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What Religion Means to Me
by Eleanor Roosevelt, an Article in Forum (December 1932)
It is generally conceded that in a world where material values seem to be dropping out of sight further and further day by day, there is a growing realization that something else is needed. Some of us even feel that amidst the many evils and sorrows and injustices which are the fruit of what we call the depression, there may be emerging one thing which will be of permanent value to us all-namely, a new standard which will set above everything else certain spiritual values. In our mad haste for more and more money and more and more luxury we had almost forgotten to count these as part of our heritage in this country.
And yet most of us who are in the forties and fifties today can look back to a childhood where religion and religious instruction were part of our everyday life, but we have come so far away from those days that in writing this article I even feel that I must begin by defining what I mean by religion. To me religion has nothing to do with any specific creed or dogma. It means that belief and that faith in the heart of a man which makes him try to live his life according to the highest standard which he is able to visualize. To those of us who were brought up as Christians that standard is the life of Christ, and it matters very little whether our creed is Catholic or Protestant.
To those of us who happen to have been born and brought up under other skies or in other creeds, the object to be attained goes by some other name, but in all cases the thing which counts is the striving of the human soul to achieve spiritually the best that it is capable of and to care unselfishly not only for personal good but for the good of all those who toil with them upon the earth.
Having established this as the meaning of religion, I can go back and speak for a moment of what most of us with Anglo-Saxon forebears remember as religious training in our youth. Sunday was, indeed, a day set apart from other days and some of the things decreed by my grandmother, who brought me up, I personally very much resented. I could not play games on Sunday; I had to sit on the uncomfortable small seat in my grandmother’s large Victoria and drive five miles to and from church; I had special books which I was only allowed to read on Sundays, and I could not read the story in which I might happen to be interested. But I really enjoyed learning the Bible verses and the hymns, which always had to be memorized for Sunday morning, and I have never to this day quite got over the real pleasure of singing hymns on Sunday evening, after supper, as a family. These were very agreeable things and besides your elders had more time to talk to you. They even took little people for very pleasant walks on Sunday afternoons and in the winter I can remember open fires and books read aloud, which to this day carry me back to a happy atmosphere. But this religious training was not just an affair of Sundays-there were family prayers every morning and you grew up with the feeling that you had a share in some great spiritual existence beyond the everyday round of happenings.
Many of us have seen changes in religious thought since then, and God and religion may have come to mean many different things to many people, but I doubt if any of us have ever completely lost that feeling of having something outside of one’s self and greater than one’s self to depend on. There never has been a time when that feeling is more needed than it is today. People in trouble need just what little children need-a sense of security, a sense of something greater than their own powers to turn to and depend on.
The worst thing that has come to us from the depression is fear. Fear of an uncertain future, fear of not being able to meet our problems, fear of not being equipped to cope with life as we live it today. We need some of the old religious spirit which said, “I myself am weak but Thou art strong Oh Lord!” That was the spirit which brought people to this country, which settled it, which carried men and women through untold hardships, and which has given us our heritage of comparative ease and comfort.
After I left home and went to school I came under the influence of a very interesting woman who proclaimed that she had no religion and that the Christians, from her point of view, were rather to be looked down upon because they did right for gain. It might not be gain in this world but it was for gain in the next, and therefore the only people of real virtue were those who believed that there was no future life, but who wished to help those around them to do what was right purely through an interest in their fellow human beings and a desire to see right triumph just because it was right. I was too young to come back then with the obvious retort that making those around you happy makes you happy yourself, and that therefore you are seeking a reward just as much as if you were asking for your reward in a future life, and that perhaps what we know as good in life and what we here think of as praise-worthy will not be counted at all as a spiritual achievement by some more understanding judge. That is why we all of us, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not, do crave the belief in some power greater than ourselves and beyond our understanding-because we know in our hearts that deeds and outward things mean little and that only someone who can gauge what striving there has been can really judge of what a human soul has achieved.
Today I am an Episcopalian, as I was as a child, but I feel that this makes me neither better nor worse than those who belong to any other church. I believe in the habits of regular churchgoing and regular work for the church because there is help for us all in doing things in common and we care more for things that we give to, of our time, of our material wealth, and of our thought. But these are the outward symbols which should proclaim inner growth, and it is the inner growth which is important. If people can attain it without the help of what might be called religious routine, that is for them to decide. The fundamental, vital thing which must be alive in each human consciousness is the religious teaching that we cannot live for ourselves alone and that as long as we are here on this earth we are all of us brothers, regardless of race, creed, or color.
We must honestly try to put into practice some of the things which have always been considered too visionary to be actually tried in everyday life. We cannot give lip service alone to religion today. We hear constantly that prosperity will soon return, that this or that will bring about better business conditions, but we know of many people who have gone down under the strain of material loss and misfortune. The increasing number of suicides makes us realize that many people are feeling that life is too hard to cope with. That feeling would not exist if out of this depression we could revive again any actual understanding of what it means to be responsible for one’s brother. Perhaps the parable of the rich man fits today very admirably, only we are not allowed to voluntarily place ourselves in his position. It is neatly done for us and our part is simply to see that we learn our lesson aright and that we profit by it, and that instead of sinking under the weight of fear we find our souls strengthened by the knowledge that we are part of some great scheme and that our courage springs up from deep wells of tradition, for our forefathers knew that there was a God who gave us strength and who ordered the world in which we live, but that we had to put forth our own strength to the utmost before our spirits could be upheld.
Out of these troublous times perhaps this knowledge will come back to us, and if it does a new day may really dawn for us all. Failure, however, must cease to mean material loss; it is the way we meet adversity, not adversity itself, which counts. If we have life and love and health and hope and a vision to strive for, then we are not failures, but if we are to hold this point of view real religion must be supreme on earth.
It has been true in the past that in all times of great crises there has been a revival of religious feeling. We are going through a time when vast numbers of our people are facing loss of things which they hold dear, some of them are facing actual starvation-though I think we have come to a point where our social conscience has become keen enough for us to make every attempt as a people to prevent, wherever we know of it, actual starvation. It is looked upon today as one of the duties of government to see that no one starves, and that is something which would not have even been thought of two hundred years ago.
But there are many other by-products of the depression which do as much harm as actual starvation. The lack of work, the feeling of helplessness, and the inevitable lowering in many families of the standard of living have a sad effect upon the general morale and habits of life of all the members of the family. Little by little it is being borne in upon us that it is not only life which we have a right to preserve, but that there is something more precious which the need of material things may stamp out of the human soul. Therefore it behooves us so to order our civilization that all can live in the security of having the necessities of life, and that each individual according to his abilities and his vision may at the same time preserve his hope for future growth.
This is Utopia perhaps, and many years distant, but it seems to me that it is the goal of real civilization, and it also seems to me that only through a revival of true religion are we going to achieve this goal. When religion becomes again a part of our daily lives, when we are not content only with so living that our neighbors consider us just men, and when we really strive to put into practice that which in moments of communion with ourselves we know to be the highest standard of which we are capable, then religion will mean in each life what I think it should mean. We will follow the outward observances because they give us help and strength, but we will live day by day with the consciousness of a greater power and of greater understanding than our own to guide us and protect us and spur us on.
Source: Forum 88 (December 1932): 322-24, Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, http://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/documents/articles/whatreligionmeans.cfm. Accessed (October 1,2014).