We in the World Council of Churches remember former US senator and 1972 presidential candidate George S. McGovern, who passed away on October 21, 2012, for his dedication as a Christian layman to the search for church unity and for his role in lobbying for an end to global hunger and the establishment of racial justice in his own country and internationally.

As the chair of a landmark 1969 world conference on racism sponsored by the WCC, George McGovern helped point the churches on the way toward a united approach to combating racial injustice in apartheid South Africa and throughout the earth.

The Notting Hill world conference on racism

Senator McGovern had served as a delegate of the Methodist Church (now the United Methodist Church) to the WCC 4th Assembly at Uppsala, Sweden in 1968. One of the principal topics of that assembly was racism, and the following year Senator McGovern agreed to moderate the WCC conference on racism at Notting Hill in London and to act as an interpreter of its findings. The second general secretary of the WCC, Eugene Carson Blake, observed at the end of that turbulent conference that over the previous forty years, one ecumenical gathering after another had produced “some thirty statements, documents and resolutions castigating racial prejudice and discrimination.” He and McGovern pledged that Notting Hill would produce practical results.

The report of the Notting Hill conference led the WCC Central Committee to establish the Programme to Combat Racism and the Special Fund to Combat Racism, key ministries that provided direct support to those struggling against apartheid and other forms of injustice. This action was due in no small part to the ecumenical leadership of George S. McGovern.

The ministry of the laity

Senator McGovern was raised in a Wesleyan Methodist manse, the son of a pastor in the farming country of South Dakota. Following service as a bomber pilot in World War II that convinced him of the necessity of peacemaking and reconciliation, he studied at Garrett Evangelical Divinity School in Evanston, Illinois and served as a student pastor before turning his attention to doctoral studies and the teaching of history.

Even though he chose not to seek ministerial ordination following his theological studies, George McGovern’s career provides an exemplary case study in the ministry of the Christian laity.

Confronting hunger and warfare

McGovern took a particular interest in ways that North American agriculture could provide resources for feeding the world. During the early years of John F. Kennedy’s administration, McGovern was the first director of the Food for Peace programme. Early in the 21st century, he would be appointed by the World Food Programme as the first UN Ambassador on World Hunger. In 2008, he was honoured as co-recipient of the World Food Prize.

As a senator, McGovern pushed for an early end to the war in Vietnam. Shortly after the Uppsala Assembly, he became an anti-war candidate at the 1968 Democratic Convention. McGovern won nomination as the 1972 presidential candidate of the Democratic Party but was defeated by incumbent president Richard Nixon.

Practical service in church and community

George McGovern took a pastoral and practical approach to challenges he met. After the tragic death of one of his daughters, he wrote a profoundly personal memoir of her struggles with alcoholism and mental illness. The proceeds from sale of that book made possible the creation of the Teresa McGovern Center in Madison, Wisconsin where patients and their families are able to find help in time of need.

A teen-aged steward at the WCC Assembly at Uppsala in 1968 who helped George and Eleanor McGovern settle into their accommodations recalled recently, “He was a senator, and a few weeks later he would become a presidential candidate. Yet he and his wife were travelling without any aides or security, and they happily accepted an ordinary student dormitory room at the University of Uppsala. He was a modest and a friendly man, there to work for his church and to serve God’s kingdom.”

May his example of Christian service, and his memory, be eternal.

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
WCC general secretary