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The Practical Faith of Theodore Roosevelt: An Ongoing Battle To Do Good

August 22, 2019
Theodore Roosevelt circa 1908. From a painting by Joseph De Camp. Image in Theodore Roosevelt and His Time (vol. 2) by Joseph Bucklin Bishop, 1920.

--This is the third and final summer post by Richard W. Reifsnyder looking at the ways Presbyterianism influenced the life and politics of Theodore Roosevelt, who died 100 years ago. Read Rich's first two posts on TR here.

During Theodore Roosevelt’s tenures as Governor of New York, Vice-President, and President, he connected more consistently with his Dutch religious roots than his Presbyterian ones. As Governor he went to the First Dutch Reformed Church of Albany. And although there was no Dutch church near the White House, he walked a mile north on most Sundays to attend Grace Reformed Church, whose pastor was Dr. J. M. Schick. There Roosevelt sang hymns with gusto (“Abide with me” being his favorite), regularly placed flowers in the church, and spoke at the dedication of the new church building in 1903, articulating the church's role to help men and women do their “part in bringing a little nearer the day when there shall be on this earth a genuine brotherhood.”

William Sheppard and his family. Visit the William H. Sheppard Papers in Pearl Digital Archives. 

Roosevelt spoke to numerous church bodies, including the 1903 Presbyterian General Assembly, which he lauded as “one of the Christian forces in this land.” He met in 1905 with Presbyterian William Sheppard, the first African American missionary to serve in central Africa, to hear personally the case against King Leopold of Belgium’s reign of terror in the Congo. But Roosevelt also took seriously his responsibilities to help train his children in the faith, as his father did with him. He regularly wrote his children letters if he was away or they were at school—commenting to his son Kermit on his nightly Bible readings to the younger children or praising his daughter Ethel for her commitment to teaching Sunday School, reminding her of the “vigorous excitement” he had found in his own Sunday School teaching as a young man.[22]

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In the thoughtful assessment of historian Douglas Brinkley, the most consequential and significant presidential achievement between the Civil War and World War I was Roosevelt’s conservationism, a flurry of activity Brinkley likened to a “crusade.” Only religious language seemed adequate to the passion he demonstrated for this cause. Although Roosevelt did not make a direct connection between Christianity and the nascent environmental movement—that not being his style—his Biblical roots and his practical approach to faith undoubtedly fed into his commitments. From an early age Roosevelt took joy in the outdoors, but more than that he believed in what one scholar calls the “gospel of efficiency.” He was skeptical of market forces alone providing for the well-being of the whole society, and promoted a rational, planned, and efficient oversight of natural resources for use by current and future generations.[23]

The Reformed religious tradition provided ample grounding for the conservation movement. Not only did Calvin stress that the beauty of creation was a window into God, he argued that stewardship, conservation, and social improvement were woven into the fabric of Reformed theology as a moral duty. Mark Stoll notes, in his seminal treatment of religion and the environmental movement, that naturalists and politicians nurtured in a Congregational or Presbyterian ethos played a dominant role in the conservation movement from the mid-nineteenth century through the Progressive period. Presbyterians not only occupied the Presidency for 28 years between 1885 and 1921, but they also filled most of the key Cabinet positions relating to the environment, in particular the Interior and Agriculture Departments. Roosevelt saw conservation as a “great moral issue,” as he did with all great political issues. He was imbued with that Calvinistic sense that greed must be curtailed and capitalism harnessed to work for societal good.

Image via Wikicommons.

Believing n appropriate economic use of resources, he was not a preservation purist.. But he believed in using Presidential power to do what he saw as a great moral and social good by signing legislation supporting flood control and irrigation projects in the West, working with chief forester Gifford Pinchot to place one hundred fifty million acres as “forest reserves,” creating numerous bird sanctuaries through executive order, hosting a White House conference on conservation, and establishing several national parks and monuments such as the Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde. In a post-Presidential speech explaining his philosophy of governing, Roosevelt argued that “natural resources must be used for the benefit of all our people, and not monopolized for the benefit of the few.[24] His comfortable application of religious language such as “stewardship” to apply to natural resources reflects his practical approach and applied faith.

