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Walking softly

Walking softly

But Teddy Roosevelt carried a big knowledge of Scripture

He's on Mount Rushmore. Teddy bears were named after him. One of his favorite expressions was, "Bully for you."

That's about as much as most Americans know about Theodore Roosevelt, the first president to take office in the 20th century. But Christians especially should know more, because "TR" was a president who took the Bible literally and applied it thoughtfully to public policy questions. That's something presidents now, even (and perhaps especially) if they quote Scripture, do not do.

President Roosevelt, born on October 27, 1858-mark the date on your calendars as one on which to bake a presidential birthday cake-grew up as a covenant child in a home of Dutch Reformed background.

At age three he began to memorize psalms and hymns, and a few years later he was outlining the major points of the sermon every Sunday and studying its biblical citations. (Those who knew Mr. Roosevelt as an adult said he had an extraordinary biblical knowledge and could "repeat at will long portions of Scripture.")

TR went on to harvard, was married on his 22nd birthday, and soon after entered the New York legislature. Then came tragedy. His wife Alice died following childbirth when he was 25: He said his pain was "beyond any healing," yet God did heal him, using months on a cattle ranch where TR often spent 14 hours a day in the saddle, and then a fruitful remarriage.

Mr. Roosevelt, appointed New York police commissioner, often walked the streets to learn about poverty and crime close up. The combination of biblical understanding and experiential grounding led him in 1897 to criticize, in an article titled "How Not to Help Our Poorer Brother," both "the paper-producing, maudlin philanthropy of the free soup-kitchen" and "the socialists who are always howling about the selfishness of the rich and their unwillingness to do anything for those who are less well off."

TR emphasized that a poor person's enemy is the "leader, whether philanthropist or politician, who tries to teach him that he is a victim of conspiracy and injustice, when in reality he is merely working out his fate with blood and sweat as the immense majority of men who are worthy of the name always have done and always will have to do." After Mr. Roosevelt became a legitimate hero charging up several hills during the Spanish-American War, he quickly became governor, vice president, and then president when William McKinley was assassinated.

Mr. Roosevelt's speeches as president consistently showed an emphasis on a clear and concrete application of biblical commandments, not a subjective morality. Here's a typical TR comment, from 1906: "The Eighth Commandment reads: 'Thou shall not steal.' It does not read: 'Thou shall not steal from the rich man.' It does not read: 'Thou shall not steal from the poor man.' It reads simply and plainly: 'Thou shall not steal.'"

President Roosevelt also opposed stealing in governmental ways, such as through tax-forced redistribution of income: "No good whatever will come from that warped and mock morality which denounces the misdeeds of men of wealth and forgets the misdeeds practiced at their expense." He fought the growing socialist movement of his time by showing that those on the left "do not correct the evils at all, or else only do so at the expense of producing others in aggravated form."

TR used governmental action against several large companies that were trying to hamper free trade by cornering the market in their fields, but he argued that "the sphere of the state's action should be extended very cautiously, and so far as possible only where it will not crush out healthy individual initiative." When those who dreamed of a welfare state asked him for support, TR chastised them for "mere sentimentality" and noted, "It is eminently desirable that we should none of us be hard-hearted, but it is no less desirable that we should not be soft-headed."

Roosevelt's emphasis on empowering individuals-on having government promote the general welfare but not provide welfare to all who demand it-is needed as much at the end of this century as it was at the beginning. His style of progressivism, one that emphasizes individual dedication to both liberty and virtue, has at least as strong a claim to the name "progressive" as that which makes a god of government. Republican statesmen do not have to think that the road to progress runs through whatever new Eden the latest White House manifesto conjures up.