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The Practical Faith of Theodore Roosevelt: In the Political Arena

July 18, 2019
"Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)," printed in 1929. Pearl ID: 149339

--This summer Richard W. Reifsnyder is looking at the ways Presbyterianism influenced the life and politics of Theodore Roosevelt, who died 100 years ago. Read Rich's first post on TR, "Presbyterian and Paternal Influences," here. His third post will be available in August.

The language of religion was applied easily to Theodore Roosevelt’s style as President. Although he was initially uncomfortable with what he feared was the presumption of accepting the mantle of the “bully pulpit,” he soon did so eagerly. Though he rarely used biblical warrant to justify particular actions as the Christian position, he also didn’t hesitate to identify what he was doing using religious vocabulary. In a speech in Chicago in 1899, shortly before becoming President, he proclaimed, “I wish to preach [my emphasis]…not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life…to preach that the highest form of success comes...to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship.” His administrative ally in the conservation movement, Chief U.S. Forester Gifford Pinchot, believed Roosevelt was the “greatest preacher of righteousness in modern times.” In response to a statement on church leadership by ecumenical leader John R. Mott in 1908, TR called for the “strongest and best trained men” to become leaders “of the aggressive forces that make for Christianity.”[12]

In his advocacy of a practical, strenuous, muscular Christianity, Roosevelt anticipated the approach of New York advertising executive Bruce Barton in his popular work of the 1920s, The Man Nobody Knows. Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr’s well-known typology of how Christianity relates to culture maintains that Reformed theology’s approach is “Christ transforming culture.” Calvinists famously stressed the importance of sanctification and the shaping of society according to Christian norms. Theodore Roosevelt may not have been articulating a conscious theological position, but he certainly intended to bend the behavior of his world to the moral norms in which he had been shaped by his father’s faith discussed in the previous essay—and his own.

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In Roosevelt’s world there was little moral ambiguity. Life—political life in particular—was a battle, a struggle between the forces of good and evil, right and wrong, service and selfishness; though to be sure TR evidenced little self-reflection of how easily he identified his views with the moral. In his first political office as New York State Assemblyman, at the age of twenty four, he made his reputation taking on what he saw as corruption in a tax scheme involving New York’s elevated trains, which were controlled by Jay Gould. Roosevelt described that fight as dealing mainly with “problems of honesty and decency.” His eyes were opened further to the collusion of business and politics when he witnessed the unhealthy condition of tenement house cigar workers—an insight that would inform his willingness to take on big business in his trust-busting days as President. Historian H. W. Brands acknowledged that “in theory” Roosevelt “could sometimes accept that reasonable people might differ with him, but in the heat of battle his toleration usually withered.”[13]

In Roosevelt’s world there was little moral ambiguity. Life—political life in particular—was a battle, a struggle between the forces of good and evil, right and wrong, service and selfishness.

The pattern of seeing his political activities as a moral battle between right and wrong continued throughout his life. He took his stand with the reformers at his first Republican National Convention in 1884. But when James G. Blaine, whose “personal honesty” he questioned, won the nomination, Roosevelt lamented that though the “voice of the people is the voice of God” in most cases, at times it could be “the voice of the devil or...worse, the voice of a fool.” Nevertheless, Roosevelt supported the party slate rather than the dissident Mugwumps. As a reward for his work for the party, he received an appointment to the Civil Service Commission charged with cleaning up the spoils system and diminishing patronage. The irony of how he got this job was lost on him, and he plunged into reform with gusto, as he did later as Police Commissioner of New York City. Roosevelt had little doubt he was on the side of the cause of God. In New York he supported the zealous efforts of Charles Parkhurst, pastor of Madison Square Presbyterian Church, the Roosevelts’ former church, to clean up the city of vice of all kinds. Roosevelt made himself well known, but also well despised, for his clandestine tours of the city and his insistence that saloons actually adhere to the Sunday closing laws.[14]

Madison Square Presbyterian Church, New York City, 1906 (left) would later become Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church (right).

