Theodore Roosevelt and Muscular Christianity

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Ah, if only “talkies” had existed during Theodore Roosevelt’s life.  Here we see a silent film of the Fourth of July speech in 1903 given by Roosevelt in Huntington, New York, during the 250th anniversary year of that town.  We cannot hear him speak, but the energy and passion which he poured into every speech he gave is clear from the film.

A few weeks later, Colonel Roosevelt (That is the title by which he liked to be addressed, being proud of his service with the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War.  He despised being called Teddy.) addressed the Holy Name Society on August 16, 1903.  Note his appeal to men and boys to lead good and moral lives and to give full expression to the masculine virtues of courage and fortitude.  Today of course the speech would be denounced as sexist, moralistic, Christianist and you can write the remainder of the list for yourself. Such complaints would be the sheerest rubbish.  Men and boys need precisely this type of message if they are going to be a positive force in society and to be good husbands, fathers and sons.  Too many churches, and the Church, tend to ignore giving this type of message and society has suffered greatly as a result.  Here is the text of the speech:


16, 1903.

Very Reverend Dean, Reverend Clergy, and you of the Holy Name Society:

I count myself fortunate in having the chance to say a word to you to-day; and at the outset let me, Father Power, on behalf of my neighbors, your congregation, welcome all your guests here to Oyster Bay. I have a partial right to join in that welcome myself, for it was my good fortune in the days of Father Power’s predecessor, Father Belford, to be the first man to put down a small contribution for the erection of your church here. I am particularly glad to see such a society as this flourishing as your society has flourished, because the future welfare of our Nation depends upon the way in which we can combine in our men—in our young men—decency and strength.

Just this morning when attending service on the great battleship Kearsarge I listened to a sermon addressed to the officers and enlisted men of the navy, in which the central thought was that each American must be a good man or he could not be a good citizen. And one of the things dwelt upon in that sermon was the fact that a man must be clean of mouth as well as clean of life—must show by his words as well as by his actions his fealty to the Almighty if he was to be what we have a right to expect from men wearing the national uniform. We have good Scriptural authority for the statement that it is not what comes into a man’s mouth but what goes out of it that counts. I am not addressing weaklings, or I should not take the trouble to come here. I am addressing strong, vigorous men, who are engaged in the active hard work of life; and life to be worth living must be a life of activity and hard work. I am speaking to men engaged in the hard, active work of life, and therefore to men who will count for good or for evil. It is peculiarly incumbent upon you who have strength to set a right example to others. I ask you to remember that you cannot retain your self-respect if you are loose and foul of tongue, that a man who is to lead a clean and honorable life must inevitably suffer if his speech likewise is not clean and honorable. Every man here knows the temptations that beset all of us in this world. At times any man will slip. I do not expect perfection, but I do expect genuine and sincere effort toward being decent and cleanly in thought, in word, and in deed. As I said at the outset, I hail the work of this society as typifying one of those forces which tend to the betterment and uplifting of our social system. Our whole effort should be toward securing a combination of the strong qualities with those qualities which we term virtues. I expect you to be strong. I would not respect you if you were not. I do not want to see Christianity professed only by weaklings; I want to see it a moving spirit among men of strength. I do not expect you to lose one particle of your strength or courage by being decent. On the contrary, I should hope to see each man who is a member of this society, from his membership in it become all the fitter to do the rough work of the world; all the fitter to work in time of peace; and if, which may Heaven forfend, war should come, all the fitter to fight in time of war. I desire to see in this country the decent men strong and the strong men decent, and until we get that combination in pretty good shape we are not going to be by any means as successful as we should be. There is always a tendency among very young men and among boys who are not quite young men as yet to think that to be wicked is rather smart; to think it shows that they are men. Oh, how often you see some young fellow who boasts that he is going to “see life,” meaning by that that he is going to see that part of life which it is a thousandfold better should remain unseen! I ask that every man here constitute himself his brother’s keeper by setting an example to that younger brother which will prevent him from getting such a false estimate of life. Example is the most potent of all things. If any one of you in the presence of younger boys, and especially the younger people of your own family, misbehave yourself, if you use coarse and blasphemous language before them, you can be sure that these younger people will follow your example and not your precept. It is no use to preach to them if you do not act decently yourself. You must feel that the most effective way in which you can preach is by your practice.

