The Other Bryan

Imagine the ideal democratic nominee for president. He's twice won election in Nebraska, one of the reddest of states, and is just as popular across the South and Midwest. He's a charismatic, energetic orator. He's also a stalwart progressive who has taken tough stands against corporate crime, to aid labor organizers, and to raise taxes on the wealthy. His marriage is loving and cooperative, and his three children long to emulate their father. Although a war veteran, he's an eloquent advocate of peaceful solutions to international conflicts. Most significantly, he's a devout churchgoer and lay minister who preaches that every true Christian has a duty to transform a nation and world plagued by the arrogance of wealth and the pain of inequality.

That man is William Jennings Bryan. Of course, he's been dead for 80 years, but progressives should encourage a resurgence of the social gospel he championed if they hope to regain power in what remains the most religious nation in the developed world. The small chance that, in 2008, the Democrats will find and nominate another politician who's both a flaming liberal and a serious evangelical raises a vital question: Whatever happened to the Christian left which Bryan helped to lead?

It was once a force of great size and fervor. From the mid-19th century through the 1930s, activist believers dominated an array of progressive movements. Abolitionists cursed slavery as a “national sin.” The Knights of Labor labeled big business the “anti-Christ” that only a “new Pentecost” could humble. The Women's Christian Temperance Union, the largest women's group in the nation during the late 19th century, declared that its work to close down saloons, improve prison conditions, shelter prostitutes, and support female labor unions was an expression of “God in politics.” In the agrarian heartland, Populist lecturers assured their audiences, “God has promised to hear the cry of the oppressed.” Eugene Debs admired Jesus Christ as “a pure communist” and pinned his portrait to the otherwise bare walls of the prison cell where he was serving time for opposing World War I. Mass protests routinely called on the language of the Bible because, like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, it was the common property of Americans and thus needed no explanation or apology.

In the early decades of the 20th century, every progressive president also spoke comfortably and frequently in biblical metaphors. Theodore Roosevelt, during the 1912 campaign, thundered that “we stand at Armageddon and battle for the Lord.” Woodrow Wilson consistently framed his messianic foreign policy in terms he had learned from his father, a Presbyterian minister. Franklin Roosevelt sprinkled references to the Bible and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress into many of his speeches.

Both at the grass roots and inside the White House, the Christian left was largely a Protestant phenomenon. In cities from San Francisco to New York, hundreds of priests instilled labor organizing campaigns with a pious energy. Father Edward McGlynn, an ally of the Knights of Labor, described Christ as “an evicted peasant” who “came to preach a gospel of liberty to the slave, of justice to the poor, of paying the full hire to the workman.” The leading theorist of a living wage was Monsignor John A. Ryan of The Catholic University. And, at every convention of the Congress of Industrial Organizations during its glory days, a priest or bishop delivered the opening invocation. “A victory for labor in its struggles for decent conditions,” declared Father Charles Rice from Pittsburgh in 1938, “is a victory for Americanism and Christianity.”

Bryan was the first major-party politician to advocate what became the core of modern liberalism: expanding the powers of the federal government to serve the welfare of ordinary Americans. He preached that the national state should counter the overweening power of banks and industrial corporations by legalizing strikes, subsidizing farmers, taxing the rich, banning private campaign spending, and outlawing the “liquor trust.” “The power of the government to protect the people is as complete in time of peace as in time of war,” Bryan declared in 1922. “The only question to be decided is whether it is necessary to exercise that power.” Bryan did as much as any politician to transform his party from a bulwark of laissez-faire into the citadel of liberalism we identify with FDR and his ideological descendants. (Herbert Hoover once snapped that the New Deal was “Bryanism under new words and methods.”)

Bryan did want the power of the state to extend into the moral realm. He believed that liquor companies robbed workers of their wages and corrupted family life. His opposition to evolutionary theory stemmed from a similar impulse. In 1925, Bryan joined the legal team prosecuting John Scopes because, like many Americans at the time who were not scientists, he equated Darwinism with social Darwinism, particularly with a belief in eugenics. He feared that the result of replacing belief in a merciful God with the doctrine of survival of the fittest would be “a system under which a few supposedly superior intellects, self-appointed, would direct the mating and the movements of the mass of mankind.” Bryan burned only to see religion heal the world.

This conviction helped the man known as the Great Commoner attract a tremendous following. Bryan probably received more letters than any other politician in his era, including every president until FDR. He was the most popular speaker in America at a time when oratory was a prime source of entertainment. If his Republican opponents hadn't enjoyed solid support from the industrial elite -- which enabled them to outspend him by as much as 1,000 percent -- Bryan may well have been elected president.

