of the American people and that is one of the aspects of being a good leader, (something being discussed elsewhere) being able to stay at the head of a people. A good leader can sway the people and get them to follow, yes, but he is also always trying to stay in front of where the mass is actually heading. That's just politics, seeing the frame of mind and figuring out how best to put it to good use. I hope I am clear, though just thinking this through.


GWB seems deaf to such things. Maybe it wouldn't matter if he were a great communicator and persuader, but he is NOT.


his political goals were sound, but the measure was sometimes off. and you write of pragmatism, so he did what seemed like a good idea at the time?

Yes indeed, he was a voracious listener, to public opinion as well as to the one in the room. He travelled much around the country throughout his life. He knew all its regions, and lived much in the South at Warm Springs. Compare this with our current New Yorker RG who knows the South not at all and is uncomfortable here, which may sink his candidacy in the end. Back to FDR, he was a master of misdirection, was an accomplished liar and manipulator, for ex of the press, and used this facility not only to master the Washington chess matches but also to keep his staff subservient. This was balanced by a contagious affability (avuncularity)that few could resist as well as by a "serenity," as Black calls it, under pressure or adversity (perhaps a consequence of his polio). He was an extraordinary actor, an artist, a "shaman" or "magician" as some called him. And he was also the first president to use radio consistently. He'd come into your living room by the fireside, and talk intimately and plainly in good English, like a father. GWB has not a clue. Could he do it on the Immigration Bill?

On your last question, what I meant was that certain of his less admirable character traits would lead him to excess. For ex, saying perhaps excessively bad things about the rich due to resentmnent at slights done to him as a young man; or being overly vindictive when he had an advantage over an opponent.

Really, the way he subtly prepared a recalcitrant America for the war, starting very early, is a marvel--and a paradigm for what he was intending to do in the earlier 30's. By the way, an America that had not morally recovered from the Depression would not have been in a place to fight the war as she did.

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