Center for American Progress

A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow
Article

A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow

Purchase “Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow “

The destruction of Jim Crow was one of the crowning achievements of the period when liberals dominated American politics, from 1933 to 1969. Yet the overall liberal commitment to Jim Crow’s destruction is easy to exaggerate when looking backward through the lens of the 1960s. There were no significant gains in civil rights in the first part of the period, the 1930s, when liberals’ power was greater and more secure than ever before or since. A few New Deal liberals believed that it was morally necessary–and that it was politically possible–to do something about racial prejudice in the 1930s. To say that such antiracist liberals were few is not to denigrate their integrity or courage. Rather the opposite. The few included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, abetted by New Deal supporters and officials like Will Alexander, Mary McLeod Bethune, Virginia and Clifford Durr, Clark Foreman, George Mitchell, Rexford Tugwell, Senator Robert Wagner, Palmer Weber, and Aubrey Williams. Black leaders often considered the minor but unprecedented gestures of these few to be heroic= Their gestures probably had something to do with black voters’ swing from overwhelmingly Republican before 1932 to overwhelmingly Democratic since 1934. Still, liberals could not–at least they did not–alleviate discrimination for most African Americans during the New Deal.

Secretary Ickes–former head of the Chicago branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)–sketched out the position of Negro sympathizers in the New Deal in his diary. When Senator Josiah Bailey of North Carolina accused Ickes of “trying to break down the segregation laws” in a speech in 1937, Ickes wrote to Bailey that opposition to segregation “had never been my position.” He explained, “As a matter of fact, I think it is up to the states to work out their own social problems if possible, and while I have always been interested in seeing that the Negro has a square deal, I have never dissipated my strength against the particular stone wall of segregation.” Like most liberals, Ickes had more faith in the gradual processes of education and economic development than in political action. He believed that the stone wall of segregation would “crumble when the Negro has brought himself to a higher educational and economic status. After all, we can’t force people on each other who do not like each other, even when no question of color is involved.” Like Bailey, Ickes took it for granted that public association of New Deal officials with desegregationism would be “prejudicial”–would injure Roosevelt’s standing with his key constituency, the enfranchised white South. Ickes also assumed the futility of any attack on segregation.

The few liberals who joined Ickes in taking up the cause of “seeing that the Negro has a square deal” in the 1930s strove to connect that cause with the general liberal program–an abstractly plausible connection, in the sense that freedom and equality were liberal goals. More important to liberals with a practical eye, including Mrs. Roosevelt, the connection had some political plausibility: abolishing the poll tax, she believed, would create a massive pro@-New Deal constituency. Millions of poor white as well as black southerners would get the vote. The new voters’ presumable loyalty to FDR might be enough to compensate the Democrats for the inevitable reaction: retaliation from the white supremacist oligarchs of the South, who were so strong in the Democratic Party–and often so supportive of the New Deal–that the president had to be very careful not to offend them.6

Unfortunately, however, the antiracist link with liberalism did not have enough political plausibility: for the time being, the oligarchs had the poll tax and were strong enough to prevent its abolition in most states. Nor could New Dealers be certain, even if they could abolish the poll tax, that the new voters would be loyal to them: the black break with the Party of Lincoln was too recent to look reliable, and poor white southerners were, rightly or wrongly, assumed to be more devoted to racial restrictions than rich ones. As journalist Marquis Childs wrote in 1942, “The issue of the poll tax, which keeps from one third to one half of all the eligible white voters away from the polls in the South, has been talked about by the younger New Dealers, but no direct attack has ever been made on it.” Those who did attack the poll tax, including the NAACP and the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, got little support from New Dealers in Washington.

Despite most New Dealers’ failure to support anti@-poll tax legislation, or even (for northerners) apple-pie proposals like federal antilynching legislation, NAACP leaders sought to connect black hopes to liberalism. Thus NAACP leaders did their bit to redefine liberalism in the 1930s, or at least to increase liberals’ emphasis on substantive equality. Liberals, especially Democratic ones, were slow to respond, though they reacted more than those who were known as conservatives, and they were more politically viable than the communists, socialists, and Christian radicals who embraced the antiracist cause with greater abandon. In their prime, New Deal liberals had more urgent and realistic things to strive for than racial equality.

It is hard to sort out whether liberals cared a great deal about racism, but lacked the power to challenge it, or simply cared too little about racism, until black voters and protesters forced their hand three decades later, in the 1960s. It is clear, however, that to do something about Jim Crow, liberals needed something more forceful–either stronger conviction or greater power–than they had in the 1930s. A sense of needing more, of lacking what they needed to realize their own goals, pervaded liberal thought. Liberals expressed that sense frequently in the 1930s and 1940s. Though not always connected in their minds with racial equality, this sense of incompleteness provides a window into liberalism’s fundamental limitations. Through it, one can begin to see the path to the civil rights movement’s eventual success in overcoming those limitations.