As I was driving up here a friend who was with us said that in his experience the boy who went out into life with a foul tongue was apt so to go because his kinfolk, at least his intimate associates, themselves had foul tongues. The father, the elder brothers, the friends, can do much toward seeing that the boys as they become men become clean and honorable men.

I have told you that I wanted you not only to be decent, but to be strong. These boys will not admire virtue of a merely anaemic type. They believe in courage, in manliness. They admire those who have the quality of being brave, the quality of facing life as life should be faced, the quality that must stand at the root of good citizenship in peace or in war. If you are to be effective as good Christians you must possess strength and courage, or your example will count for little with the young, who admire strength and courage. I want to see you, the men of the Holy Name Society, you who embody the qualities which the younger people admire, by your example give those young people the tendency, the trend, in the right direction; and remember that this example counts in many other ways besides cleanliness of speech. I want to see every man able to hold his own with the strong, and also ashamed to oppress the weak. I want to see each young fellow able to do a man’s work in the world, and of a type which will not permit imposition to be practiced upon him. I want to see him too strong of spirit to submit to wrong, and, on the other hand, ashamed to do wrong to others. I want to see each man able to hold his own in the rough work of actual life outside, and also, when he is at home, a good man, unselfish in dealing with wife, or mother, or children. Remember that the preaching does not count if it is not backed up by practice. There is no good in your preaching to your boys to be brave, if you run away. There is no good in your preaching to them to tell the truth if you do not. There is no good in your preaching to them to be unselfish if they see you selfish with your wife, disregardful of others. We have a right to expect that you will come together in meetings like this; that you will march in processions; that you will join in building up such a great and useful association as this; and, even more, we have a right to expect that in your own homes and among your own associates you will prove by your deeds that yours is not a lip loyalty merely; that you show in actual practice the faith that is in you.

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  1. I’m old enough to remember when Holy Mother Church taught that in addition to the Theological Virtues, there are Secular Virtues: Fortitude, Justice, Prudence and Temperance.

    And, the Spiritual Works of Mercy include “Instruct the ignorant, Counsel the Doubtful, Admonish the sinner, . . .”

  2. I have little use for TR, but it is true that we desparately need to recover masculinity, esp. in the Church, which has suffered greatly from feminization for the past 40 years. It does a heart good to see priests such as ours at St. Josephs in Richmond, FSSP priests, young, cassock-wearing, unapologetically masculine. Such represent the future as the effeminate clergy who are more interested in being “relevant” die off.

  3. Thanks for this post.
    I’m mom and grandmom to 3 sons and 4 grandsons so far.

    Do you have access to the content of the fourth of july speech?

  4. I have read only one biography of President Roosevelt and claim no great knowledge of him. I was shocked by the allegations contained in that biography and disturbed by the content of the texts cited by the author. It was a far less than flattering portrayal of the President.

    There is always a danger in applying the mores of our time to the actions of times past. There is something fundamentally unfair about judging others by standards novel until late in the twentieth century. Nonetheless, there must be a universality to Right and Good and it seems to me that President Roosevelt’s views on race and intelligence should not be glossed over. That those views underpinned some of the most extraordinary abuses of fellow Catholics in the Philippines makes them all the harder to excuse.

    As applied to the instant discussion, torture and murder have ever been considered “manly” but they are decidedly unchristian acts. To my mind, this makes President Roosevelt’s call to moral behavior hollow and false.

    He called American boys to be moral and upright but ignored outright murder being done in the Philippines in his name. He called for duty and honor but then sold Korea to Japan, ushering in mass murder, rape, and subjugation because he believed the Japanese to be closer to “white” than Koreans. In so doing, he set the stage for Japan’s hegemonic rise and the eventual partitioning of Korea.