Remarkably, few loyalists abandoned Bryan after he failed to capture the White House. In their eyes, he was spiritual kin to the patriarchs and prophets who, to quote Hebrews 11, “subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, [and] stopped the mouths of lions.” His fame and influence depended on his passion for an “applied Christianity” that millions of Americans shared. The historian Richard Hofstadter once wrote that other leading progressives only “sensed popular feelings; Bryan embodied them.”

But that empathy didn't extend across the color line. Bryan, leader of a party anchored in the “Solid South,” never denounced the cruel system of Jim Crow. Neither did he protest when Dixie Democrats enacted state laws that deprived most black citizens of the right to vote. During his 1908 campaign, Bryan rebuffed an overture of support from W.E.B. DuBois, fearing it would anger and splinter his base. His racist position, one echoed by most white Democrats until the mid-1930s, damaged his liberal image, not to speak of crippling his soul. It also left intact the gulf of mistrust between Bryan's white followers and black evangelicals, groups which could have benefited from a working alliance against big landowners and union-busting employers.

Nevertheless, as late as 1940, wage earners and small farmers of both races could read the Bible as a class-conscious text. That year, Woody Guthrie, who was close to the Communist Party, sang that “Jesus Christ was … A hard-working man and brave” who “said to the rich, ‘Give your goods to the poor.' But they laid Jesus Christ in His grave.”

The sharp division between the religious left and right emerged only after World War II. During the 1950s and 1960s, activists for black freedom and migrant farm labor turned the social gospel into a credo of racial justice. Martin Luther King, Jr., explained, “It's all right to talk about heaven. I talk about it because I believe firmly in immortality. But you've got to talk about the earth. … It's even all right to talk about the new Jerusalem. But one day we must begin to talk about the new Chicago, the new Atlanta, the new New York, the new America.” Liberal Christians of all ethnic backgrounds marched along with King, Cesar Chavez, and the secular foot soldiers of their causes. With the support of sympathetic lawmakers, they dismantled the racist order for which Bryan had apologized.

At the same time, the force that would become the Christian right began to define itself in opposition to modernist liberals, whether inside or outside the churches. Few white evangelicals supported either the black or Chicano crusades for justice. During the heat of the civil rights struggle, some theological conservatives, such as Jerry Falwell, defended segregation and backed such race-baiting politicians as George Wallace and Jesse Helms. But most turned inward, building new churches and asserting their political muscle mainly on issues like prayer in the schools that directly affected the status of their religion. And their harvest was impressive. Starting in the mid-1960s, every evangelical body enjoyed a spurt in membership. Soon, the Southern Baptist Convention had become the largest Protestant denomination in America. And when white evangelicals joined the GOP coalition in the late 1970s behind Falwell and his ilk, the old social gospel was nowhere in sight.

Why did Bryan's successors reject his meld of liberal policies and biblical orthodoxy? In addition to the racial divide, the Scopes trial marked a transition of sorts. Some Americans who took Bryan's side during that confrontation in Dayton, Tennessee, did not share his progressive reasoning. Like today's creationists, they opposed Darwinism simply because it threatened the foundation of their faith. The fact that the ACLU hired Clarence Darrow, an avowed agnostic, to defend the teaching of modern biology made them suspicious about the motives of every secular liberal.

It didn't help that H.L. Mencken became the leading voice of modern skepticism. After covering the trial, the acidic writer described Bryan as the ringleader of a mob of yahoos, “a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology … a peasant come home to the barnyard.” Mencken was no liberal: He liked to make nasty remarks about Jews, was blind to the menace of Hitler, and despised FDR. But young progressives in the Jazz Age echoed his eloquent cynicism toward the old-time religion -- and a culture war was on. For the cosmopolitan left, a belief in reason and science largely replaced the romantic, bottom-up faith of Bryan and his admirers.

The cultural conflict raged on different fronts during the Cold War. Skirmishes over “Godless communism,” prayer in public schools, and legalized abortion pitted liberal modernists against evangelical Protestants. Gradually, the two groups moved into opposing parties. Whatever their personal beliefs, every Democratic nominee from Adlai Stevenson in 1952 to George McGovern in 1972 tried to skirt the subject of religion and assumed the fires of biblical politics had all but gone out. In 1976, a Southern Baptist from Georgia briefly reignited the idea that white evangelicals could also be progressives. But soon Jimmy Carter's maladroit style -- and the new Christian right's attack on his apostasy -- doused it once again. Favorite enemies were feminists who challenged truths, both textual and emotional, that many evangelical Protestants and traditional Catholics had always taken for granted. Conservative Republicans learned to spin such threads of resentment into electoral gold.