Liberal insiders at the 1948 Democratic National Convention remembered the post@-New Deal shift in favor of civil rights as a dramatic break with the past. According to Chester Bowles:

The national strength of the Democratic party had for a century and a half been based on a coalition between Northern liberals and city organization leaders on the one hand and Southern Populists on the other. . . . It was leaders such as James Byrnes of South Carolina and Sam Rayburn of Texas who had guided through Congress Roosevelt’s proposals for Social Security, subsidized agriculture, TVA and work relief for the unemployed.

The political price that Roosevelt and the Northern liberals had been forced to pay for Southern support for the New Deal was a heavy one: a political moratorium on the issue of civil rights.

Yet in some ways New Dealers appeared less useful to devotees of civil rights after the war than before. We now know that, twenty years after the end of World War II, liberals finally won enough votes in Congress to pass serious civil rights laws. But over most of those twenty years, liberals in the Democratic Party still depended on the support of southern members of Congress, who in turn depended on racist laws. As black people migrated to northern cities, where they could vote, many northern liberals grew bold in speaking out against southern politicians. But at the same time, liberals felt a new sense of powerlessness in domestic affairs.

Congress drove home liberals’ sense of powerlessness by overriding President Harry Truman’s veto of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Northern Democrats depended on unions the way southern Democrats depended on the poll tax. But enough reactionaries had been elected in 1946 to reverse the pro-labor trend of the New Deal. Senator Robert Wagner, who epitomized the new liberalism of the New Deal days, viewed the reversal from the hospital: the override of the Taft-Hartley veto was “one of the bitterest disappointments I have ever experienced. For I was forced to see the work of a lifetime destroyed, while I lay on my back in bed.” Though liberalism after World War II was more strongly identified with black civil rights than before the war, liberals lacked the popular mandate they had had, or believed they had had, in the age of Roosevelt. To judge them by their own words, liberals were in deep trouble after World War II. One of their most vigorous minds, historian Richard Hofstadter, observed in 1948 that liberals were in a “rudderless and demoralized state.” They were anxious and defensive, filled with self-doubt, and fighting among themselves.

Postwar liberals feared that Franklin Roosevelt’s personality, rather than their own ideology, was what had attracted vast majorities to the New Deal. This fear was reinforced by their great loss in popularity after FDR’s death. For this and other reasons, liberals trimmed their sails. The depression was one of the many great things the war killed, but in doing so it killed a lot of liberal hope. Absence of economic crisis made serious reform hard to sell, and FDR’s successor, Harry Truman, was at once less committed to reform and a lousier salesman than FDR. The depression did not return, as so many experts believed it would. Instead, liberals had to convince voters of the urgency of reform through the greatest boom ever in American history, which was rather like urging medicine upon a healthy and increasingly spoiled child. Liberals on the whole abandoned the large-scale planning by which they had tried to alter the basic structural inequities of capitalism in the 1930s. Instead, they tried to ensure greater individual rights13 and the continuation of economic growth.14 Their domestic concerns were often set aside in foreign policy disputes.

The Quest for Secular Faith

To understand postwar liberals’ lack of confidence, one must look at the historical roots of their sense of alienation from the masses. They feared that they could not communicate with the public they so earnestly wanted to help. Liberals had long suspected that their program would have a troubled relationship with democracy. The roots of this suspicion were visible in liberals’ frequent exasperation with the popularity–the democratic power–of irrational, that is to say illiberal, appeals. Liberals’ enemies always felt free to whip up popular nostalgia for tradition, respect for authority, and religious enthusiasm. Liberals thought that their enemies fought unfairly, but they could not deny the advantages of illiberal appeals in a democracy.