    Again, I acknowledge that my views were substantively altered by what I have read and that there may be scholars out there with the knowledge to correct anything that I’ve said. I welcome such correction but I find it hard to stomach speeches about right living from one who held such views and behaved so badly.

  5. Actually G-Veg the Philippine Insurrection War was well under way before Roosevelt became President. He oversaw the end of it which included the establishment of an elected Filipino legislature. I think Roosevelt has nothing to apologize for in regard to his efforts to end the fighting in the Philippines, a war which he inherited from McKinley, and place the Philippines on the path to eventual self rule.

    Roosevelt did not sell Korea to the Japanese, a manifestly silly statement. The Japanese took Korea from a decrepit Chinese Empire and crushed the forces of the Tsar in the Far East. He negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The US had neither the power nor the inclination to go to war with Japan over Korea, especially since the alternative would not have been independence, but either domination of Korea by China or domination of Korea by Russia. The only way that the US could have prevented the Japanese from controlling Korea would have been to occupy Korea with US troops and then we would have had another situation akin to the Philippines, with the prospect of a likely war with Japan.

    I am curious as to what biography of Roosevelt you read that contained these allegations. I would appreciate it if you could cite the title and author’s name so that I could look into it.

  6. For the record, I try to avoid “silly” statements. There is a balance between directness and bombast and I am sincerely trying to speak and write more directly. Bradley’s book left me with precisely that opinion and I stated precisely what I meant.

  7. Whatever one thinks of masculinity or the lack of in the church, or TR’s speech, the use of “muscular Christianity” in the post title is unfortunate. What was known as “muscular Christianity” in the 19th century was a heresy, and one with a particular anti-Catholic streak. Blessed Newman was one of its strongest critics.

  8. Well I haven’t read the book yet G-Veg, but I guess I will have to in order to critique it. It has received decidedly mixed reviews on Amazon:

    From the reviews, it appears that the author, (The Flag of Our Fathers author) blames Roosevelt for the fact that his father had to fight in the Pacific in World War II, which strikes me as utterly bizarre, if that is his argument.

    This review, if accurate, is damning:

    I did not use the term manifestly silly to be unkind or offensive but simply to indicate how far off the mark the statement was from the historical record. Apparently Bradley has made TR into some sort of devil figure in his mind who set the ground work for World War II and I therefore can understand how he would wish to mangle the historical record to support his thesis.

  9. Here we have Bradley claiming that Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize was more deserved than Roosevelt’s for ending the Russo-Japanese War:

    He betrays a complete misunderstanding of the negotiations. Roosevelt actually tilted towards Russia in the negotiations and convinced the Japanese to tone down their demands. The treaty was immensely unpopular with the Japanese people.

  10. “What was known as “muscular Christianity” in the 19th century was a heresy, and one with a particular anti-Catholic streak. Blessed Newman was one of its strongest critics.”

    I doubt if what Cardinal Newman was criticizing had anything to do with the remarks made by Roosevelt. As for it being a heresy, proof please rather than simple assertion. Charles Kingsley, the great antagonist of Newman was associated with the term, but Newman did not attack him over that, but rather because he libeled the truthfulness of Newman and the the Church.

  11. Muscular Christianity was a movement within Protestantism which grew up in the early 20th vcentury. It reacted against the Victorian ethos, feeling that the West was going in to decline. To counteract the decadence, a muscular war-like ethos was needed to breath new life and vigor into the nation. Roosevelt was an ardent champoin of this.

  12. Paul once warned me about challenging you on things historical. He was quite right.

    I am justly chastised for letting one source rule my thoughts on a subject to which I had given no great thought. I should have done research before speaking on the matter.

    Mea culpa.

  13. “To counteract the decadence, a muscular war-like ethos was needed to breath new life and vigor into the nation. Roosevelt was an ardent champoin of this.”

    TR was always a proponent of the strenuous life. For me, strenuous means walking the ten minutes between my home and office. Certain things I admire only from afar!