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Almost immediately after Roosevelt declared he would not be a candidate for President in 1908, he regretted the decision, finding it difficult as a relatively young man to no longer be in the “arena” of public life. So when his old friend and designated successor William Howard Taft seemed insufficiently progressive, Roosevelt, after considerable ambivalence and against the advice of a number of friends, decided to challenge him for the nomination in 1912. It was an uphill battle, and when it became apparent he would not wrest the nomination from Taft (Roosevelt claimed foul play in the seating of delegates), he addressed the convention. The contest for the Presidency was a not a partisan or political issue, he claimed. It was a matter of morality, he said, building to his soaring conclusion: “We stand at Armageddon and battle for the Lord.” It was Rooseveltian hyperbole at its best, placing himself at the center of a battle comparable to what the book of Revelation describes as the great climatic confrontation between good and evil. His supporters at the Chicago convention cheered, but many found the allusion surprising and out of character—not that he was reticent to engage in battle for what he considered morally right, but that he would be so explicit in making Christian claims for political purposes and claim divine aura for his progressive politics. A flyer soon circulated around the convention to much hilarity: At three o’clock Thursday afternoon Theodore Roosevelt will walk on the waters of Lake Michigan. Roosevelt eventually bolted from the Republicans and ran for office on the Progressive Party ticket, popularly known as the Bull Moose Party. He lost in a three-way race but came in second to Presbyterian Woodrow Wilson, the beneficiary of the Republican split.[25]

Roosevelt was imbued with that Calvinistic sense that greed must be curtailed and capitalism harnessed to work for societal good.

With that defeat, Roosevelt was clearly out of the arena. Though plagued by increasing physical liabilities, he continued to search for ongoing purpose. On his last great wilderness adventure with his son Kermit, to explore uncharted parts of the Amazon basin, he nearly died. He spent much of the last decade of his life reflecting on and justifying his accomplishments and articulating his religiously based philosophy of service. He wrote his autobiography, gave lectures on his philosophy of the spiritual basis of practical moral public service, and commented on current affairs. He was approached to write for a number of magazines, but it is noteworthy that he chose The Outlook, a publication that paid less than others, but which was a strong advocate not only of liberal theology, but of Roosevelt’s progressive policies. Its editor was Lyman Abbott, a Congregational minister who supported a Christian social evolution which affirmed that “what Jesus saw, humanity is becoming.”[26]

In October 1917, Roosevelt published an article in the Ladies' Home Journal that gained wide distribution, asking, “Shall We Do Away with the Church? I Know All the Reasons for not Going.” His answer was, “Of course not,” and the article offered a summary of the religious views that shaped him with little modification throughout his life. Although he was a staunch opponent of religious “formalism,” he argued on empirical grounds that a “churchless community where men...ignored their religious needs" was a community “on the rapid downgrade.” Church led people to be better and cultivated “the habit of feeling some responsibility for others.” While Roosevelt had no illusion that the quality of preaching would always be good, nevertheless a churchgoer was likely to hear a sermon by “a good man...engaged in...making hard lives a little easier.” Characteristic of Roosevelt’s views, the church “must fit itself for the practical betterment” of the world. What mattered was “showing faith by (one’s) works.”

Theodore Roosevelt's "Nine Reasons for Going to Church," 1917. [Pearl ID: 149333]

Roosevelt had no patience for theological distinction or dogmatic controversy. “Let the man not think overmuch about saving his own soul...I leave to professed theologians the settlement of the question whether he is to achieve his salvation by his works or by a faith which is only genuine if it expresses itself in works. Micah’s insistence upon loving mercy and doing justice and walking humbly with the Lord will suffice if lived up to.” Grappling with the theology of sin and salvation was not in Roosevelt's makeup. Commenting on the theology of hymns to his aide Archie Butt, Roosevelt declared, “I don’t feel laden with sin. I have never felt laden with sin.” The former President showed his progressive colors by insisting that the church “must grapple zealously, fearlessly and cool headedly” with the new problems faced by modern social and industrial conditions. Although he pressed for governmental actions (and undoubtedly hoped individual Christians would support those), he generally saw the church’s role as individual service and organized charity. While he acknowledged that, “heaven knows, the rich need” the church, he recognized Scripture’s compassion for the poor: “unless it is the poor man’s church it is not a Christian church at all in any real sense.””[27]

Numerous churches, as well as the Theodore Roosevelt Association, subsequently distilled this article into a listing of “Ten [or sometimes nine] Reasons for Going to Church.” These continue to be widely disseminated in religious publications and pamphlets. Sometimes additional reasons are added to give a slightly more orthodox set of admonitions beyond Roosevelt’s practical and moral reasons for churchgoing. For example, one Lutheran church in Connecticut that published TR’s list on their website noted that, more than being called to go to church, we are called to be the church. The congregation added an additional ten more theologically oriented reasons, such as to have fellowship with the crucified and risen Christ, to be forgiven, to worship, and to grow in the knowledge of God’s work. These perspectives were generally not in Roosevelt’s frame of reference.[28]

Youngs Memorial Cemetery, Oyster Bay, NY, where Theodore Roosevelt is buried. Image from Roosevelt’s Religion, Reisner, 1922.

