In Memoriam

McGovern’s Methodism and Prairie Progressivism

George McGovern's anti-war earnestness echoed the progressive Methodism of his youth.

By 10.29.12

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Hundreds packed the First United Methodist Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on October 25 to honor Senator George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate who died earlier this week. He was one of the last great prairie progressives who were deeply shaped by Social Gospel liberal Protestantism. The son of a Wesleyan Methodist minister, McGovern himself studied for the ministry at a Methodist seminary. In his later decades he was active in the United Methodist Church, whose liberal policies replicated his own, and some of whose bishops openly backed his presidential bid against Richard Nixon.

Fueled by the 1908 Methodist Social Creed that was ecumenically endorsed by the old Federal Council of Churches, early 20th century liberal Methodism by the 1920s and 1930s was anti-war, suspicious of capitalism, and supremely confident about perfecting society through reforming legislation. Young McGovern must have eagerly breathed in that religious idealism.

"For him, the Social Gospel was not just a theory, but the core of his faith in seeking to make the world a better place," recently explained one former United Methodist seminary president who was a McGovern friend. "Practically every speech and certainly every book he wrote cited biblical references that were at the core of his personal and political philosophy." A denominational news service report shared many similar quotes from church leaders hailing McGovern. One retired bishop recalled having served as a McGovern campaign volunteer in 1972.

The late Bishop James Armstrong, later famous as president of the National Council of Churches in the 1980s when fending off media attacks on church support for radically leftist causes, was on the platform when his fellow Dakotan declared his presidential candidacy. Bishop James Mathews, who was son-in-law to the world-famous Methodist missionary to India E. Stanley Jones, also publicly backed him, as did Bishop Gerald Kennedy, who once appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

These Methodist clerics and many others saw in McGovern a kindred spirit who could purify American democracy through his Methodist earnestness. Bishop Armstrong, impressed by McGovern's opposition to his own party on the Vietnam War, saluted McGovern as a "moderate" who embodied Judeo-Christian ideals. McGovern had long split on the war from another Midwestern Methodist, Hubert Humphrey, who represented a more centrist progressivism losing its hold on both Democrats and Methodists. Of course, McGovern would be remembered for shifting his party away from its traditional blue collar base in favor of more professional liberal elites. The party's path also reflected Methodism's leftward path in the late 20th century. Armstrong would also defend Senator McGovern's eventual abortion rights stance, which aligned with the denomination's.

McGovern's zealous anti-war stance and his 1972 theme of "Come Home America" also aligned with United Methodist opposition to Vietnam, which had grown increasingly shrill during Nixon's presidency. Nixon himself, though originally a Quaker, had attended a Methodist church during his earlier years in Washington, D.C. But he became the first president of the century who largely avoided official Methodist delegations because of their perceived hostility, a policy mostly repeated by later Republican presidents.

Although McGovern gained support from the New Left, his anti-war politics and pseudo-isolationism echoed the progressive Methodism of his youth. Post World War I official Methodism became pacifist and somewhat isolationist, remaining so right up until Pearl Harbor. The church's 1944 General Conference only narrowly backed World War II. McGovern himself left his studies at a Methodist school to serve on a U.S. bomber in Europe. Like many liberal Methodists who served in that war, he later was mostly hostile to U.S. military action. As the U.S. prepared for the Iraq War in 2003, McGovern chose an event honoring his friend Bishop Mathews to searingly condemn President Bush for needlessly sacrificing American lives. Not a pacifist, during the Cambodian communist holocaust of the mid 1970s he vaguely suggested military intervention without fully admitting that U.S. withdrawal from Indochina had facilitated the horror.

For many years McGovern belonged to Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., an increasingly liberal congregation where another Midwestern senator, Bob Dole, was also long a member. In his final days McGovern returned to Sioux Falls, where the local United Methodist minister visited him. "Growing up the son of a Wesleyan pastor, he was always around the church. He loved the music," the minister recalled to the denominational news service. "In one of my recent visits with him we sang, 'Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.' He started and I just joined in."

As recently as September McGovern appeared for the installation of the new local United Methodist bishop, who after his death declared to the church news service: "Sen. McGovern embodies the best of the Judea Christian prophetic tradition." He was echoing the words of another bishop when endorsing McGovern's presidential bid 40 years ago.

Nurtured by the Methodist faith of his youth, McGovern now hopefully is "leaning on the everlasting arms." Like nearly everyone, he had his share of failed and lofty moments, but on a larger scale. He represented one of the last gusts of prairie progressivism blowing out of the Midwest nearly a century ago, deeply shaped by an idealistic Methodism whose force has long since receded.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.