William Jennings Bryan, Billy Graham & the Evolution of Christian Populism in America
Will Wilkinson has a really fascinating piece up over at Democracy in America on the effects the cold-war on American Protestantism, and particularly the influence of Billy Graham thanks to President Eisenhower and news mogul William Randolph Hearst. Will draws our attention to this 1942 Time piece on the efforts of a council of American Protestant denominations to create a program for a ‘just and durable peace’. Here’s what they came up with:
- Ultimately, "a world government of delegated powers."
- Complete abandonment of U.S. isolationism.
- Strong immediate limitations on national sovereignty.
- International control of all armies & navies.
- "A universal system of money … so planned as to prevent inflation and deflation."
- Worldwide freedom of immigration.
- Progressive elimination of all tariff and quota restrictions on world trade.
- "Autonomy for all subject and colonial peoples" (with much better treatment for Negroes in the U.S.).
- "No punitive reparations, no humiliating decrees of war guilt, no arbitrary dismemberment of nations."
- A "democratically controlled" international bank "to make development capital available in all parts of the world without the predatory and imperialistic aftermath so characteristic of large-scale private and governmental loans."
Can you believe this was ever the politics of "organised Protestantism" in America? I would note that the Federal Council of Churches is a forebear of the National Council of Churches, which has a history of liberal politics. But favouring liberal immigration reform and taking a stand against gun violence, as the NCC did this year, is a far cry from "Worldwide freedom of immigration" and "International control of all armies & navies"! What happened?
I had this very question on my mind yesterday when, over lunch, I flipped on the TV to find an episode of PBS’s "God in America" series, which more or less answered my question. (You can watch online. See episode five, "The Soul of a Nation", chapters one and two.) What happened? In short: Communism and Billy Graham.
It’s interesting that if you look far enough back to earlier Christian revivalist movements or evangelical uprisings, figures like William Jennings Bryan loom very large.These Christian populists would be pretty much politically unrecognizable in today’s political terms. Socially conservative and economically leftist, Bryan helped spur the turn-of-the-century progressive movement even while preaching traditional virtuous living.
The Cold War and Graham’s political and economic conservatism transformed evangelical Christianity from its more leftist roots into the much more nationalistic movement we see today. Bryan’s social conservatism and economic leftism – a coupling that has been largely confined to the pages of history at this point (or to the pages of this blog, whenever Lisa is writing…) represented a sort of evangelical progressivism quite foreign to the revanchist evangelism of Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell and others.
Still, I can’t help but think the merger of libertarian economic policy and Christian social conservatism is little more than a historical anomaly, ultimately fleeting. A secular free-market party on the one hand and a religious, protectionist, pro-labor party on the other hand seems like a more natural pairing. (No, strike that, the very fact that we only ever have two parties, awkwardly cobbled together, is what’s really bizarre about our system. No natural pairing can come of it.)
The growing minority demographic is still largely Democratic, but they are also generally far more socially conservative than many of the liberal intelligentsia. This demographic is unlikely to veer to the left on many social issues. And the Democratic party is likely to still find its greatest support in minority voters and unions, making the pursuit of a neoliberal, free market agenda as historically anomalous as modern evangelical support for laissez-faire economic policy.
All that being said, it’s quite likely that the rise in secular conservatism and secular leftism will simply change the dynamic of populism altogether. It’s possible all movements, all coalitions, are merely accidents of time and circumstance. Quite likely even. Though one is still left to wonder how these fickle alliances will shape in the coming years, and looking to the past is often an eerily good way to see into the future.
William Jennings Bryan ultimately met his end several days after the Scopes monkey trial, a trial he won but which forever sullied his legacy. Progressive politics had already begun to pass him by, moving toward a more secular, socially libertarian future. And Christian conservatism would soon outgrow Bryan’s old-time populism as well, haunted by the specter of communism at first, and the culture wars later. Perhaps preachers like Martin Luther King Jr. are better heirs to Bryan’s legacy. King, at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement, authored a whole new chapter in the book of Christian populism, invoking the same spirit Bryan invoked in his quest for a silver-based money or labor rights.
But even here, the supposed heirs of King’s movement have strayed much closer to contemporary mainstream Democratic policies. Jesse Jackson, once a staunch pro-lifer, has since abandoned that position in favor of the accepted mainstream pro-choice position. The Christian left is a shadow of its former self. No Bryans remain. All the Kings have toppled.
Meanwhile, on the right we see a booming industry of mega-churches and best-selling authors. Gospels of prosperity promise riches on earth and in heaven. Stadiums are filled and televangelists roam the airwaves. One wonders if even the Reverend Graham has been replaced, his legacy of fiery evangelism slowly traded for something less challenging, less profound. A gilded ghost of its former self. One that you really don’t have to commit your soul to, only your pocketbooks.