Even in their confident days, the most sensitive and articulate liberals sensed that something was missing from their method and program. They always understood their method and program to be based on faith that human reason could solve the “problems” of human society. Yet the deepest believers in reason perceived that reason was not enough. The pragmatist philosopher who gave American liberalism its distinctive cast in the Progressive Era, William James, memorably expressed the need for an irrational crusade to inspire the sacrifices that reason could not inspire in his famous essay “The Moral Equivalent of War” (1910). James hated war and hoped that it could be abolished, but he wrote that those who campaigned against “war’s irrationality and horror” missed the point. Modern man still had “all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors.” War was thrilling in a way that meeting human needs was not. That was why people loved it. Armies bred pride in collective effort. Groups that pursued such nonmilitary goals as “pacific cosmopolitan industrialism,” on the other hand, bred only “shame at the idea of belonging to such a collectivity.” James supported efforts to outlaw war, and he believed in “the gradual advent of some sort of socialistic equilibrium.” But he worried about inspiring people to get there. In a utopian program of good wages and short hours, “Where is the sharpness and precipitousness, the contempt for life, whether one’s own, or another’s? Where is the savage ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ the unconditional duty? Where is the conscription? Where is the blood-tax? Where is anything that one feels honored by belonging to?”

James, the scientific thinker who had suffered a nervous breakdown, was echoing the patron saint of modern English-speaking liberalism, John Stuart Mill, who had suffered a similar breakdown in the early nineteenth century. Mill’s famous collapse occurred with the revelation that, if all his desires for social reform came true, he would still be unhappy. Reforms could satisfy the calculations of his father’s great utilitarian system, but the human soul craved something deeper. Thus began Mill’s search into the irrational urges and unscientific flights of Romanticism for the missing elements of liberalism. Liberals have not always had time to continue that search, but they have never satisfied the hunger that led to it.

John Dewey, who played the role of patron philosopher of American liberals more often than anybody after James’s death in 1910, was more cautious and more persistent than James or Mill in exploring what liberalism lacked. At the beginning of American liberals’ political ascendancy in 1929, Dewey noted that “liberals are notoriously hard to organize.” Reason was just not as good a basis for solidarity as the conservatives’ basis, tradition. Liberals “must depend upon ideas rather than upon established habits of belief; and when persons begin to think upon social matters they begin to vary.” Conservatives, by contrast, had “a natural bond of cohesion. . . . They hold together not so much by ideas as by habit, tradition, fear of the unknown and a desire to hold on to what they already have.” Though Dewey eschewed dogmatic systems that claimed to have all the answers, he recognized the pragmatic necessity to develop a coherent set of goals around which liberals–and, he hoped, new converts–might rally. “The history of liberal political movements in this country is one of temporary enthusiasms and then steady decline. If liberals are ‘tired,’ it is chiefly because they have not had the support and invigoration that comes from working shoulder to shoulder in a unified movement.” The injustices of the 1920s (especially the Sacco-Vanzetti case) and the stock market crash finally convinced Dewey that neither of the major parties could be trusted to come up with an attractive course. But the vacuum was not easily filled. “It would be difficult,” he wrote in 1930, “to find in history an epoch as lacking in solid and assured objects of belief and approved ends of action as is the present. . . . The lack of secure objects of allegiance, without which individuals are lost, is especially striking in the case of the liberal.”

Some observers–notably H. Richard Niebuhr and Robert and Helen Lynd–saw Christianity as equally factious and demoralized, but Dewey became possessed by a sense that religion had what liberalism lacked. He came to believe that liberals could appropriate the inspiration they needed from religion if only they would change their way of thinking about it. Toward the end of his 1929 book, The Quest for Certainty, Dewey tried to dissociate “religious” belief, which might be beneficial to liberals, from existing “religion,” which was the most damaging excrescence of civilization’s misguided “quest for certainty.” He developed this effort to rescue useful “religious” qualities from “the historic religions” more fully in 1934 in A Common Faith. He admired what he called the “truly religious” habits in human experience. But unfortunately mankind, in its prescientific ignorance, had allowed these admirable, socially indispensable habits to get tied up with “religion,” with irrational superstitions, enforced by intimidation and propaganda. The “religious” impulses of generosity and self-sacrifice, of humility and communal solidarity, he insisted, could be severed from the corruptions of every known religion–from closed-minded bigotry and dogma, from the tendency to persecute outsiders.

Dewey was generally deaf to and suspicious of religious feeling as it actually existed (this is the starkest contrast between Dewey and James), yet he thought that some kind of “piety” might be philosophically justifiable. Some postreligious “faith” might foster a socially useful “sense of dependence” and ward off pride. Such “faith” might nourish “a sense of common participation in the inevitable uncertainties of existence . . . coeval with a sense of common effort and shared destiny.” In this Dewey echoed, among others, Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim, who strained to find some way to replace religion–which, Durkheim observed, was losing its credibility whether we liked it or not–as a tool for the moral instruction of children.

