Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
On January 6th 1941 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union Message to Congress and the nation. I spent the time to both both read it and listen to it the other day. It is a profoundly moving speech, not without controversy of course, but one which we need to hear again. It is a speech that like the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I have a Dream speech calls us to higher ideals, ideals that we often come up short in living up to, but ideals worth living for.
When Roosevelt spoke the nation was in the midst of crisis. It was still recovering from the Great Depression, war threatened as Hitler’s Nazi German legions had overrun all of Western Europe, much of North Africa, and German U-Boats and surface ships were prowling the North Atlantic. Britain stood alone between Germany’s complete domination of Europe. Even the Soviet Union, a mortal enemy of Fascism had concluded a concordat with Hitler to divide Eastern Europe. Though no one yet knew it, Hitler was already planning to break his accord with Stalin and invade the Soviet Union.
In the speech, which was largely focus on the threat of Nazi Germany, support of Britain and the exiled governments of nations conquered by Hitler, and preparations to defend the United States, Roosevelt called on Congress to pass Lend Lease to help those fighting the dictators, as well as increased opportunity at home. In response to the emerging threats and the unwillingness of some, including big business to face up to them. He noted:
“As a nation we may take pride in the fact that we are soft-hearted; but we cannot afford to be soft-headed. We must always be wary of those who with sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal preach the “ism” of appeasement. We must especially beware of that small group of selfish men who would clip the wings of the American eagle in order to feather their own nests.”
On the domestic front Roosevelt reiterated the message of the New Deal, for even with war looming he did not want to see Americans lost in the exchange and he linked freedom abroad to the same at home. He noted:
“As men do not live by bread alone, they do not fight by armaments alone. Those who man our defenses and those behind them who build our defenses must have the stamina and the courage which come from unshakable belief in the manner of life which they are defending. The mighty action that we are calling for cannot be based on a disregard of all the things worth fighting for.”
“Certainly this is no time for any of us to stop thinking about the social and economic problems which are the root cause of the social revolution which is today a supreme factor in the world. For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy.
The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:
Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
Jobs for those who can work.
Security for those who need it.
The ending of special privilege for the few.
The preservation of civil liberties for all.
The enjoyment — The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.
These are the simple, the basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.”
But the real heart of the message, applicable to all people everywhere Roosevelt enunciated a number of principles that are a beacon to all people. Firmly grounded in words of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address they are called the Four Freedoms. Those freedoms are an ideal, in fact they certainly were not practiced well then by Americans, nor now, but they are worth working to: Roosevelt said:
“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.
That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.”
The speech was important, and now as it did then it calls Americans to higher purposes, to higher ideals, and it recognizes that we have never fully measured up to our own words. At the time it was spoken, Jim Crow was still the law of the land, Mexican Americans were often treated as poorly as blacks, Native Americans had few rights; and barely a year later Japanese Americans would be taken from the homes, lose their business and be sent to detention camps for the duration of the war after Pearl Harbor, simply because they were of Japanese descent. But those abiding principles are things that we should never lose sight of, and always strive to realize.
In an age of uncertainty, turbulence, division, inequity, and deeply ingrained cynicism like ours, it is time to reflect on them, to strive for a higher purpose, and not to lose hope or give in to fear.