Christianity for the Rest of Us

Christianity for the Rest of Us

New Deal Spirituality: The Politics of Generosity

On May 13, Christians celebrate the Feast of the Ascension.  The Episcopal saints calendar marks an additional commemoration on May 13, a day set aside to remember Frances Perkins (1880-1965), the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet, who served as Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt.  An Episcopal laywoman, Perkins worked tirelessly for the rights of working class people including the establishment of social security, unemployment insurance, child-working laws, and the federal minimum wage–all programs that grew out of her spirituality and passion for a “politics of generosity.”   

When asked about the motivation behind her work, Perkins responded, “I came to Washington to serve God, FDR, and the poor working man.”  Of her theological views, one Anglican historian writes,

…For the twenty years before she went to Washington, she was immersed in the 


unique religious culture of New York, where high-church Anglicanism had played a 

formative role in shaping a public religious culture . . .  [Elite] in pedigree 

and catholic in theology, New York Anglicanism enjoyed religious presidency in a city

where Roman Catholics and Jews tipped the balance in favor of a vision of 


community that was at once pluralistic and solidaristic.  Together, these three groups 

forged a religious and civic culture that gave rise to a “politics of generosity.” 

At the beginning of the Great Depression, some religious Americans advocated a “politics of righteousness,” that is, that people got what the deserved.  In other words, the pious became wealthy, and sinners were poor.  Perkins and her circle rejected this idea in favor of a “politics of generosity,” the theological belief that God has been generous with all humankind, and that those people who are more prosperous have wealth only because of grace.  It is their spiritual duty, therefore, to be as generous with the poor as God has been with them.  

Perkins became an activist following the the horrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, which she witnessed, and in which 149 women–some chained to sewing machines–died. This led her into a deeper life of prayer and political action.  Her theology was shaped by studying in England with Anglican theologians, poets, and writers like TS Eliot, Dorothy Sayers, and William Temple.  And her politics were increasingly formed in the crucible of Christian socialism.  Perkins and FDR believed that American ideals were inherently generous but that they needed to be manifest in human lives, through communal and government actions that provided for food, shelter, adequate income, and safety.  

It is 99 years since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory prompted the a spiritual and political conversion of the young Frances Perkins.  From that tragedy, she committed herself to God, transformational politics, and her neighbor–a commitment that changed America by enlarging our generosity to include the poor, the working class, and those who do not share in all the nation’s wealth.  I can’t imagine a more important saint to remember today.  May we live in her example and renew a politics of generosity for our own day.

The Episcopal prayer for Frances Perkins:

Loving God, we bless your Name for Frances Perkins, who lived out her belief that the special vocation of the laity is to conduct the secular affairs of society that all may be maintained in health and decency. Help us, following her example, to contend tirelessly for justice and for the protection of all in need, that we may be faithful followers of Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
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Julie Holm

posted May 13, 2010 at 1:02 pm

Wow! I worked for a number of years at the Department of Labor’s headquarters in Washington DC, the Frances Perkins building. I had no idea that the many wonderful things this woman did (which I did know about) proceeded from her faith. This is an important story to tell!

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posted May 13, 2010 at 3:28 pm

“New Deal Spirituality” caught my eye….I heard last night that 72% of Americans ages 25-31 consider themselves “spiritual not religious”…wonder how they defined spiritual? THANKS for making a difference out and about in the world!!

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Bradford Rosenquist

posted May 13, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Dear Author:
I am sure we could adulate most any good and worthy person of good
works, and do so without let up into eternity…but my question is,
as to the intent and purpose of these commentaries on “religion” and
its supporters, “why not encourage each person to be sure that they
have an eternal relationship with Jesus Christ…the entire purpose
of Christianity?” Every topic should eventually lead to the most
important question of all…Are you prepared for eternal life by
having accepted the work of salvation by faith in Jesus, who died
that you might have sins forgiven and rose from the dead that you
might have the gift of eternal life. All the rest can be quite
stimulating discussion, inspiring modeling and informative as the
history of such sub-subjects, but unless they direct each person
to believe in what Jesus taught, it seems rather shallow.
Thanks for giving the BIG QUESTION the correct time.

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tom chastain

posted May 14, 2010 at 9:07 am

billy graham has a new and exciting book called storm warning on thomas nelson publishing which has new and updated material and has alot of awnsers to many of the tough questians that we face every day and wonder about and stuggle with whean we pick up the paper and watch tv great gift idea for a friend or family member or pastor friend or perhaps Bible study

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David Cornell

posted May 14, 2010 at 1:49 pm

Bradford Rosenquist asks, “why not encourage each person to be sure that they have an eternal relationship with Jesus Christ…the entire purpose of Christianity?,” and says this is the “the most
important question of all…Are you prepared for eternal life by
having accepted the work of salvation by faith in Jesus, who died
that you might have sins forgiven and rose from the dead that you
might have the gift of eternal life.”
Actually, Mr. Rosenquist, that view is relatively new within Christianity, and is exclusively limited to some of the evangelical/post-Reformation streams of Christianity. The obsession with a “personal relationship with Jesus” is not the traditonal soteriology of the Eastern Churches, nor of the pre-Reformation Western Church, nor of the other post-Reformation streams.
Rather, traditionally, what is important is the Body of Christ, the Christian community, and its instrumentality in bringing about the Kingdom of God on Earth and after — a *corporate*, *communal* salvation rather than a narrow, individual salvation.
This is something that Frances Perkins clearly understood — and that you, Mr. Rosenquist, might do well to study.

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Joel Riley

posted May 24, 2010 at 12:37 pm

New Deal Spirituality, FDR, and generosity. That’s hilarious. The New Deal was and is all about government control not generosity. Liberals love the new deal. Liberals lack generosity. America was much more conservative in the 1930’s Depression era. Statistics show that Americans gave much more to charities in the 1930’s than they did in the more liberal 1990’s and 2000’s even though Americans have been making so much more money…at least until Pelosi, Reed, and Obama. Even the ultra liberal New York Times ran an article a few years ago with the stats from a study that conservatives give far more to charities than liberals. Liberals for the most part talk compassion but don’t show it with their walk….FDR is one of the presidents that has pushed the US to the brink of bankruptcy….Generosity should be from the heart not from the taxrolls.

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Bradford Rosenquist

posted June 10, 2010 at 11:43 pm

To Mr. Cornell:
Ninty-nine times out of a hundred I expect the type of response
you provide from someone who “Duh…” does not have a personal
relationship with Jesus Christ. So the only possible retort is to
nullify the possibility by using history as the source.
Why not go all the way back to the major prophets who proposed a
time when the law would be inside the individual and not on tablets,
and eventually to the incredible statements of Peter and Paul about
individuals personal encounters with a Living risen Savior by the
May God our Father introduce you to His son John 3: 16-17

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