Dewey was more concerned than Durkheim with the specific problem of political morality. He felt an urgent need to transform public institutions (schools and other instruments of a potentially democratic state). These institutions often inculcated a salutary moral sense in children, but they could be reformed to do more: to express the people’s moral sense and enforce it against the competing sense of the privileged few. Dewey believed that the people’s moral sense was being drowned out by those with undemocratic privileges, particularly industrial corporations, which he thought were the principal cause of a crisis in democracy in the late 1920s and 1930s. As the crisis deepened, Dewey expanded his quest for a viable public morality by criticizing the all-encompassing faiths that sustained communism and fascism. He also criticized the faith that bolstered capitalism, a faith that was just as dogmatic as communism and fascism, but perhaps worse, for it opened the way for the extremist alternatives because it was so unsatisfying. The mid-twentieth-century rise of new nationalist movements, which “pretend to represent the order, discipline, and spiritual authority that will counteract social disintegration,” was, to Dewey, “a tragic comment upon the unpreparedness of the older liberalism to deal with the new problem which [liberalism’s] very success precipitated.” Liberals needed to compete with the modern secular faiths that inspired the murderous and suicidal devotion of the masses in Europe and Russia.

Dewey’s Liberalism and Social Action (1935), which his disciple Sidney Hook hoped would be to the twentieth century what the Communist Manifesto had been to the nineteenth, expanded on Dewey’s diagnosis of liberals’ great failing. Liberals, with their spirit of open debate and reasoned compromise, with their “watered down” dialectic, failed to command the enthusiasm of the public. They could not dispel the dishonest propaganda with which the state and corporations maintained an unjust order. This preoccupied Dewey because he was a democrat as much as he was a liberal. He wanted majority rule, that is, as much as he wanted liberty. He acknowledged and wrestled with the tension between those two commitments better than his fellow liberals. But reconciling majority rule with liberty was not easy, and Dewey may have failed to inspire the faithful following that Marx and Engels had because he was more honest than they in acknowledging how difficult it was to reconcile the basic elements of his faith. Where they blithely claimed to reconcile French romantic dreams of socialist bliss with the skeptical economic theory of British utilitarianism, he saw that devotion to human freedom and reason was sometimes incompatible with mass popularity.

Dewey’s task, then, was to establish a new social organization with some new “central spiritual authority” that could “nurture and direct the inner as well as the outer life of individuals.” This new authority had to be created in a scientific spirit, not a dogmatic or nationalistic one. Liberal education would have to renew “the springs of purpose and desire.” To do this, education would have to be transformed–an admittedly difficult thing to accomplish before the economic and political institutions that controlled educational budgets were themselves transformed. The transformation of education would be especially difficult, since Dewey admitted that actually existing liberalism was as much an impediment to the establishment of a rational and egalitarian order as actually existing religion was. Liberalism had been a “fighting” creed in its youth, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It had rallied the emerging capitalist middle class and some others when it sought only to destroy monarchical and feudal impediments to middle-class rule. But liberalism was “well-nigh impotent” when “it came to the problem of organizing new social forces” to extend and protect the liberty it had established. Instead, liberalism had hardened into a defense of the status quo. Despite its rigidity and decadence, however, liberalism still had “precious” values at its core. There was no alternative source of humane values. All liberals had to do, besides generate a quasi-religious enthusiasm for liberty, was to recognize two things: that “material insecurity” had become the prime threat to liberty, and that “unchecked power” in the “private” realm of corporations destroyed liberty as much as unchecked power in politics.

In his effort to come up with inspiring ideals to rally the liberals, Dewey tried to rescue some of the socially useful aspects of religion from faith in “the supernatural.” Despite his flexible metaphysics, Dewey could not countenance belief in anything supernatural. He was a scientific naturalist. On the other hand, he had seen the power of irrational faith work in the real world. Faith drove people to great sacrifice and effort. The willingness to lose oneself in a cause, to sacrifice self-interest and bind together with others, was something that he and other liberals hungered for. Dewey wanted conviction, but all he could honestly believe in was uncertainty. “Conviction in the moral sense signifies being conquered, vanquished in our active nature by an ideal end; it signifies acknowledgment of its rightful claim over our desires and purposes.” The source of conviction could not be knowledge. For knowledge meant awareness of the inconclusiveness of human theories and plans. The source had to lie in faith. Indeed, any attempt to justify a conviction by arguing for its basis in knowledge only demonstrated lack of faith. Thankfully, the faithful were in some ways easier to work with than the rational, for the faithful already understood the uncertainty that Dewey insisted was the essence of life. Their faith humbled them, if they were truly faithful. But Dewey thought that rational people were slow to accept his pragmatic conclusion that all human quests, even scientific ones, led to uncertainty. Rational people were still trying to blaze a trail to certainty, still hoping that scientific inquiry would work out better than the old religious trail they had rationally abandoned. Dewey had to try simultaneously to disabuse them of any such millennial hopes and to generate in them a self-sacrificial commitment. He had to find a way to inspire enthusiasm for pursuits he could not himself be enthusiastic about. As his biographer Robert Westbrook puts it, “moral faith,” for Dewey, “carried no guarantees; it was a faith in the possible not the actual or the necessary or the inevitable.”

