FDR, Christianity and the environment

By Paul M. Sparrow, Director, FDR Library.

Few people realize what an environmental advocate Franklin D. Roosevelt truly was. Or how frequently he invoked the Bible in his speeches. Ronald Isetti in his article “The Moneychangers of the Temple: FDR, American Civil Religion, and the New Deal:” states that “Few presidents employed biblical symbols, religious language and moral injunctions in their public addresses more often than Roosevelt did – and arguably none more effectively or eloquently.”

On September 10, 1936, President Roosevelt was campaigning through the South and stopped to give a speech to the Green Pastures Rally in Charlotte, North Carolina. The speech combines these two aspects of Roosevelt’s personality: passionate environmentalist and advocate for moral lessons found in the Bible.

"Rain or Shine" - FDR enroute to Municipal Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina to make his "Green Pastures" address, September 10, 1936.
“Rain or Shine” – FDR enroute to Municipal Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina to make his “Green Pastures” address, September 10, 1936. FDR Library Photo, NPx 48-22:4192

This photograph shows President Roosevelt sitting in the rain on his way to the Green Pastures Rally. He opens his speech with a reference to a rainbow that filled the sky as he began speaking. Then he quickly makes reference to the relevant biblical passage:

“Green pastures! What a memory those words call forth! In all our schooling, in every part of the land, no matter to what church we happen to belong, the old Twenty-third Psalm is in all probability better known to men, women and children than any other poem in the English language. And in this great lyric, what do we best remember? Two lines:

“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;

He leadeth me beside the still waters.”

It does not greatly matter whether that symbol of an ideal of human physical and spiritual happiness was written in its original three thousand or five thousand or ten thousand years ago. It might have been written as well in the twentieth century of the Christian era.”

James MacGregor Burns asserted that probably no American politician gave “so many speeches that were essentially sermons rather than statements of policy.” Speaking before a crowd of Southern Christians it is not surprising that he would reference the Bible. But he then goes on to use the “Green Pastures” reference as a key link between the people and the environment. In this speech you can see his vision for the connectedness of all Americans and how important the restoration of the land is in overcoming the deep economic depression that had ravaged the land.

“Green pastures! Millions of our fellow Americans, with whom I have been associating in the past two weeks, out on the Great Plains of America, live with prayers and hopes for the fulfillment of what those words imply. Still waters! Millions of other Americans, with whom I also have been associated of late, live with prayers and hopes either that the floods may be stilled—floods that bring with them destruction and disaster to fields and flocks, to homesteads and cities, or else they look for the Heaven-sent rains that will fill their wells, their ponds, their peaceful streams.

My friends, it is because I have spent so much of these latter years in this Southland, and because l have come to know its fine people, its brave history, its many problems, that I speak not as a stranger to you who are gathered here from seven States.

I have seen the denuding of your forests; I have seen the washing away of your topsoil; I have slid into the ditch from your red clay highways. I have taken part in your splendid efforts to save your forests, to terrace your lands, to harness your streams and to push hard-surfaced roads into every county in every State. I have even assumed the amazing role of a columnist for a Georgia newspaper in order that I might write powerful pieces against burning over the farm woodlot and in favor of the cow, hog and hen program.”

Roosevelt was raised on a farm and had a deep personal connection to the land. As an adult he spent many weeks at the polio rehabilitation clinic at Warm Springs, Georgia where he gained a keen understanding of the South. He believed strongly in the importance of reforestation and sustainable farming. According to Nelson Brown, dean of the New York College of Forestry and a friend of the president, FDR planted more than half a million trees on his family’s property in Hyde Park. Roosevelt’s Shelter Belt Plan to reforest a swath from Texas to Canada resulted in the planting of 217,000, 000 trees! On the voting rolls in Hyde Park he listed his profession as “tree grower.” He understood on both an emotional and intellectual level that the great dust bowl was a man-made environmental disaster and that America’s future depended on correcting many of the farming practices that led to it. And he used passages from the Bible to support his beliefs and to encourage others to take action.

Gary Scott Smith in his definitive book “Faith and the Presidency” says this of FDR. “Although he used biblical teachings and church history to motivate Americans to pursue courses of actions he deemed best, he seemed to be personally inspired as well.” Always the politician, Roosevelt ends his speech by reminding the audience of his successful efforts to improve their lives and then repeats the biblical reference.

“Not only have we aroused a public understanding and approval of the need of ending soil erosion and water run-off, but we have enabled the public, through a practical prosperity, to begin to pay their debts, to paint their homes, to buy farm tools and automobiles, to send more boys and girls through school and college, to put some money in the bank and, incidentally, to know for the first time that the money in the bank is safe.

So much for the green pastures and the still waters in their more literal physical terms. Those ancient words apply, however, with equal force to men and women and children. Your life and mine, though we work in the mill or in the office or in the store, can still be a life in green pastures and beside still waters.”


For a full transcript of the Green Pastures Rally speech visit: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=15124