Christopher Gehrz, Charles Lindbergh: A Religious Biography of America’s Most Infamous Pilot, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2021, 265 pages.
Charles Lindbergh is simultaneously the most fascinating and the most frustrating individual I have ever encountered. Since December 2019, I have been cataloging the Missouri Historical Society’s collection of over 2000 objects that Lindbergh donated following his May 1927 New York to Paris flight. The collection ranges from artifacts carried on that flight to the hundreds of medals and awards he received, personal effects, artwork, two aircraft, jewelry, and the random gifts people and governments sent him or gave him and his wife, Anne, on their travels. In studying the material culture owned by and given to Lindbergh, I have learned a lot about him. Perhaps I have learned too much.
I imagine Christopher Gehrz, professor of history at Bethel University in Lindbergh’s home state of Minnesota, might also say he has learned too much about Lindbergh in the course of writing the latest biography on the aviator. There have been many biographies written about Lindbergh since the pilot, outspoken isolationist, and conservationist died in 1974, with A. Scott Berg’s 1998 biography widely considered to be the standard text on Lindbergh’s life.
A lot has come out of the woodwork on Lindbergh since 1998, most prominently the discovery of his multiple extramarital affairs and the children he had with three German women. Over the past twenty years, historians have also unpacked Lindbergh’s legacy in light of his views on eugenics and race, as well as his anti-Semitic remarks made during his isolationist America First speeches in the run-up to World War II.
Despite the numerous books that have been written about Lindbergh over the years, one aspect of his life has been woefully overlooked, until now. Gehrz’s biography is the first to analyze Lindbergh’s life, writings, and actions through a religious lens. Perhaps you might not think religious or spiritual when you think of Charles Lindbergh (if you even think of him at all – increasing numbers of people I run across have never even heard of him). That would be fair, since Lindbergh was not an orthodox Christian. He did not believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, yet he was fascinated by Jesus and thought deeply about his own spirituality. Lindbergh’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1953 book The Spirit of St. Louis drips with religious imagery, as do some of his other later writings.
Gehrz’s biography investigates Lindbergh’s beliefs and writings on Jesus, religion, spirituality, the afterlife, and how Lindbergh’s beliefs influenced his actions. Through intense archival research and analysis of published works, Gehrz unpacks Lindbergh’s spiritual complexity. Since Lindbergh’s spirituality flourished in his later years (he was only 25 when he made his famous flight), the foundational part of Gehrz’s argument rests upon the period of Lindbergh’s life spanning the 1930s until his death. The book begins by looking at the religious elements in the lives of Lindbergh’s parents and grandparents, shining a light on the rather unorthodox beliefs in which he grew up.
This book is perhaps best suited for those who already know the fundamental stories of Lindbergh’s life: his 1927 flight, his marriage to Anne Morrow, the 1932 kidnapping and murder of their son, dubbed the “crime of the century,” and Lindbergh’s involvement in the isolationist America First committee from 1940-41. Gehrz touches on Lindbergh’s early life and the 1927 flight, but he does not dwell on those periods as that is not the point of the book. Instead he briefly tells those stories through a religious lens. It is quite the literary feat to pull this narrative style off. I am fascinated and impressed by Gehrz’s skills as a writer. He tells a familiar story in a brand new way.
Gehrz looks at his subject openly and honestly. When I sat down to read this book, I honestly expected it to be a hate-fest, but it isn’t. He simply tells the story of Lindbergh’s spiritual side in a “matter-of-fact” way, which I believe is how history should be written. Gehrz also tells this story in a very readable way. The book flows very well, and it is exceptionally well written. The biography is very focused, which makes it digestible in a way a broader biography might not be. I actually found the book to be quite the page-turner.
One of my few complaints with this tale of Lindbergh’s spirituality is one omission: there is no discussion of Lindbergh’s involvement in freemasonry. Lindbergh was a 32nd degree freemason in the Scottish Rite. He attained that level in a masonic temple in St. Louis, Missouri, when he was working as an airmail pilot prior to his transatlantic flight. I have cataloged a few artifacts given to him by that masonic group as well as others across the nation. My frustration in researching those objects was how little I could find about Lindbergh’s masonic past. About all I could find were references to it in newspapers at the time. I assume Gehrz does not mention it because either he was not aware or because there is no additional information about that part of Lindbergh’s life. There appears to be little to no related primary sources, apart from the gold masonic gifts held in the Missouri Historical Society collection. (Shameless self promotion: a coworker and I wrote a blog post about objects in the collection connected to secret societies, including a few masonic pieces: https://mohistory.org/blog/secret-societies/.)
