Walter F. Mondale (1928-2021): The Private Faith of a Public Servant

Walter F. Mondale (1928-2021): The Private Faith of a Public Servant April 21, 2021

Today Chris Gehrz and I are collaborating to talk about Vice President Walter F. Mondale, who passed away at the age of 93 this week.  Mondale served as a US senator from Minnesota from 1964-1976 and vice president of the United States from 1977-1981.  He was the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 1984, and though he suffered a landslide defeat in his race against Ronald Reagan, he is still remembered as the first major-party presidential nominee to select a woman (Representative Geraldine Ferraro) as his running mate.  He was also a longtime advocate of antipoverty initiatives, fair housing legislation, and federally funded childcare.

Interview w[ith] Vice President Mondale

Remarkably for a politician, he finished his long political career without a single scandal or charge of impropriety.  When Mondale was selected as Jimmy Carter’s running mate in 1976, the New York Times noted that he was “one of the least wealthy members of the Senate” with the “lowest net worth of any major party candidate for the Presidency or the Vice Presidency,” largely because of his scrupulous efforts to avoid any hint of a conflict of interest that might result from moneymaking activities.  Honest to a fault, his candor on the campaign trail sometimes got him in trouble – as, for instance, when he famously promised in 1984 to raise taxes if elected president.  But for Mondale, forthrightness was simply a value that he had learned as the son of a Methodist minister on the early 20th-century Minnesota prairie.

 

There are many things that could be said about Mondale’s half century in public service, but because this is a blog for religious history and evangelical Christian reflections, Chris and I will focus our conversation on Mondale’s faith and its legacy.  Chris will begin by sharing a personal reflection about Mondale’s Christian values, followed by a thought-provoking question that I will respond to as we think about how to situate Mondale in the larger history of religious influences on politics in modern America.

 

Chris Gehrz:

I wasn’t a particular close observer of Walter Mondale’s career, but his doomed presidential campaign in 1984 was my introduction to politics. As a nine-year old from Minnesota, I wept bitterly that November night when the Democrat lost to Ronald Reagan in the worst landslide in American political history. Not so much because of my affinity for his policies (I went on to write fan mail to both Al Haig and Margaret Thatcher — that’s another post!), but because I couldn’t imagine how the rest of the country could fail to love a favorite son of my state.

But as word spread yesterday about Mondale’s death at age 93, I realized how little I knew about the private faith of a public servant who held some office or another for almost 30 years.

It’s easy to overlook, but in the late 1960s and 1970s, there was a succession of liberal Democratic candidates from the Upper Midwest with significant, but non-evangelical, Christian backgrounds. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey held off a challenge from fellow Minnesotan Eugene McCarthy, who had been a Benedictine novice and taught at what’s now the University of St. Thomas. Four years later, the Democratic nomination went to South Dakota senator George McGovern, a Wesleyan pastor’s son who earned a seminary degree himself. And in 1976, the Baptist governor of Georgia chose as his running mate a liberal senator from Minnesota who had grown up as the son of a Methodist preacher — and married the daughter of a Presbyterian minister.

The morning after the new president and vice president were inaugurated, readers of the Washington Post read about Jimmy Carter’s “Born-Again Style at the White House,” but Janis Johnson’s article actually started with Walter Mondale “taking it upon himself to say grace before the meal” during the campaign.

But when Mondale ran for president against Ronald Reagan in 1984, he struggled to fend off charges that his campaign was anti-religious. That September, a New York Times article on a campaign stop in Tupelo, Mississippi started with a sweaty Mondale responding (“his voice faintly tremulous”) to evangelical hecklers who attacked him for his positions on abortion and gay rights. “I was born into a Christian family,” Mondale emphasized, continuing, “I believe the faith with everything that’s in me.” But he also insisted that politicians like him (and his Republican opponent) should keep their “nose out of religion.” What made “America great is [that] our faith is between ourselves, our conscience and our God, and we don’t have to clear our faith by passing muster with some politician who happens to be running against us.”

Mondale — whose officeholding career began a few months before John F. Kennedy gave his landmark speech on the separation of church and state to Protestant pastors in Houston — warned that Ronald Reagan was trying to erode that constitutional principle in order to curry favor with the Religious Right. “I believe in an America that honors what Thomas Jefferson first called the ‘wall of separation between church and state,’” he’d told delegates to a B’Nai B’Rith convention, one week before his stop in Mississippi. “That freedom has made our faith unadulterated and unintimidated. It has made Americans the most religious people on earth. Today, the religion clauses of the First Amendment do not need to be fixed, they need to be followed.”

In response, Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell complained that Mondale was trying to have it both ways: “When he comes off saying ‘my father is a minister, my wife’s father is a minister’… and then in the next paragraph says ‘I’ve never used religious influence to promote myself’ — that, to me, is hypocrisy.”

Falwell’s critique points to an apparent contradiction that mainline Protestants such as Mondale perhaps never fully resolved.  Mondale’s faith no doubt inspired some of his policy positions, on everything from child poverty to civil rights and environmental protection, plus his commitment to civic virtues like honesty, integrity, and decency.  But he was uncomfortable with more public displays of piety, and unsure how to counter Falwell’s hypocrisy charge.  How could he preserve a public “wall of separation” between church and state and privately draw on religious or spiritual resources to arrive at personal political positions?  And was his inability to effectively give a rationale for what he was doing symptomatic of a broader mainline Protestant dilemma?