Dewey could deny, or be agnostic about, the truth claims made by religion and still say that religion was “real.” He did not mean “real” merely in the sense that sociologists and anthropologists say that the practices and paraphernalia of religion are real. Religion’s ideals were real, Dewey’s pragmatic test showed, even if (a not-so-subtle equivocation here) those ideals were not necessarily real in the way that their adherents believed they were real: “The reality of ideal ends as ideals is vouched for by their undeniable power in action.” Ideals were forces in social life. Dewey even appealed to the socially liberal senator George Norris of Nebraska, asking Norris to join a new party aimed at “a more just society and that peaceful world which was the dream of Him whose birthday we celebrate this Christmas Day.” It is unclear whether Norris thought Dewey was taking the Lord’s name in vain. At any rate, Norris had ample pragmatic reasons to decline the appeal and remained a Republican.

It is hardly surprising that Dewey never worked out the problem of securing the blessings of faith to his secular program. He wanted reasonable, human control of society, not an awed appreciation of powers beyond comprehension. Still less did he find a way to make a hybrid of faith and atheism popular to Americans, who since the late eighteenth century have been among the most religious people in the world. He tried more thoughtfully and persistently than any of his contemporaries to pull it off. But what is important here is that he shared with so many liberals the feeling that some modern substitute for religious faith was urgently needed.

Pulpit Envy: The Varieties of a Secular Will to Believe

At the end of the New Deal decade, another key liberal thinker-activist expressed the hunger for inspiration and solidarity in earthier terms than John Dewey. Malcolm Ross, who would become head of the Fair Employment Practices Committee during World War II, one of the first nonsouthern liberals to gain experience in racial politics, ended the 1930s on a weary note. His 1939 autobiography, Death of a Yale Man, was the story of a man disillusioned before his time. Ross looked back on his adventures as a reporter in the 1920s, when life had been invigorating. His assignments had included covering Billy Sunday’s revivals in Louisville, Kentucky. Of that evangelist, Ross wrote, “There is a certain dignity about anyone entirely engrossed in his profession, and Billy was a knockout at the business of saving, pro tem, the souls of the emotional.” Sunday was near the end of his career when Ross spent a cross-country train ride getting to know him. Looking back, Ross remained “pleased to have seen the last of those who could barnstorm America on a hell-and-damnation platform.” Then he caught himself and added, à la Sinclair Lewis or H. L. Mencken, that he was pleased “because America has outgrown the stage where storekeepers can subsidize a revivalist to attract crowds into town.”

Ross’s liberal cynicism about evangelical religion kept him from developing religious commitments of his own. But through his own irony he could yearn, “Lord of Hosts, if thy servant Billy Sunday had been a man with an honest tongue to tell people where they stand and to what cause they should deliver their hearts, what a healthy jolt those meetings might have given Louisville.” Ross blamed the storekeepers for allowing only a personal salvation beyond this world to be preached in town. He blamed his own newspaper for being in league with the storekeepers. “I wish now that I had had the inspiration to ask Billy Sunday . . . how he stood on the question of the coal-field battles being fought at the other end of Kentucky. That would really have made a story, and I should probably have been fired for filing it.” To Ross, religion’s otherworldly diversion from real social problems was not entirely the result of a conspiracy. Ross would not speak pessimistically of the limitations of human nature. Rather, in the liberal fashion, he reflected sadly on the limitations of those less educated than he. That the coal miners’ suffering never came up when Billy Sunday was in town, largely because he was in town, “illustrates our traditional preference for emotion over realities.”

Dewey’s feeling that liberalism sorely lacked a congealing faith, like Ross’s specific regret, is a theme that runs through liberal thought. It might be called “pulpit envy.” The prominent New Deal thinker Thurman Arnold discussed the need for faith more optimistically than Dewey and Ross, but with equal emphasis on its importance. Arnold, a former law professor, joined the New Deal in 1933 as special counsel to the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. He rose to national prominence through his popular books, The Symbols of Government (1935) and The Folklore of Capitalism (1937). These emphasized that ostensibly unemotional bureaucracies, public and private, advanced or declined according to the “loyalties and enthusiasms” that bound men to them. Organizations required “morale.” They could not get that through education and rational persuasion, which were impotent in the face of man’s irrationality. Organizations generated morale through symbols, whose mythological character would be obvious to future generations. Franklin Roosevelt, ever conscious of the usefulness of symbols, chose Arnold to head the Justice Department’s antitrust division in 1937.

