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Editor’s Journal: The theology of Social Security revisited

The presidential election of 1932 was unquestionably about change. The people desired it. The candidates promised it. What that change would look like should the major candidate of the hour, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, actually win was unknown.

On Sept. 23, 1932, in a pre-election speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, one could catch a glimpse of just how different the America of the future would look from the America of the past should Roosevelt take over.

“The task of statesmanship has always been the redefining of these rights (life and liberty) in terms of a changing and growing social order,” Roosevelt said. “New conditions impose new requirements upon government and those who conduct government.”

With these words, the break with the past was all but certain. The speech received little attention until after the election, when many remembered the statements almost as prophecies of what would soon come to pass. The position advocated by Roosevelt would be the exact opposite of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson—the two men largely responsible for the ideas and writing of the U.S. Constitution.

The Declaration of Independence maintains that certain rights are not discovered and granted by any one person or any group in power. Rather, they are inalienable and fixed. They are to be regarded as a sacred endowment to each person, and no governmental idea should ever take supremacy over the worth and value of the individual and their God-given rights.

Never was the government even able to confer those rights. It only could recognize them, respect them and govern accordingly. Yet the change and expansion of the federal government would change America’s outlook on government. Aspects of Roosevelt’s New Deal would totally reorient what the words “life” and “liberty” would mean as they would practically expose themselves in the lives of every American citizen.

Words mattered to the writers of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The American experiment sought to wed the idea of freedom and virtue without the need or desire for a strong government to administer the details of life for every citizen. The American idea was an elimination of restraint by the government to be replaced by the constraint of virtue taught by institutions in society other than the government. The home, the church, the school and other voluntary associations were to be the primary relationship of life through which order and honesty were maintained.

The Great Depression, with its widespread economic emergencies, caused many to desire a government-run economy where predictability and security would be normal because most (if not all) personal and business decisions would largely be regulated by a governmental bureaucracy. New Deal legislation brought with it price controls on food, government insurance, monetary subsidies for bad years on the farm or in business, tight regulation on industry, new and expensive regulations for business and high tax rates.

Immediately following Roosevelt’s speech in San Francisco, many theological journals and Christian denominations used the exact phrases of the soon-to-be president in their publications. Many discarded traditional interpretations of key Scripture texts to support a new political theology which mirrored Roosevelt’s revolutionary New Deal. The close connections were not noticed at first, but after the laws were passed, it clearly was seen that without the church, much of the legislation could not have passed Congress. The president designed the policies, the church applied the pressure and the nation inherited the consequences.

FDR Signs the Social Security Act - Aug. 14, 1935

FDR Signs the Social Security Act - Aug. 14, 1935

For on June 29, 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 6757 created a Committee on Economic Security to draft legislation for a government-run retirement system. The committee consisted of the secretaries of labor, treasury and agriculture, the attorney general and the Federal Emergency Relief administrator.

Their first order of business was to examine policies currently in place to determine their viability for the nation. Even during the Great Depression, some private insurance companies and other companies managing annuities and pensions had performed well—during such an economically volatile time. Policies were proposed to rearrange tax structures and reduce tax rates to allow for the continued expansion of these companies, but such ideas were jettisoned for a government-run plan modeled after those in Germany and Prussia.

The committee presented its report on Jan. 15, 1935, and it recommended the following: worker’s compensation, unemployment benefits, health benefits, disability benefits, old-age benefits, survivors’ benefits and maternity benefits. During the hearings before the U.S. House and Senate, it became apparent that the cost of running such a system would be very high. Suggestions to scale back the program were met with disapproval by Roosevelt, who stated that the system should be kept solvent through the imposition of a payroll tax. Contributions would be required by the employer and employee. Roosevelt’s idea was to create what would seem to the worker like a self-financing insurance plan. In reality, the “premiums” were mostly paid by the worker because the employer often lowered their wages to lower their cost to the government.

Roosevelt privately admitted that many business leaders who opposed his proposals were right with their economic theory, but he boldly stated that “those taxes were never a problem of economics. They were politics all the way through.” Indeed, they were. The politics of the program were a problem from the outset.

