Life of Bryan

In the January issue of The American Prospect, Michael Kazin argued that the left should reorient itself toward religious faith. He recuperated the legacy of William Jennings Bryan and then encouraged “a resurgence of the social gospel” Bryan “championed.” To Kazin I say, I'm with you -- but only part of the way.

In making his case, Kazin focuses on the political uses of religious language -- the charged Christian rhetoric of Eugene Debs and the leaders of the Knights of Labor. Kazin points out that Christianity can help the left justify a belief in equality and reach ordinary Americans. There are some -- and Kazin addresses them -- who'd argue leftists should remain secular (Christopher Hitchens, if he's still a man of the left, or Susan Jacoby come to mind). But my argument is different from the atheists in our ranks: I would wave farewell to the “social gospel” but not religion.

Kazin doesn't provide a sufficient explanation of the social gospel as a belief system, and here our differences and my own story begin. There's little mention of theology in his article, and theology, or at least a cribbed version of it, must be understood to understand the social gospel.

At the turn of the last century, liberal theologians developed the Social Gospel. These thinkers hoped to encourage Christians working in settlement houses (Jane Addams herself espoused the Social Gospel) and pushing for progressive reforms like child labor laws. Social Gospelers built upon the liberalization of religious belief that took place throughout the 19th century primarily by reworking the Christian conception of sin.

The theologian Walter Rauschenbusch led the intellectual charge. He reasoned that if humans were by nature sinful then social reform was an unworthy cause. So he redefined sin as selfishness and attributed selfishness to the exploitation embedded in industrial capitalism, not in human nature. Rauschenbusch believed that if social relations became more just, sinfulness could be eradicated.

Rauschenbusch's was a message of hope and activism. “We love and serve God,” he explained in his classic A Theology for the Social Gospel, “when we love and serve our fellows, whom he loves and in whom he lives.” He believed the “Kingdom of God” -- the idea that all souls are equal in the eyes of the Lord -- was growing into a reality on earth. He defined the Kingdom of God as “the continuous revelation of the power, the righteousness, and the love of God” and as “the energy of God realizing itself in human life.” That meant good things for the left – for instance, workers' compensation and labor unions.

The proponents of the Social Gospel were optimistic about aligning social relations with Christ's teachings. And it spread throughout mainline Protestant churches during the early 20th century, finding a natural alliance with the American left which was, after all, itself hopeful, rational, and geared for activism.

But something happened during the mid-20th century, and it wasn't just a backlash against the Scopes Trial, as Kazin seems to suggest. It was the rediscovery of human evil, and following this, a rediscovery of the conception of sin. The leading American theologian who followed in the footsteps of Rauschenbusch and trampled all over his legacy was Reinhold Niebuhr. During the 1940s, Niebuhr noted the Holocaust, Stalin, and the atomic bomb, and argued that any optimism about human nature was passé. These world tragedies led Niebuhr to face the “seriousness of the sin of self-worship” and the “inability of man to escape sin by the rigor of his striving.” At the same time, he preserved his faith in some form of social justice.

Kazin doesn't discuss Niebuhr, but he does mention Martin Luther King. And here's where Kazin's and my story collide. Kazin mentions King's belief that talking about heaven wasn't enough. But, for King, nor was the Social Gospel. He realized that “liberalism's superficial optimism concerning human nature caused it to overlook the fact that reason is darkened by sin” and that Rauschenbusch had “fallen victim to the nineteenth-century ‘cult of inevitable progress.'” Following this, King -- who knew not just the Holocaust but the brutal treatment of African Americans -- believed religious optimism didn't measure up.

That didn't mean King gave up hope in social justice. His entire life testifies to the contrary. But King laced his arguments for a better society with the language of sin, selfishness, and the need to coerce the powerful.

So is my emphasis on sin and self-love just one historian quarreling with another's story? I don't think so. The left should think hard about what tradition of religion it should recuperate today. And for me, Kazin's social gospel winds up perpetuating the stereotype of liberals as overly optimistic, rational, and -- remember this old term? -- “bleeding heart.” Today isn't exactly the 1940s and 1950s, the time during which Niebuhr and King thought about sin, but nor is it the early twentieth century. There's evil in our midst, and we need to learn how to talk about it and see religion as one way to do so.