Though Arnold was witheringly skeptical of the “creeds” that drove conservatism and most schemes of reform (including antitrust laws), he saw the value of irrational enthusiasms. Honest and rational students of government always found themselves “confused and ineffective” in real political campaigns, he wrote. In campaigns, “the so-called demagogue has an advantage, because he does not view the control of human institutions under the illusion that men in groups are composed of so-called thinking men.” Though most demagogues served conservatism or reaction, irrational enthusiasms might on occasion coincide with a practical idea, like old-age insurance. In that case, irrational enthusiasm for change was the only weapon that could overcome irrational resistance to change. Dr. Francis Townsend was Arnold’s best example. Arnold considered Townsend a quack, but in the battle over what became the Social Security Act in 1935, “quacks could lead the most effective campaigns” to uproot the traditional “moral issues” that obscured the practical need. Townsend’s popular plan for universal old-age pensions “became a movement which transcended in actual importance all the more sensible schemes of accomplishing the same object.” Townsend’s scheme softened up the public mind for the rational solution that Arnold endorsed.

Arnold made one exception to his indictment of popular beliefs. For all his skepticism about America’s wacky “creeds,” he spoke with unself-conscious zeal about the progress of medical science. He held up as a model the “quack” who managed to cure malaria with quinine, and attracted thousands of followers, though the remedy was banned by the learned authorities of the University of Paris, who saw only its inconsistency with their philosophical system. Arnold’s enthusiasm for medicine extended to a “new creed called psychiatry,” which was bringing “a new sense of tolerance and common sense” to public life. It is sometimes startling to recall the sorts of programs in which liberals put their faith in those days, when they got around to the specifics that Dewey tended wisely to avoid. Arnold wrote that “the psychiatrists, like physicians,” avoided theoretical speculation and moralizing: they concentrated on making insane persons comfortable and treated them with genuine interest. “And in this atmosphere curative techniques developed, and men actually learned.”

Arnold thought that the psychiatric “creed” could extend into politics, where he hoped it would replace great-man theories of leadership. The notion of “the great man who lived and died for moral and rational purposes”–purposes that kings had dramatized by leading crusades back in medieval times when “nations were holy”–no longer worked. In “modern times,” when “governments act in the image of great businessmen” rather than of deities, men needed to find better models in their own experience. Arnold admitted that psychiatry’s crusade for the “tolerant, adult personality” had been an insufficient model so far: There was “little in the present conduct of the governments of the world which can by any stretch of the imagination be called adult.” Like other liberals, Arnold found more fault in the uneducated masses than in the enlightened few. “Fanatical devotion to principle on the part of the public still compels intelligent leaders to commit themselves, for political reasons, to all sorts of disorderly nonsense.” The struggle against irrationality would be long and hard: “So long as the public holds preconceived faiths about the fundamental principles of government, they will persecute and denounce new ideas . . . and orators will prevail over technicians.” Still, the new doctors of sense might triumph. At least Arnold thought he might be “permitted to hope.” For he had “faith that a new public attitude toward the ideals of law and economics is slowly appearing to create an atmosphere where the fanatical alignments between opposing political principles may disappear and a competent, practical, opportunistic governing class may rise to power.”

For all their political differences, the hunger after a fundamental missing faith unified a New Dealer like Arnold with an “independent” liberal like Dewey, who criticized the New Deal for doing too little. This hunger even seemed to afflict the most influential liberal who criticized the New Deal for doing too much. The columnist and public philosopher Walter Lippmann defended liberalism, “the philosophy of [the] industrial revolution,” against what he saw as the “collectivism” of the New Deal and of “Totalitarian” states to its left and right. Lippmann urged true liberals to provide society not just with new structures of law and organization but also with the “cultural equipment that men must have if they are to live effectively, and at ease with themselves, in an interdependent [i.e., modern industrial] Great Society.” He found liberals stymied by “the science” they had inherited. Liberals were “unable to carry forward their science.” Lippmann envied the “collectivists,” who had “the zest for progress, the sympathy for the poor, the burning sense of wrong, the impulse for great deeds which have been lacking in latter-day liberalism.”

