WASHINGTON — Warren Kozak, the author of LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay, wrote a memorable piece in the Wall Street Journal on June 6, 2012, that cries out for comment. On the 68th anniversary of the Allies’ invasion of Europe over the bloody beaches of Normandy, he reminds us of an unthinkable act by President Franklin Roosevelt on that day. At least it is an unthinkable act today. The President did not call a press conference to notify Americans huddled before their radios of what our military was doing. They already knew from news reports, though they might have learned even more from their president. Nor did President Roosevelt boast of how he had marshaled our troops and given the order to action, as the present occupier of his office is prone to do.
Instead, Roosevelt offered a prayer, a prayer of unthinkable dimensions nowadays. I suspect if I were of voting age in 1944 I would have been a Republican. Yet, as President Roosevelt spoke he would have spoken for me. Transported back to the battle of Normandy, I would have taken heart in his words. Would a Barack Obama, similarly transported back across the decades, have taken heart? Or would he and millions of other miraculously transported Americans from the present have squirmed? Would they have filed lawsuits through the American Civil Liberties Union? Is this not another of those church and state conundrums that we conjure up today?
These thoughts occurred to me as I read the recent polling results from the Pew Research Center. It claims that Americans’ “values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years.” Certainly they are more polarized than they were 68 years ago. How could an American President offer a prayer on behalf of all the American people today, much less a Democratic president, much less the most revered Democratic president of all time, FDR?
According to the Pew poll, “Roughly three-quarters of Democrats (77%) say they ‘never doubt the existence of God.‘” That is down by 11 percent over the past decade, which is quite a lot. Among white Democrats it is down 17 percent, from 85 percent in 2002 to 68 percent today. Meanwhile, among Republicans 92 percent say they never doubt the existence of God. The same percentage as ten years ago, and, in fact, the figure is unchanged from 25 years ago. On some things Republicans are rock solid. Were today’s Republicans transported back to Roosevelt’s America on June 6, 1944, he could count on us for support and even our gratitude for his remarks.
He prayed with confidence and piety for all Americans. “Almighty God,” he began, “our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion (sic), and our civilization (sic), and to set free suffering humanity.
“Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.”
And on the President went. “Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, thy heroic servants, into thy kingdom.” Kozak writes, “This was an American President unafraid to embrace God and to define an enemy that clearly rejected the norms of humanity.”
Nor apparently was President Roosevelt alone in his piety. He continued, “Many people have urged that I call the nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking thy help to our efforts.”
A lot has happened since 1944. America went on to win the Cold War peacefully. We ended segregation. We have had years of peaceful prosperity, prosperity beyond even Roosevelt’s dreams. There have been technological advances beyond the imagination of that prayerful President, and in medicine too. The average American can now expect to live decades beyond FDR’s mere 63 years, but he, unlike many contemporary Americans, knew why he was here and where he was going.
In some ways President Roosevelt would have been a typical Republican.