  14. Yes, the strenuous life was its name. The Victorian period left some people thinking we’d grown effete. Some even held we needed a good war to get us back on track.

  15. Some, but not Roosevelt. He was ready to fight if necessary, but he preferred to deter aggression if possible through strength. For all the talk of his big stick policy, after he concluded the Filipino Insurrection, his administration was one of the most peaceful of the last century.

  16. Yes, aside from his ‘big stick’ stance toward territories; a group arose in New England to promote anti-imperialism feeling that empire (overreach) represented decadence. Incidentally, T. Roosevelt initiated the environmental movement to get back to nature. It’s hard to believe that as far back as that tiem pepoel worried about these things. Guess that’s why Spengler penned his Decline shortly thereafter. Yes, I know it’s an unreadable tome, relatively speaking.

  17. Harry Emerson Fosdick seized on muscular protestantism to promote liberal Christianity. He likened Jesus to a businessman. (Foskick was kicked out of the Presbyterian Church and forced to preach under the Baptists; he was eventually given a church in New York.)

  18. Donald,

    As I value your opinion, could you recommend a biography of Pres. Roosevelt for someone who has not yet read one?

    Also, generally speaking, what is your opinion of Pres. Roosevelt, both as a man and a president?

  19. There really hasn’t been a biography written worthy of the man yet. It is a daunting challenge because Roosevelt packed so many lives into his 60 years: historian, reformer, rancher, politician, Undersecretary of the Navy, soldier, Governor of New York, President, explorer, naturalist, etc. Roosevelt his entire life was a vortex of activity and chronicling it all is an arduous task. Edmund Morris, who wrote an appallingly bad bio of Reagan, has produced two good volumes on Roosevelt. The third and final volume, Colonel Roosevelt, has just been published, but I haven’t read it yet.

    A recent book has culled together TR’s writings on American history, and reading it gives a good sense of the man.

  20. I love Roosevelt as a man. He was always optimistic and led life at the charge. Whatever he did, he did with explosive energy. He was never half-hearted about anything. He was a good family man and a good husband. He loved God, his country and his family, and genuinely seemed to like most people who came into contact with him. As one of his enemies said, “Someone would have to hate him a lot, not to like him a little.”

  21. As President, I liked his foreign policy and his program of peace through strength. He brought the US onto the world stage, and he accomplished it in a peaceful manner after the Spanish-American war and the Philippine Insurrection, although Colombians might well differ with me on that point in reference to the Panama Canal. He stood up for civil rights for blacks, he desegregated the New York schools when governor for instance, when that stance doubtless cost him votes. I think he was too enamored of regulation of business and he came near socialism in some of his wilder utterances against Trusts. Of course in his day the Federal government was miniscule in comparison to what it is today, but without a doubt he started us in that direction. His conservation policies I believe were wise and have little to do with the eco mania that has had a negative impact on our economy in recent decades. I certainly would have voted for him in 04 and I might even have voted for him in 12.

  22. On “The Imperial Cruise” – I made the mistake of buying it when it came out, and I must agree he has a chip on his shoulder (to understate things.) Knowing that history is always complicated, I didn’t take offense when he started racializing everything about late 19th-early 20th century America and deconstructing Roosevelt, but when really got alarm bells ringingwas when he tried to paint the 16th-18th century Jesuit missionaries to the Orient (like the ones who went to China and Japan) as vanguards of Western imperialism. True, the Spanish takeover of the Philippines probably did influence Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s decision to start the persecution, but the missionaries themselves (save one or two exceptions) were definitely not proponents of evangelization via conquest. (In fact, during the Chinese Rites Controversy, the Jesuits accused their Dominican rivals – i.e. it was considered a bad thing.)

    As for TR and Colombia, have you read David McCullough’s “The Path Between the Seas”? Ironically, prior to the Panama revolution Colombia had been arguably the USA’s greatest friend in South America, and a semi-working democracy to boot. TR and his cabinet, however, mistakenly thought the Colombian president, José Manuel Marroquín, was simply another Banana Republic dictator, and so…

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