So what does my non-Social Gospel religion offer? Not just a language of equality. It also encourages liberals to condemn the radical right's naive optimism about human nature. Anyone who believes that you can strip the government of power and let the market blossom into the best of all possible worlds has not learned the lessons of sin, self-love, and power. In his own day and age, Niebuhr called the pro-business organization, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), “sentimental.” It's a perfectly apt description. And it easily applies to Grover Norquist and President Bush. These are not men who know sin and Christian humility. They are utopians enchanted with a naive sense of progress.

And speaking of humility, why shouldn't liberals take up the principle when talking about foreign policy? Sure, Bush trumpets Christianity when championing Iraq and the war on terror. But we don't help out our own arguments against the neocons by embracing Bryan's Christian pacifism. We do ourselves a service rather by showing how Christian humility tempers any ambition to extend power abroad but also demands us to face the realities of evil in the world. That's the sort of Christianity we should think about recuperating -- not only because it has a rich tradition but because it makes an effective moral argument against those in power today.


Kevin Mattson's article, “The Book of Liberal Virtues” appears in the February issue of The American Prospect. He is author of When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism and Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century (forthcoming).


I share Kevin Mattson's doubts about reviving the type of rosily optimistic social gospel that Bryan and some of his followers preached a century ago. Even if Bryan hadn't been a racist and creationist, I wouldn't share his ebullient confidence that Christian liberalism can solve all or most of the problems of a suffering world.

On the other hand, neither Bryan nor most other activist Social Gospelers were as naive about evil as Kevin contends. They may have admired Rauschenbusch's writings, but they didn't believe an ethic of service was enough. Bryan, for example, favored jailing businessmen who broke the anti-trust laws and refused to condemn most strikes, even when violence was involved. He also made clear that individual piety and good works could not cleanse the soul of a plutocrat like John D. Rockefeller. “It is not necessary,” Bryan commented, “that all Christian people shall sanction the Rockefeller method of making money merely because Rockefeller prays.” Similarly, Jane Addams campaigned hard to unseat the corrupt urban bosses in and around her Hull House settlement in Chicago.

And is religious optimism really a problem for the left today? Not since World War I have many religious liberals preached the fallacy, as Reinhold Niebuhr put it, that the Kingdom of God is not far distant and it can be brought about through human agency. Indeed, one can hear that kind of blind faith more from conservatives than from anyone on the left. As Niebuhr once scoffed about America's favorite evangelist: “[Billy] Graham honestly believes that conversion to Christianity will solve the problem of the hydrogen bomb because really redeemed men will not throw the bomb.”

As Kevin notes, Niebuhr had an important influence on the thinking of Martin Luther King Jr. when the latter studied at Crozer Seminary in Boston. But I'd argue that King updated the Social Gospel rather than rejected it. Like Bryan, he denounced the hypocrisy of the powerful and spoke, in Biblical phrases, about a future society that had done away with both racism and economic exploitation.

And that's just what religious progressives are trying to accomplish today. They realize the left needs to speak in unabashedly moral terms. Like most Americans, they base their moral claims on one or another religious tradition. This can, it is true, make for mind-numbing, “bleeding heart” pronouncements. But it can also lead to a broader analysis of the problems of postmodern capitalism, a way to talk about “the system” that draws neither on old-time Marxist dogma nor looks forward to another Great Awakening to cleanse the sins of the world.

For too long, progressives have hoped and demanded that governments solve the problems that beset our society -- and complained when conservatives starve or eliminate programs that benefit millions. But in American history, popular movements, imbued with a revivalistic ethos, have been the surest way to pressure the state to do the right thing, consistently if not always effectively.

Exactly a century ago, William James called on those who “devoutly believe in the reign of peace and in the gradual advent of some sort of socialistic equilibrium” to find a “moral equivalent of war.” The alternative, he wrote, must “inflame the civic temper as past history has inflamed the military temper.” Today, we need a moral equivalent of conservative religiosity, one that can inspire both believers and non-believers on the left to do the kind of smart, determined, often self-sacrificing work that the right receives from its adherents, in and out of presidential election years.

As in 1906, such an alternative will draw, in part, on the language of the Bible and the supernatural beliefs of most Americans, who live in a nation marked by a vigorous diversity of faiths that would have astonished James, the great philosopher of religious experience. The marriage between politics and piety in America has always been full of conflicts and misunderstandings. But it remains as strong as in Bryan's day and will probably endure as long as the nation itself. To deplore that fact only avoids the task of engaging it.


Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University. His book, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, will be published in February by Knopf.