Lippmann complained that America mistakenly endorsed the New Deal because its deep liberal “faith” in individual freedom had been lost. The loss was a necessary consequence of the new division of labor brought by industrial development. (Lippmann thought that concentration of corporate power was merely a “secondary” concern–perhaps his greatest difference with Dewey and with the small faction of New Dealers who believed that control of the radical new institutions of capitalism was an essential first step on the road back to freedom.) Lippmann was the most militant of liberals in his resignation to the “realities” of modern capitalism: “Men may have to pass through a terrible ordeal before they find again the central truths they have forgotten.” But he held on to the conviction from his earliest writings that the modern disenchantment of the world (to use Max Weber’s phrase) needed to be, and could be, addressed with some positive new, or reinterpreted old, body of “central truths.”

At least one other liberal who criticized the New Deal on individualist grounds emphasized society’s grave loss of faith from yet another angle. Glenn Frank, one of the most influential Republicans of his day, played a key role both in the GOP’s shift toward acquiescence in New Deal spending and in its nomination of Wendell Willkie for president in 1940. A former editor of The Century and former president of the University of Wisconsin, Frank had crusaded against racism in the 1920s and was one of the founders of the Citizens National Committee for Sacco and Vanzetti. In the 1930s he advocated a wider distribution of wealth and income to end the depression, proposing confiscatory taxes to achieve this goal if businesses refused to raise wages voluntarily. But Frank grew increasingly critical of the New Deal because it gave too much power to the national state–and perhaps because it stole the liberal and Progressive thunder from his own party.

In his 1935 book, America’s Hour of Decision, Frank lamented the “exile” of religious leaders from the councils of government. He feared that FDR’s method of untethered experimentalism shut out religious perspectives, which, being grounded in fixed principles, could suggest salutary limits. Roosevelt’s initiatives were severed from ideological moorings in the name of flexibility. Even if many of these initiatives succeeded, the scattershot techniques of trial and error would yield failures and general disarray. Disappointment would be irresistible to much of the public, Frank feared, especially if poverty continued. The public would then yearn, perhaps uncritically, for some vigorous assertion of principle. Then dictatorial left- or right-wing movements would all too easily fill the ideological vacuum.

Frank specifically feared that American nationalism would fill the vacuum. It would grow into “neo-tribalism.” Though he opposed state control of religion–and the efforts of “parson lobbyists” to use the state for religious purposes–he warned that political actors were ignoring religious counsel at their peril. Only by tapping religious traditions, which were repositories of social and institutional wisdom, could America steer between the twin dangers of “extreme laissez-faire” and “regimentation.” If America did not steer carefully, it would never achieve the only viable modern form of freedom, “voluntary cooperation.” That was the only way to save “capitalistic industrialism.” Political leaders who wanted to maintain authority and popular influence had to restore a politically relevant religion, Frank insisted. Religious leaders who wished to enjoy the public’s trust and to revive their own sense of usefulness had to join in that restoration. Industrial codes and trade agreements were vital instruments for dealing with the economic crisis, but they were not enough, Frank thought, to restore humane and rational control of society. “How,” he asked, “shall spiritual leadership make God again believable to men who have lost all faith in any lordship of life?”

Interestingly, one of the New Deal’s wisest and most liberal propagandists, Rexford Tugwell, believed that there was one leader in the crisis of American democracy in the 1930s who had not lost faith: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Tugwell, a Columbia University economist who became one of FDR’s brain trusters, observed with some wonderment that the president “believed in an external guidance not all of us accept as reality, and he was certain of a commanding destiny most of us have no reason to anticipate.” It was “peculiar,” and it demanded a biographer’s explanation, that FDR “had no adult doubts, no doctrinal difficulties, and only a serene faith which nothing could disturb.” Roosevelt said little about this faith, and Tugwell had trouble accounting for it. Tugwell knew only that FDR had “found religion as a boy. If he never let it be questioned, that may well have been because he had found it in circumstances so utterly convincing that reexamination was unnecessary.”

Tugwell was sensitive to what he called the “practical consequences” of faith. Roosevelt’s persistently “robust spiritual health . . . gave him a sense of balance and perspective capable of supporting him firmly when grave decisions were to be made and when counsels were confused.” This faith enabled the president “to sleep long and restfully at night, when he felt that the day had been given to the service of men–who, along with him, were God’s children. If the men he served were God’s children, they were also his–Franklin’s–brothers and worthy of equal sharing in all the opportunities of life. He was not the sort to make this kind of thing explicit, but that he thought of himself as a practicing Christian there is every reason to believe.” The biographical accuracy of this speculation is not what matters. It reveals as much about a key New Deal liberal’s beliefs–beliefs that persisted long after the crisis had passed (Tugwell published these observations in 1957)–as it does about FDR’s own beliefs. Whether Roosevelt was graced with such a bounteous gift of faith or not, observers near and far sensed that he had something that they lacked. They called it leadership, charisma, popularity, the common touch.