 

Dan Williams:

Chris, you have asked a fascinating question.  The dilemma Mondale faced was one that many politically liberal mainline Protestants experienced in the mid-20th century: They thought of values such as equality and concern for the poor as universally held moral imperatives that transcended a particular religious tradition, while they associated opposition to abortion or homosexuality as sectarian religious stances that had no legitimate place in a secular American public square.  Like many other mainline Protestants of his generation, Mondale viewed himself as a passionate advocate of church and state even while perhaps underestimating the degree to which the values that he thought were universal were the product, to at least a certain degree, of the Social Gospel and its application in 20th-century mainline American Christianity.

But of course, those values were not quite as universal as he hoped.  As you noted, when Mondale campaigned in Tupelo, Mississippi, he encountered white Baptists who did not agree with his support for universal childcare or social welfare programs, and who thought he was wrong on abortion and gay rights.  By telling those white conservatives that their own convictions about abortion had no place in politics – but that his own religiously informed social concerns did, because they were universal values – he seemed to southern evangelical Republicans like Falwell to be guilty of moral hypocrisy.

After a few more failed attempts to ground social concerns in universal secular values that turned out not to be so universally accepted – as Michael Dukakis found out in 1988, for instance – the Democratic Party rediscovered a Christian voice, though one that was unapologetically pluralistic.  Both Barack Obama and Joe Biden were far more successful than Mondale in connecting their social visions to their own Christian faith, and as a result, they had a philosophical foundation from which to engage others who disagreed with their visions.  Obama, for instance, could directly address the issue of abortion in The Audacity of Hope in a way that Mondale struggled to do, because Obama, unlike Mondale, was willing to talk about how his faith shaped his convictions on abortion policy and also how he related to other people of faith who had different views on the issue.

Vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro [right] with presidential candidate Walter Mondale.

But perhaps it’s unfair to expect Mondale to have done that in 1984.  He was running for president at a time when the meaning of Christianity in politics was rapidly changing, and he was probably unprepared for that change.  In 1976, when he was running on the Carter-Mondale ticket, Christianity was not yet firmly connected with the political right, so a Methodist minister’s son who exemplified the virtues of honesty, decency, and concern for racial minorities and the poor did not have to answer skeptical questions of whether he was a true Christian.  When many Americans (especially in Minnesota) thought of the word “Christian,” they were as likely to think of a social liberal as a cultural conservative.  By 1984, that had changed.  And Mondale never quite mastered the new political reality.

In particular, Mondale never figured out how to bridge the divide between liberal Christians like himself who believed strongly in a social ethic and viewed the government as a primary agent in carrying out some of the mandates of Matthew 25 and an increasingly vocal group of evangelical Christians who viewed the liberal state as a threat to the preservation of the Christian values in their own families.

Chris, you began your piece with a personal anecdote about the 1984 presidential election, so I’ll share an anecdote of my own that may provide a useful perspective on the reason why Mondale failed to gain traction among conservative evangelical voters.  I was seven years old during the election of 1984, and I was part of a conservative Christian family that had begun to experiment with the novel practice of homeschooling only a few months earlier.  Even though I encountered several Mondale voters in our generally Democratic-leaning community in Maine, Ronald Reagan was the universally preferred candidate among the conservative Christians I knew through our church or our small homeschooling subculture.  When I asked my parents why our family supported Reagan, I was told that if Mondale won, we might lose our right to homeschool.

While that fear was almost certainly misguided (since policies about homeschooling were set at the state level and were not subject to White House review), its existence tells us something about the stark differences between the concerns of Christian conservatives and the values of liberal Protestants such as Walter Mondale.  While Mondale was calling on Americans to sacrifice for the good of others (by paying higher taxes, for instance, so that the federal government could maintain social programs), many conservative evangelicals believed that both the society and the federal government were a threat to their attempt to preserve Christian values in their families, and they were therefore receptive to a Republican promise to reduce the influence of the federal government in their lives – the very opposite of Christian values, in Mondale’s view.

Unfortunately, Mondale failed to engage with this fear directly and talk about the biblical values that had shaped his liberal convictions.  It may even be fair to say that Mondale failed to recognize how culturally specific his own values were.  After all, to a mid-20th-century Minnesota Methodist pastor’s son, it perhaps seemed unfathomable that a sizeable group of voters would view government-funded programs to care for the poor as anti-biblical.  But the overwhelming repudiation that Mondale experienced from the Christian in the election of 1984 – an election in which more than 80 percent of white evangelical voters supported Reagan – was evidence that Mondale’s Christian values were of a very different sort than the ones that many evangelicals now held, even if these values were also rooted in scriptural precepts.

In retrospect, we can say as historians (as you noted, Chris) that Mondale was part of a much larger pattern of mid-to-late 20th-century liberal Democrats whose social values were deeply shaped by the social values of their Christian faith.  Even if Mondale may not have even fully recognized how distinctively Methodist or mainline Protestant his values were, I think that we would both agree as historians that without the Social Gospel, it would be difficult to imagine Mondale’s particular combination of personal virtues, private piety, and fervent commitment to using the power of government to help the poor and promote equality.  It’s unfortunate that Mondale’s public service coincided with the rise of an evangelical Christian Right that undermined the particular liberal Christian influences in politics that produced such politicians, because of all the liberal Christians who ran for president in the late 20th century, Mondale was undoubtedly one of the most personally decent, consistent practitioners of the values he preached.  As a Minnesota mainline Protestant, Mondale may have been reluctant to say too much about his faith, but I hope that as historians, we won’t hesitate to examine the spiritual framework for his values, even as we lament the loss of a man who worked so hard for more than half a century to put those values into practice in public life.

 

 

About Daniel K. Williams
Daniel K. Williams is a professor of history at the University of West Georgia and the author of The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship. You can read more about the author here.
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