These positions were well suited to Roosevelt’s penchant for practical morality. In the last decade of his life, he frequently reflected on his approach to public life—in his Autobiography, in articles in the religious serial publication The Outlook, and in the Earl lectures at Pacific Theological Seminary, published as Realizable Ideals. In the latter he reminded his hearers that, as important as church going and Bible reading were, their real benefit was to stimulate “a higher and better and more useful life.” In a lecture on the public servant and the Eighth Commandment, he labeled “honesty” as the most essential quality, not only for individuals, but for corporate entities as well. Indeed, he argued that in order to level the playing field, big government was necessary to “demand honesty” from big corporations. His passion was for what he often called “applied morality.”[15]

Roosevelt usually resisted explicitly Christian arguments for his public policy positions. He recognized that the First Amendment prohibited the elevation of any one religious expression over another and opposed laws making Bible reading compulsory in the public schools. But he readily accepted the importance of a civic religion, a “religion of the republic” that transcended the particular doctrines of denominations. He viewed discrimination against a person on the basis of religion as “an outrage against liberty of conscience...which is one of the foundations of American life” and was exercised by those who questioned his friend William Howard Taft’s Christian credentials because he was Unitarian. Nevertheless, he admitted to his Presbyterian clergy friend Charles Parkhurst that he valued a Catholic political colleague because he represented “the wing [of Catholicism] which is liberalized and Americanized…and is a staunch upholder of public schools.”[16] What mattered to Roosevelt were not particular theological affirmations, but whether a religious tradition served to promote a common moral fabric agreed upon by the various denominations and promote the well-being of those in greatest need.

Charles Parkhurst in 1895 and 1894. Left: Pearl ID: 8630. Right: Pearl ID: 15973.

Doing good and putting morality into action shaped Roosevelt’s policy initiatives. Perhaps because of his own frail health as a youngster and his resulting passion to encourage physical well-being and strength, Roosevelt promoted measures such as the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act, milestones in health care legislation, and the federal regulation of business for the public good. He was stymied in legislating other public health measures, but toward the end of his Presidency he supported the use of White House conferences to promote aspects of public health, including a noteworthy conference in early 1909 on “Care of Dependent Children.”[17]

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The relationship of Roosevelt’s religion to his views on America’s role in the world is more problematic. Roosevelt’s lifelong emphasis on “strength” carried over to his views on foreign policy. With his close friend and ally Henry Cabot Lodge, he was determined to build up America’s military power and presence, especially the Navy. And when Lodge convinced President McKinley to appoint his friend Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt was determined to use the position to expand America’s presence in the world. Although the origins of the Spanish American War and Roosevelt’s role in it are murky, there is no question about his enthusiastic promotion of the war and his determination to be an active part of it militarily. Numerous historians have suggested that his bellicose attitude was in part a reaction to his embarrassment that his father had not fought in the Civil War, the one blemish on his saintly character in his son’s view. Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. had paid for a substitute, a common practice among the wealthy, in part because his wife was a Southerner with family fighting for the Confederacy. He did his part in the war effort by working tirelessly to get soldiers to send part of their pay home to insure financial security at war’s end, but in his son’s eyes this did not compensate for the glories of battle, which he was determined to experience. During the Spanish American War Roosevelt raised a regiment of “Rough Riders,” performed heroically at the Battle of San Juan Hill, and made a name for himself that would help carry him to the governorship of New York and the Vice Presidency.[18]

Edith Roosevelt, Teddy's second wife, and their children Theodore, Quintin, Kermit, Edith, and Archibald, 1904. View these images in Pearl.  

Roosevelt had little difficulty describing that war in particular and America’s expanding role in the world in general in the most positive moral terms. He considered “civilizing” and “democratizing” the Philippines, Cuba, and other spoils of the former Spanish Empire part of “Christian charity,” and he viewed America’s providential mission and manifest destiny as carrying our values and way of life beyond our borders. He thought that America was entering a new age. “Our flag stands for liberty and civilization…we are face to face with our destiny and we must meet it with a high and resolute courage.” While Roosevelt admitted the nation had made mistakes in its history, he was confident that American motivation was pure and benevolent. The “tyrannical impulse is foreign to American character and tradition,” he claimed. In the speech in which he urged the nation to “speak softly but carry a big stick,” Roosevelt claimed that “never…has any great nation acted with such disinterest as we have shown in Cuba.”[19]

His was an American exceptionalism that saw little ambiguity; America was a beacon of justice and liberty, whose motives were nearly always benign and pure. Not everyone saw it that way, of course. An insurrection followed the American occupation of the Philippines, for example. Roosevelt’s frequent admonition, during a time when American was becoming a more pluralistic country, that what he valued were “true Americans” or “100% Americans,” was tainted with an implicit racism, which fell far short of his goal of implementing practical biblical morality. He attributed civilization’s rise to “the expansion of the peoples of white, or European blood.” There was pushback to this imperialist stamp by other prominent Americans. But when Mark Twain suggested Roosevelt’s views were a “disaster” it was not surprising that the combative Roosevelt, for whom everything was a battle, responded that he wished “to skin Mark Twain alive.”[20] Only the office of President would temper Roosevelt’s more bellicose instincts. He played a key role in mediating the end of a coal strike in 1902 and was very pleased to receive the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic work.

