Published on Friday, May 6, 2005 by CommonDreams.org
Roosevelt Letter to Clergy on "High Purposes" of Social Security:
How Bush Gets it Wrong, Very Wrong
by Glenn W. Smith
A 1935 letter from President Franklin Roosevelt to an Oklahoma Baptist preacher puts the lie to George W. Bush's stump-speech references to Roosevelt and his arguments that Social Security should be privatized.
The letter, which we just obtained, also offers convincing proof that once upon a time the faith community was looked to by those in government for ways to improve "the spiritual and material conditions for the American people." The difference could not be more striking. Bush uses the Christian Right to divide and threaten Americans. Roosevelt looked to America's spiritual leaders for advice on how government could help the people -- all the people.
In his Sept. 24, 1935 letter to the Rev. A.F. Whitehurst of Kingfisher, Oklahoma, Roosevelt wrote, "I am particularly anxious that the new Social Security Legislation just enacted, for which we have worked so long, providing for old age pensions, aid for crippled children and unemployment insurance, shall be carried out in keeping with the high purposes with which this law was enacted."
Rev. Emilee Whitehurst of Austin, a passionate progressive pastor and the great grand-niece of Rev. Amos Whitehurst, the recipient of Roosevelt's letter, regards the missive as a family treasure. If it helps derail Bush's cynical attacks on social security, it might become a national treasure. In it, Roosevelt alludes to the great democratic mission of America, a mission which recognizes the strength of our common purposes and the pursuit of social and economic justice.
"Your high calling brings you into intimate daily contact not only with your own parishioners, but with people generally in your community," Roosevelt wrote. "I am sure you see the problems of your people with wise and sympathetic understanding."
FDR continued, "We can solve our many problems, but no one man or single group can do it, - we shall have to work together for the common end of better spiritual and material conditions for the American people."
Bush wants us to consider Social Security as a private, personal retirement account. He has already succeeded somewhat in erasing the "social" from Social Security. Roosevelt makes it clear that the "high purposes" of the historic legislation were to help individual Americans by helping ALL Americans. From its inception, Social Security was supposed to help cushion America from the economic terrors of depression, deflation, and inflation. In other words, we help ourselves by helping each other.
Here's what FDR said when he put the presidential signature on the Social Security Act: "It is a structure intended to lessen the force of possible future depressions. It will act as a protection to future administrations against the necessity of going deeply into debt to furnish relief to the needy. The law will flatten out the peaks and valleys of deflation and of inflation. It is, in short, a law that will take care of human needs and at the same time provide the United States an economic structure of vastly greater soundness."
Social Security serves a common purpose. It is the use of the common wealth for the common good. It's purpose is not limited to providing private, individual retirement accounts. It is more, much more, than a government run IRA.
Roosevelt asked the American clergy to advise him on whether government was meeting the needs of people in their communities. He wanted their help in his efforts to achieve the high purposes of Social Security. He also pointedly said that no single group could solve the difficulties faced by the nation. In other words, he called upon the clergy and all Americans to go beyond the possibilities of a single private charity initiative. Bush's so-called faith-based initiative was from the beginning a political tool aimed at buying votes. But even if one assumes it a sincere effort to help people, it falls far short. Bush opposes collective action, the use of the common wealth for the common good.
Today, Bush deploys the Christian Right toward specific, political, strategic goals. "Help me shame the U.S. Senate into shredding the filibuster rule and confirming my extremist judicial appointments," he says to James Dobson and Tony Perkins. "Help me convince Americans that they risk eternal damnation by opposing me on privatizing social security."
It's interesting that at the time, Roosevelt's request of American clergy was not really considered news. Roosevelt didn't deploy spiritual leaders towards political ends, he only asked for their support in solving human needs.
Bush shamelessly invokes Roosevelt while sacrificing the high purposes of Social Security to his low and corrupt desire to pay off Wall Street for their political support. Imagine Bush re-writing Roosevelt's letter. "My proposal will cut social security benefits for the middle class and the poor. I'm going to say it doesn't. The rich of course, will not suffer. Help me persuade those under your sway that to get to heaven they need to disregard the evidence of their lying eyes. I knew I could count on you."
Smith is the author of "The Politics of Deceit: Saving Freedom and Democracy from Extinction." He's director of DriveDemocracy.org, which is helping organizing progressive religious leaders around the country. Email: email@example.com.