Sen. Bennett Clark, a Missouri Democrat, offered an amendment which would allow businesses to opt out of the government plan if their own plans offered more generous benefits.

Sen. Robert M. La Follette Jr., a Wisconsin Progressive, said on the floor, “If we shall adopt this amendment, the government having determined to set up a federal system of old-age insurance will provide, in its own bill creating that system, competition which in the end may destroy the federal system. It would be inviting and encouraging competition with its own plan which ultimately would undermine and destroy it.”

The Clark Amendment passed by a 51-35 vote in a Democrat controlled senate, but FDR threatened to veto the entire bill unless the amendment was removed. It was, and Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law on Aug. 14, 1935. Throughout the process, appeals were made to American businesses and workers by church leaders to love their neighbors as themselves and to work to bring about an end to the social injustice of not caring for the aged and infirm.

What is disturbing when reviewing the history of this time is how many Christian ministers defended the actions of government as fulfilling Holy Scripture’s mandates to care for the poor, provide for parents in their old age and give to those who ask of you. Yes, government has a role in protecting its citizens, but it should never come at the expense of the church abdicating its biblically mandated role.

With this shift of thinking, the state began to function in roles once reserved for the church—to the detriment of any who would question the legitimacy of the legislation on theological grounds. The same reception awaits those in the modern day who seek to resist any “progressive” social policy in any way for fear that they will be branded as uncaring or un-Christian in their ideas.

Has government power expanded to such a degree that the church now has no voice at all in the public square? Perhaps, but the modern era of public policy reveals just how much the government has gained and how much the church has lost.

Douglas E. Baker is executive editor of the Baptist Messenger and Communications Team leader for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

Author: Douglas Baker

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  • Gary Capshaw

    A thought provoking article to be sure. There was a sea-change in how The People view the role of the government (at all levels) during the Great Depression and we still deal with the effects of that change today.

    However, it should be noted that government involvement in caring for the poor and disadvantaged would not have been necessary had the Church being doing what it should have been doing. It’s hardly surprising that church members, like everyone else, would hold onto their dollars during a time great distress, but the result was that efforts to help those affected by the Depression fell far short of the need. Millions were unemployed, millions more had lost all they had, hunger was a reality and the future looked bleak not only for those directly affected by the economy, but for those older citizens who found their life savings wiped out in the flood of bank failures. Without direction and an overall plan, the Church simply could not meet all those needs effectively.

    Someone, or something, HAD to step up to the plate and, since the problem was nation-wide, no other entity except the central government was positioned to do so. A fractionalized, divided Christianity, in which some denominations don’t even recognize each other as Christian, would have a hard time coming together to craft and administer a cohesive, unified plan to address the overwhelming circumstances. Even if, by some miracle, they could have done so, John Q. Public would have been subjected to a church bureacracy rather than a government one with about the same results.

    While the expansion of government responsibilities during that era does seem to fly in the face of the ideals emobodied in the Declarartion of Independence, it should be noted that the Constitution was crafted to express those ideals within the rule of law and it’s primary focus was to empower The People to have the kind of government they wanted. The God-given, inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pusuit of happiness were to find their voice in a government responsive to the Will of The People and it has worked now for over 200 years.

    As individuals, or even as a Church, we may not like what the will of our fellow citizens is, but the system designed back then still delivers the kind of government the majority wants to have. What we have now is precisely what we want because we still get to give direction to our government through free and open elections. That was true during the Depression (never forget that FDR was elected four times by a huge majority) and it’s true today.

    Since FDR’s first election in 1932, there have been 19 presidential elections and 37 congressional elections. In each instance, We The People have consistently voted for candidates who promise more government services, over and over and over again. It would be hard to make the case that the government we have right now is not the goverment we want because We built it, one government program at a time over a time span of 76 years.

    So, where is the Church today? It’s giving and meeting needs, to be sure, but for the most part, the Church is identified by far too many people as standing on the sidelines pointing it’s accusatory finger at the Will of The People. By taking political stances which are most often contrary to that Will, we have pushed ourselves, and Jesus Christ, outside the game. While we congratulate ourselves for “standing up” for God, our fellow citizens either ignore us or consider us political enemies. By positioning ourselves so, we make Jesus Himself a political enemy to the very people we need to reach with the Gospel.