Liberals invested FDR, whom they could see and hear, with the faith they could no longer have in anything supernatural. (Social historians have suggested that such faith in FDR spread far among ordinary Americans.) Whatever Tugwell knew or did not know about Roosevelt, his confidence in FDR’s faith measures the degree to which key liberals tied their hopes to a single leader. It also measures how severely they would be set adrift–left “rudderless,” as Richard Hofstadter observed–when FDR died. Tugwell was inadvertently suggesting a different answer to Dewey’s quest: Transferring faith from supernatural to earthly objects–at least to earthly personalities–did not eliminate the hazards of faith.

The Postwar Politics of Culture

Liberals’ sense of crisis over their lost faith in what Lippmann called “central truths” lived on past the economic crisis of the 1930s. Donald Richberg, a former labor lawyer who advised FDR on policy and came to be known as his “assistant president,” said, looking back on the 1930s, that the task of a man of affairs was “the maintenance of a simple faith in the reason and purpose of living, a guiding star that, often lost to view yet ever shining, will save him again and again from the emptiness of despair and a struggle that has no meaning and no end.” For some, this simple faith might come from “old-time religion,” for others, from egotism or instinct, but it was vital and it was missing.

Not surprisingly, the feeling of a fundamental absence at the core of liberal thought grew more intense after the shocks of World War II. Some liberals saw their postwar troubles with Communists and fellow travelers as a product of their own failure to inspire a devoted and enthusiastic following. Communism, whose millennial roots had long been recognized, could inspire that sort of commitment. That is why liberals saw it as such a great threat.

Lionel Trilling gave voice to the more general hunger in his influential volume, The Liberal Imagination (1949). The keynote of Trilling’s book was melancholy, though it was premised on the complete triumph of liberalism in mid-twentieth-century America. “Liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition,” Trilling famously wrote. “For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.” There were “impulses” of conservatism, but these did not, “with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas.” The cultural effect of conservative impulses was limited because these impulses only gained expression “in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Though this state of affairs would “seem to some liberals a fortunate thing,” Trilling warned that conservatives’ lack of ideas was precisely what made conservatism such a danger, a danger for which liberals were unprepared.

The rise of the Nazis, Fascists, and “totalitarian” socialists in the Soviet Union shaped Trilling’s thought, as it shaped the thought of a whole generation of “chastened” liberals who dominated American political culture in the late 1940s and 1950s. It was dangerous for liberals to dismiss movements that had no ideas, Trilling said: “As the experience of Europe in the last quarter-century suggests . . . it is just when a movement despairs of having ideas that it turns to force.” And force might be disguised with “ideology,” a kind of pseudointellectual program that could be all the more destructive for its lack of intellectual rigor or sophistication. Ideology became a dirty word in these years, and liberals fell all over themselves to show that they had outgrown it–a tendency that culminated in Daniel Bell’s popular End of Ideology at the end of the 1950s. It was in this era that Americans apparently picked up the habit of pronouncing the word with a short i, as though its root were idiot rather than idea.

To Trilling, Bell, and others, politics was now inescapably cultural and psychological. It was “no longer possible to think of politics except as the politics of culture,” Trilling said. Political thinkers who hoped to influence events could not ignore cultural dynamics. Liberalism was at a great disadvantage here: Liberalism viewed the world in a “prosaic” way. What it needed was the “poetic” insight, the Romantic fire that Samuel Taylor Coleridge had brought to English letters. Like all postwar liberals, Trilling was horrified by irrational politics. (Perhaps it was unnecessary to believe in supernatural forces when one had seen the death camps, Stalin’s purges, battlefield atrocities in the jungles of the Pacific, deliberate “terror bombing” of civilians, and the advent of atomic warfare. Pointless, unaccountable evil was as vivid and inescapable to the scientific naturalist who read the newspaper as it had been to the imagination of St. John the Divine or Dante.) On the whole, Trilling insisted on the “value and necessity” of liberalism’s “organizational impulse,” despite the simplification and distortion of human motivation that this impulse required. But he saw it as his duty–as “the job of criticism”–to “recall liberalism to its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies awareness of complexity and difficulty.” He sought, that is, to leaven liberalism, and thus to extend and protect its triumph, with a quasi-spiritual discipline. Trilling’s sad tone suggested that squaring this circle would be as difficult as it was desirable.

Purchase A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.

You Might Also Like