William Jennings Bryan, Billy Graham & the Evolution of Christian Populism in America

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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24 Responses

  1. Avatar Katherine says:

    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.”

    Would that we could get churches to support this today! The World Bank is a far cry from this vision, the IMF even more so.

    William Jennings Brian’s Christianity is closer to mine than most forms that exist in politics today (though I have no issues with evolution, and it’s a pity the controversy over than tarnished – even overwhelmed – the rest of his legacy. I was deeply disappointed in the recent KCTS documentary on religion in America focused on the evolution controversy to the exclusion of almost everything else about him). Tommy Douglas is another of the same mold – the Christian pastor who was the father of Canada’s public health care system. The left and the church have largely parted ways since then (with the exception of some Christians like Jim Wallis, but even those seem impelled to adopt left-wing positions on social issues just as right-wing Christians are expected to march in lockstep with the Republicans). Today’s NDP in Canada would be unrecognizable, and perhaps distasteful, to Tommy Douglas.Report

  2. Well said, Katherine. As Erik knows, I’m a fan of WJB and the populist “social conservatism and economic leftism”position myself–and moreover, also a fan of the old CCF that Douglas led before it merged to become the NDP. True Red Tory/Christian democratic alternatives are pretty thin on the ground these days–and likely to remain so, for the reasons Erik mentions as well as others.Report

    • Avatar Katherine says:

      It’s strange that, although Red Toryism as I understand it is the opposite of my political positions (ie, it’s socially libertarian and economically conservative), I tend to respect red tories more than I do many conventional liberals and conservatives. Maybe because it’s less likely to be associated with extreme partisanship.Report

  3. Excellent post, Erik.

    Katherine, it is indeed a shame how evolution has dominated Bryan’s memory. His efforts at the Scopes trial shouldn’t be separated from his other progressive stands. He, like very many of his contemporaries, saw Darwin’s theory as something with deeply anti-progressive political implications. His stand for the little guy against the forces of capital and imperium was informed by his faith in the created dignity of man. At the same time, the imperial capitalism of his opponents found support in their naive political readings of Darwin. Bryan’s stand was a very understandable and well-motivated mistake in a career of immense integrity. As such, it merits historical sympathy instead of the scorn heaped on it by Mencken’s lazier readers.Report

  4. Avatar Roberto says:

    What Wilkinson is described is reflective of the differences between protestantism in the North and Midwest, as exemplified by Bryan, and its Southern variant. Bryan was an heir to a kind of post-millennial protestantism whose practical and secular — as in pertaining to this age — effects were an emphasis on reform, both personal and institutional. Contrary to the claims of many modern Evangelicals, it was these folks who opposed slavery, child labor laws and championed universal suffrage. They also pushed for prohibition out of the same meliorist impulse, an impulse that, grossly oversimplified, wanted to created the best possible world for the Savior’s return.

    The liberal-modernist split helped to coalesce the fundamentalist/neo-evangelical wing that Graham represents. It was already on the rise in the latter part of the nineteenth century but the split helped turned what was one expression of conservative protestant Christianity into the dominant one. By the time of the Time piece there was, to use suitably biblical language, a “great chasm” between the folks depicted in the piece and the fundamentalist/neo-evangelical protestants. After the war, they rode Graham’s coattails and made what was largely a regional expression of faith into a national one. Along the way, people like Bryan were forgotten or, more to the point, left to his critics to describe.

    It’s sad in so many ways: I work near the center of the “Religious Right.” They don’t trust the Republican leadership but they can’t imagine an alternative. Some dream of a third party like the ones in Europe but our “winner take all” two-party system won’t allow that.Report

  5. Avatar Roberto says:

    BTW, please forgive the typos.Report

  6. Avatar Elvis Elvisberg says:

    Bryan’s social conservatism and economic leftism

    Was it perceived as “leftism” at the time?Report

    • Avatar Roberto says:

      @Elvis Elvisberg, In a word, no. Expressions like “socialist” and even “communist” were thrown around pretty freely in Byran’s time and the terms, as best I can recall, were never applied to him and his fellow populists. (In fact, a Google search of “William Jennings Bryan” and “leftist” has your question near the top.)
      The pejoratives were more class and region-based. In many ways, populist resentments bore a remarkable, if superficial, resemblance to the resentment of Sarah Palin and company, except that the original populists had identified their enemies as the people whom, you know, actually oppressed them.
      Since Alfred Kazin’s book, “A Godly Hero,” was published a kind of cottage industry of Christian intellectuals asking the question “what happened?” has emerged. Bryan is the ancestor today’s conservative Protestants don’t want to acknowledge: not only were his economic views closer to what we would call “liberal” — actually, in some ways they are closer to the Distributism championed by Belloc and Chesterton — but his foreign policy views were absolutely McGovernite: he resigned as Secretary of State because he thought that Wilson was leading us into involvement in WWI. His attitude was that Americans traveling on belligerent, i.e., British vessels had assumed the risk and had no business expecting the U.S. to get involved if their bet went south.
      Can you imagine a “religious right” leader staking out an analogous position today? This goes beyond not “supporting the troops” to “wanting the terrorists to win.”
      McKinley said that God wanted the U.S. to occupy the Philippines so that the Filipinos could be converted to Christianity. (Apparently “God” forgot that the islands had been Catholic for 300 years.) Byran said that God wanted us to leave them alone.
      Man, I miss him.Report

      • Avatar Elvis Elvisberg says:

        @Roberto, terrific stuff, thanks for your well-informed answer. It seems like we’re very much into imposing our left vs. right framework on the past, but it doesn’t always hold very well– especially because the parties weren’t ideologically coherent until around the 1970s, or maybe even 1994.Report

  7. Avatar MFarmer says:

    “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.”

    Can you explain how this is natural pairing?Report

    • Avatar Katherine says:

      Well, to give my sense of it:

      A secular, free-market party would have a consistent position against government intervention. Due to the lack of religious social conservatism, it would include libertarian economic views that are currently anathema to most self-defined conservatives, such as support for legalizing drugs and prostitution.

      On the flip side, Christian economic leftism would support economic policies designed around Biblical beliefs in human dignity, concern for the poor, desire for peace, and skepticism about the value of wealth as an end in itself or as an indicator of merit.

      It strikes me that this would be a create a fairly straightforward libertarian vs. statist party system (which does make it odd that a fair number of people on this libertarian-leaning blog seem to like Bryan). As things stand, there’s really no rationale for why wanting lower taxes should be associated with disliking gay marriage or abortion, it’s just how the interest group coalitions line up.Report

  8. Avatar MFarmer says:

    Oh, I thought this was about alliances, not a different two party system — I read through too quickly.Report

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