If Gehrz had come across information related to Lindbergh’s masonic involvement, he probably would have included it. It is possible that Lindbergh never had anything to do with freemasonry after he left St. Louis. Maybe we will never know.
One of Gehrz’s best contributions to the Lindbergh story is his analysis of Lindbergh’s journal entries from the run-up to World War II. Lindbergh published these journals in an edited form in 1970, but Gehrz dug into the original journals housed at Yale. What Lindbergh omitted from their published form says a lot.
Perhaps the most offensive thing Gehrz uncovers in his book is a journal entry from November 5, 1940 where Lindbergh, in recounting a conversation he had with friends, questions the validity of universal franchise, specifically arguing that African Americans should not be allowed to vote. In the same entry, Lindbergh discussed “the Jewish problem,” hoping to solve that “problem” without resorting to the violent racism seen in Nazi Germany (page 135).
One cannot help but be disappointed and angry with Lindbergh at such statements. Many have accused Lindbergh of being a Nazi sympathizer, which I think goes a stretch too far and misses a lot of the nuance of Lindbergh’s actions in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Nevertheless, Lindbergh, at least at this point in his life, held racist views of other human beings who are created in the image of God. He never publicly repented of such beliefs.
Gehrz’s honesty with the reader is refreshing. Rather than a distant biographer, Gehrz reminds us of his presence without inserting himself needlessly. The following is my favorite paragraph of the whole book because it perfectly encapsulates how I have felt about Lindbergh over the past twenty months of studying him (page 138):
It can’t be you! If not as intensely as his youngest child, that’s still how most of us feel when we come to this chapter in the story of Charles Lindbergh. If we have any appreciation for his historic achievements, any admiration for his courage and modesty, any compassion for the tragedies he endured, or if we simply nod along with the honest questions he asked about God, science, and mortality, we don’t want to accept that he believed what he said about Jews.
Even so, it is hard not to be a little sympathetic towards Lindbergh. The man was treated as if he were the Messiah. Gehrz has a chapter entitled “The New Christ,” where he discusses the religious language used to embrace Lindbergh following his 1927 flight. An entire monograph could be written about the reasons why Americans and Europeans embraced Lindbergh with the enthusiasm they did. Gehrz argues that the media and public created a version of Lindbergh that fit what they wanted: “Lindy.” Gehrz writes,
For all the public scrutiny that would soon make Charles Lindbergh more protective of his privacy, no one was interested in uncovering the more complicated story of their hero’s upbringing, influences, and beliefs. Whether politicians or pastors, reporters or their readers, Americans wanted a type, not a person: Lindy, not Lindbergh. (page 64)
The media pressure on Lindbergh was intense. How is any mortal man supposed to live up to the Messiah image the public created? Add to that the kidnapping and murder of his firstborn son a few years later, which he perhaps rightly blamed on press publicity. None of this excuses his racism and lack of compassion for those he deemed lesser than himself, but it is clear that America set Lindbergh up to fail. For that I cannot help but pity him, even if I find some of his beliefs to be offensive and sinful.
The saddest part of Lindbergh’s story, however, is how it ends. Based upon Gehrz’s research and narrative of Lindbergh’s final days, I see no evidence that Lindbergh ever let go of his arrogance and pride and acknowledged Jesus as Lord and Savior. Maybe he had some sort of deathbed conversion as he died of cancer at his home on Maui, but based upon the witness of those who spent those last days with him, it does not sound like it.
In that regard, let Charles Lindbergh be a warning to us all. Lindbergh knew that scientific achievement falls far short in its attempts to explain the meaning of life, but his example also shows us that unsanctified human reason also falls short. Christopher Gehrz’s biography does an excellent job of exploring that aspect of Lindbergh’s life.