When, just a few years before his death, the United States entered World War I, a cause that the Outlook supported, Roosevelt reverted to his preference for global intervention and became an enthusiastic booster. He was proud that all four of his sons entered the service and eager to enter the fray again himself. There was little of the fruit of the spirit, or desire to temper the martial spirit, in Roosevelt as he promoted 100 percent "Americanism" and railed against “professional hyphenated German Americans,” who he would “smite with the sword of the Lord” if given the chance. His efforts to be allowed to raise a division of volunteers to fight Germany was decisively rebuffed by Wilson, who Roosevelt referred to privately as “the lily-livered skunk in the White House.” Although critical of the way Wilson was conducting the war, Roosevelt expressed little doubt of the moral righteousness of the effort. When his youngest son Quentin, a military aviator, was killed in battle, Roosevelt accepted his death fatalistically, and took comfort in the way that Quentin’s sacrifice became symbolic of the suffering of many in the nation “in the great war for right.”[29] His own death a year later spared Roosevelt from having to face the very different religious and political landscape of the 1920s, when his uncompromising approach to international and domestic affairs undoubtedly would have been considered out of step with the times.

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Theodore Roosevelt set for himself a high goal early in life: to honor his father’s example of living a life of virtue and morality in the world of politics. Like all leaders, he stood on feet of clay and was not always consistent. His tendency to interpret everything as a battle of right against wrong led him to see little ambiguity in issues. He found it difficult to recognize the moral reasoning of an opponent’s side, and demonized his opponents with his colorful but intemperate language. He was not sufficiently self-critical about the motives he saw in himself and in the nation. He was not theologically sophisticated in the ways he analyzed his world.

And yet there is much to be said for Theodore Roosevelt’s advocacy of a practical faith, which was determined to accomplish things for the common good. He was a man of action, who took his faith seriously and wanted to apply his moral fabric to the important issues of his day, to be a doer of the word and not a hearer only. He was surely the man in the arena, who tried, failed, fell down, and got back up, making transformative accomplishments in every job he held. To his credit, he saw the striving after money and untrammeled trust in the marketplace, so characteristic of his era, as problematic and unworthy. He believed deeply in the importance of having a strong moral center and took the challenge of establishing a moral framework for the world of politics seriously. Of course the danger of seeking a moral framework for political action is the ease with which it can become moralistic and judgmental, and Roosevelt at times succumbed to that temptation. And yet, the world of politics inevitably calls for moral judgment. A healthy democratic society needs more than utilitarian self-interest. Roosevelt reflected a reformed theological world view in wanting to shape the culture in positive ways. He saw his work in terms of reforming society toward the good. It is not a bad thing to take as your motto for public life the words Roosevelt appropriated early in life from Psalm 37, “Trust God, and do good.” His commitment to that effort resulted in a remarkable civic legacy.

--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.


[22] Reisner, op. cit., p. 334. "The Dedication Address of President Roosevelt at Grace Reformed Church, Washington, D.C.," Reformed Church Messenger, June 11, 1903, quoted in Wikipedia entry “Theodore Roosevelt and Grace Reformed Church”; Card commemorating visit to White House, 1905, in the William H. Sheppard Papers, Presbyterian Historical Society; Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., 1903, pp. 42-43); The Presbyterian Outlook, vol. 199, no. 6, (April 17, 2017), p. 17; TR to Kermit, November 15, 1903; TR to Ethel, June 17, 1906 in Joseph Bucklin Bishop (ed.) Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to his Children (New York: Charles Scribner’s Son, 1927), pp. 75-76, 166-67. I possess a copy of this book which was given to my father in 1927 as a Sunday School attendance award by his home church, First Presbyterian Church, Jamaica, Queens, NY. That probably is some indication of how TR’s “practical faith” approach was valued even by rather more orthodox, theologically grounded Presbyterians.

[23] Douglas Brinkley, The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2009); Samuel P. Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement 1890-1920 (New York: Atheneum, 1975), pp. 266-76.

[24] Mark R. Stoll, Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015) passim, esp. pp. 136-201. TR, “The New Nationalism” in Gable, op cit. , p. 93. Brand, op cit., pp. 619-25. Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex (New York: Random House, 2001), pp. 114-15, 218-27, 514-19. Brinkley, op. cit., pp. 825-830, provides a complete (and rather impressive) list of all the national forests, bird reservations, national parks, and national monuments created or expanded by TR during his tenure as President.

[25] Brands, op. cit., pp. 691-724; Edmund Morris, Colonel Roosevelt (New York: Random House, 2010), pp. 189-228.

[26] Candace Millard, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (New York: Broadway Books, 2005), pp. 258-67; Brands, op. cit., pp. 681-85.

[27] Ladies' Home Journal, October 1917, pp. 12, 119. Quoted in Brands, op. cit., pp. 694-96.

[28] See for example Theodore Roosevelt Association, “Nine Reasons for Going to Church” and the website of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Trumball, CT.

[29] Brands, op. cit., pp. 762-3, 776-85, 796-804.

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