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Roosevelt entered the Presidency in an unexpected manner, with the assassination of William McKinley. Earlier, he had felt he had little choice but to accept the Vice Presidency under pressure from Republican leadership, sure that the office was a political backwater that would provide little room for his activist temperament. But when fate gave him the highest office in the land he was determined to use every ounce of energy he had to accomplish practical good. In contrast to Lincoln, who as President mused about the mysterious ways of Providence and tried to understand how God was at work in the Civil War and the country, Roosevelt was not particularly introspective and indeed had a fatalistic streak. He was less concerned with how God was working in human history than with what God wanted people to do. Doris Kearns Goodwin suggests that the early deaths of his parents and first wife heightened his awareness that “life could turn on a dime,” making him “impatient, sometimes unbearably so, to get things done.” His career path was erratic, depending on improbable good fortune. He contended all someone could do was be ready for the chance that overtakes you. And ready he was when he became President, entering into a whirlwind of activity designed to do battles for the right, as he saw it.[21

Richard W. Reifsnyder retired after 44 years in pastoral ministry in the PC(USA), including 21 years as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Winchester, Virginia; he currently serves as part-time pastor of the Falls Village Congregational Church in Connecticut. Rich is a graduate of Duke University, Yale Divinity School, and Princeton Theological Seminary, where he received a Ph.D. in Church History. Among his publications are articles on the history of church organization and leadership in The Presbyterian Presence series. Rich lives in Salisbury, Connecticut.


[12] “The Strenuous Life” in John Allen Gable, ed., The Man in the Arena: Speeches and Essays by Theodore Roosevelt (Oyster Bay, NY: Theodore Roosevelt Association, 1987); “The Man in the Arena,” ibid, p. 54; Theodore Roosevelt, Autobiography, pp. 50-53; Roosevelt to John R. Mott, October 12, 1908 (pamphlet, with introduction by John R. Mott, 1908). Reisner, op. cit., pp. 184, 205. See also William Davison Johnston, T.R.: Champion of the Strenuous Life. (New York: The Theodore Roosevelt Association, 1958).

[13] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ And Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1951), pp. 190-229; Bruce Barton, The Man Nobody Knows (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1925); H.W. Brands, T.R.: The Last Romantic (New York: Basic Books, 1997), pp. 133-97. Roosevelt, Autobiography, pp. 77-81. See also Doris Kearns Goodwin’s treatment of the Progressive era, which she titles The Bully Pulpit (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013).

[14] Quoted in Brands, op.cit., p. 170. Jeffrey Simpson, “Dr. Charles Parkhurst and the Faith of Reform," The Journal of Presbyterian History (vol. 94, no. 2, Fall/Winter 2016), pp. 64-75.

[15] Theodore Roosevelt, Realizable Ideals: The Earl Lectures (San Francisco: Whitaker and Ray-Wiggin, 1912), pp. 88, 92-94, 112-13; Roosevelt, Autobiography, p. 90.

[16] The literature on American Civil Religion is voluminous. An older but still useful collection of essays on the topic was edited by Russell E. Richey and Donald G. Jones, American Civil Religion (New York: Harper and Row, 1974). A recent treatment is Philip Gorski, American Covenant. A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017). Roosevelt contrasted the “good Americanized Catholic church” represented by Archbishop John Ireland with what he considered the opposing “ultramontane section,” with its anti-democratic elements and devotion to Rome. See “Theodore Roosevelt to Charles Henry Parkhurst,” March 19, 1895 in Elting Morison, ed., The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951), p. 434; Reisner, op. cit., p. 146.

[17] Patricia O’Toole, “Theodore Roosevelt, Health Care Progressive,” New York Times, January 6, 2019.

[18] Stephen Kinzer, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire (New York: Henry Holt Company, 2017), pp. 49-71.

[19] Roosevelt gave a full statement of his views on American mission in the opening speech of his campaign for Governor of New York, which made clear he was looking as much to the national stage as to the state. See quotation in Kinzer, op.cit, p. 76; Roosevelt, “National Duties” speech given at the Minnesota State Fair, September 2, 1901, in Louis Auchincloss, ed., Theodore Roosevelt: Letters and Speeches (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2004), pp. 772-74.

[20] Kinzer, op.cit., pp. 11-3, 137-9. John D. Wilsey, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2015) uses the terms “open” and “closed” exceptionalism to convey the ambiguity of how the idea has been used throughout American history.

[21] Doris Kearns Goodwin, Leadership in Turbulent Times (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018), pp. 132-33, 159.