10/22/2012 10:49 am ET Updated Dec 22, 2012

George McGovern And The Social Gospel Movement To End Hunger

NEW YORK -- Mainline Protestants get a bad rap these days, whether for being out of touch, living in the past or for sometimes lapsing into "I-know-better-than-you-do" rhetoric.

True sometimes, I suppose, but let's not forget that the reform impulse imbedded in mainline Protestantism has, for more than a century, led to real and substantial change in the areas of civil and human rights. A commitment to justice in general has been a core value for many mainline Protestants.

The life of George McGovern - the son of a Methodist minister and himself briefly a seminary student at a Methodist institution - is a reminder of the good of that Protestant reform impulse, rooted in the Social Gospel movements of the early and mid-20th century.

McGovern, of course, will be best known for his failed 1972 presidential bid -- a campaign that by his own admission was not one for the history books, except in its lopsided result. McGovern lost in a rout to Richard Nixon, though McGovern could take vindication in Nixon's eventual resignation as president. (Though it says a lot about 1972 Democratic presidential nominee that, as a fundamentally decent man, McGovern did not gloat about Nixon's downfall.)

McGovern, who died Sunday (Oct. 21), could also take history's vindication in his long-standing opposition to the Vietnam War. But McGovern's real legacy may rest elsewhere. A cornerstone of the Democrat's career was being a consistent advocate in the cause of fighting hunger and malnutrition.

Before serving as a U.S. senator from South Dakota, McGovern served the Kennedy administration as director of the U.S. Food for Peace program. After he left the Senate, he served as U.S. Ambassador to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization in the Clinton administration. In one of his final roles, McGovern was named the UN's international emissary on hunger.

A decade ago, when the U.S. was still reeling from the after-effects of 9/11 - and hunger was hardly at the forefront of discussions about global security -- McGovern penned a memorable reminder about the importance of fighting hunger.

In The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time, McGovern argued that the issue of hunger needed to be addressed anew. He advocated for, among other things, a universal - that is, global - school lunch program, with the United States leading the way. McGovern's model was the supplemental nutrition program for low-income women and infants known as WIC.

Sound quixotic? Maybe to those who don't follow the ins and outs of the humanitarian world. But for some time now, the United States Department of Agriculture has implemented the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program - a global school feeding program that the USDA says "promotes education, child development, and food security for some of the world's poorest children."

It is no accident the program was named in honor of both McGovern and former Senator Robert Dole, who in an earlier time of real bipartisanship, were able to work together and forge coalitions and forge a consensus among Democrats and Republicans on such issues as fighting childhood hunger, both internationally and domestically, (For their work together, McGovern and Dole were awarded the 2008 World Food Prize.)

In many ways, it is hardly a surprise that McGovern and his Republican colleague from Kansas were able to find common cause. Both hailed from that very special part of the country where people know about the rigors of farm and land, about the threats to country and town. Both grew up Methodists. And both were grounded in a Midwestern church and education culture that has an acute awareness of hunger-related issues.

It was at Minnesota's Macalester College - a school with Presbyterian roots - where I first studied issues related to global hunger. Well before I joined the staff of Church World Service, I knew about CWS's grassroots CROP Hunger Walks, which raise awareness about hunger and the funds to help combat it. CROP Hunger Walks are anticipated yearly events in the communities where I lived and worked in Minnesota.

And while I am not a Lutheran, I was fully aware, as a young journalist, of the special role fighting hunger and poverty meant to Midwest Lutherans through the anti-hunger programs of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

These are all examples of long and solid commitments, rooted in mainline Protestant traditions, that have had an impact on the broader, secular culture. As in George McGovern's case, they often represent a life's dedication to promoting human dignity in a broken world.

Unfortunately, that is a world where, as George McGovern well knew, hunger and malnutrition still claim far too many victims.