    I sometimes feel like a voice crying in the wilderness, but until we Christian’s jettison anything which gets in the way of preaching the Gospel to a lost and dying world, including politics, I’m afraid we’ll fall to new levels of irrelavency and lose an entire generation to the wiles of the devil. Like any other “movement,” Christianity is just one generation away from obscurity and we’re on that path now.

    • Ronald Chastine

      Excellent words Gary. The church remains fractured today, and the Lord knows that Baptists seem to be the worst at cooperating. The SBC today is smaller, sicker, and scorned by many due to the past and present infighting, plus the exclusion of anyone who disagrees with whatever Baptist bureaucracy is in power. Our so-called conservative resurgence has risen up to simply to put another “good ole boys’ club” in power. It is day dreaming to believe that such a divided group as Baptists would step in to help. Social ministry still seems a bad word in the SBC lexicon even though Jesus was all about helping others. Thank goodness that we have Social Security. Otherwise, many would be hopeless.

  • Gary Capshaw

    Just think of all the good we could be doing in the name of the Lord if we’d just accept each other as believers and let it go at that? So what if we have doctrinal differences? So long as some other denomination professes Christ, and Him risen, why isn’t that enough and foundation enough to build joint efforts on?

    In line with that kind of thinking, I’m reminded of something which happened in Oklahoma City a couple of years ago during the aftermath of the big ice storm. I’m a volunteer with the BGCO Disaster Relief team and responded to the city with a chain saw crew. After a few days there, a Methodist group from Texas showed up with a beautifully equipped chain saw trailer and wanted to help. We plugged them right in and I spent the next 2 or 3 days working with them as we removed debris around Midwest City.

    What a marvelous group of fine, hard working Christian men and women they were! No, they weren’t Baptist’s, but so what? They were enthusiastic, dedicated and committed to meeting the needs of people in their hour of distress and I was honored and privileged to work with them. There were no doctrinal divisions, no bickering over interpretations of scripture; just a bunch of men and women doing the Lord’s work.

    What if we, the Church, could attack every issue with the same spirit of co-operation and unity of purpose, despite any differences we might have? What if we focused simply on doing the work our Lord called us to do, across the spectrum of ministries? What an impact we could make for Jesus! Maybe then, we wouldn’t need government to do for us what we could do ourselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

  • Jeff Redcay

    Excellent article!!! I thoughly agree with the entire piece. I have often told folks our present dilemma started with FDR. What is the present dilemma? “It” is the idea that goverment has the responsibility to care for me. Generations have been born under the current system and they know nothing else. The fish in a tank may be perfecty content to live thier lives out within the tank. Put a wild caught fish in the tank and he will dart about seeking freedom. Ronald, Gary I respectfully submit that you are in the “Tank”.

  • Jim Cantrell

    Douglas E. Baker has written a good article explaining the manner that Government eases — creeps — into prominence and takes over our basic fundamental liberities.
    I thought that Gary Capshaw missed a part of Mr. Bakers’ position when he writes in paragraphs two and three that the Church did not do what they should have done. Mr. Capshaw assumes that Federal Government’s Laws are a display of the will of the people. These laws display the will of the elected (including the Obama, Pelosi, and Reid health care law) not the will of the people.
    Their disagreement seems to be the role of the Church and what should be the Church’s actions — to support FDR — and not support alternative plans that were of a more Biblical persuasion.
    We do not have freedom from the press, why should we have freedom from religion?
    God Bless

  • Gary Capshaw

    Mr. Cantrell:

    If you truly believe that government does not reflect the will of The People, then it must follow that you believe the government is an illegal entity, one imposed upon us against our will. From that position readily springs the idea of replacing it with something else and I would ask you the same question I’ve asked others, never to receive a good answer: Replace it with what?

    The truth is that the government DOES reflect our will because we still have free and open elections in which our will is expressed. We may not LIKE what the majority wants, but that does not invalidate the whole process.

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