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.
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.