But one should not exaggerate the salience of these battles over gender and race in the politics of the 21st century. Most white evangelical preachers have come to terms with the memory of the black freedom struggle; they quote King and denounce gay marriage from the same platforms as inner-city black ministers. The old jokes about “women's lib” ring hollow in Christian families where both parents work and fathers take an increasingly active role in raising their children. And without the creative labors of women, most conservative churches would go out of business. Resistance remains strong to granting gays and lesbians the same rights to wed and raise families that heterosexuals enjoy. But it may be the last popular stand of those who once touted themselves as “the moral majority.”

All the attention given to the red-blue chasm over “values” and public religiosity also neglects the fact that few devout Americans attend church for political reasons. While they cherish tradition, a good many evangelical Protestants were adults when they joined their current place of worship. A personal crisis was often the reason: alcoholism, drug addiction, the death of a family member, a divorce. Others sought a counterweight for their children to the endless seduction of video games, crass TV, R-rated movies, and malls. Not many started praying and studying the Bible because they wanted to blockade a Planned Parenthood clinic.

Most evangelicals hope to find or build what civil rights activists in the early 1960s called a “beloved community,” one that fills needs both worldly and spiritual. For millions of Americans, church is the only institution that attempts to help them with a variety of personal problems and places no bureaucratic obstacles in the way. An increasing number of churches offer child care, recreation, and job and marriage counseling, in addition to sermons and Bible study. Respected peers have the greatest influence on how most people vote. So when a trusted minister or fellow congregant urges support for candidates who stand up for “families” or “traditional values,” otherwise apolitical church members are inclined to go along. Democrats have long gained a similar boost from both African American churches and liberal white ones.

Moreover, the results of the last presidential election actually show that the allegiances of many reverent Americans are up for grabs. Liberals are not besieged rationalists on a shrinking island of good sense in a red sea filled with fundamentalist sharks. An extensive poll conducted for the Pew Forum soon after the votes were counted in 2004 found that the most significant divide was between churchgoers rather than one that pits them against the nonobservant and the unaffiliated. Bush and Kerry each drew half the votes of mainline Protestants, which includes members of such denominations as the Episcopalians and United Methodists (to which the president himself belongs). Bush carried three-quarters of all evangelicals, but Kerry won a narrow majority among modernist evangelicals who, whatever their theological preferences, take progressive stands on most political issues. A slim majority of Catholics voted Republican, even though Kerry is a member of their church. But the Democrat won easily among both modernist Catholics and Latinos who adhere to their traditional faith.

These numbers should embolden those progressives who are trying to bridge the divide among believers. Most liberal Christians are as troubled as devout conservatives about the greed and materialism that pervade American culture, although the latter are less likely to finger the profit motive as a main source of the problem. Both groups reject the extreme libertarianism of such figures as Grover Norquist, who never met a social program he didn't loathe.

The same post-election Pew poll found that majorities of both conservative and liberal Christians favored such measures as humanitarian foreign aid, guaranteed health care for all, and aid to poor Americans -- even if that means a boost in the income tax. Recently, such groups as the National Association of Evangelicals -- most of whose 30 million members vote Republican -- have been promoting a “global vision” that would include canceling the debt of impoverished nations and acting aggressively to counter the warming of the planet. An ethic of social responsibility thus increasingly pervades the gospel of both liberal and conservative Christians. Over time, it might prove more powerful than their sharp differences over abortion and gay marriage.

* * *

If many evangelicals favor progressive programs, why do most continue to vote for GOP candidates who oppose them? One should not assume, as does Thomas Frank in his Menckensque tour de force What's the Matter with Kansas?, that the faith of orthodox Christians of modest means blinds them from understanding their true interests. In truth, national Democrats have done little in recent decades to back up their vow to be the party of “people who work hard and play by the rules,” in Bill Clinton's still resonant phrase.

Over the past 40 years, what grand program did Democrats enact that resulted in measurable, durable changes in the economic fortunes of working Americans? The last landmark piece of legislation that fit that description was Medicare, passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon Johnson in the summer of 1965. Health care insurance for all could have been such an achievement, but the Clintons failed to overcome staunch opposition from Republicans and most employers, as well as the serious flaws in their own design.

The consequence is that the lower and middle classes of white Americans who once voted for Bryan, Wilson, FDR, JFK, and LBJ no longer expect presidents to do much that will improve their material lives. But the one thing they know politicians can do is talk, and that rhetoric signals which aspects of American culture are harmful and which need to be strengthened. So it's not surprising that many religious, wage-earning Americans vote with their more prosperous brothers and sisters. They trust a conservative president to use his bully pulpit to promote abstinence, bash abortion, promote the power of prayer, and denounce “indecent” programs on television. Voting for a candidate like George W. Bush can make them feel part of a growing, mainstream, virtuous community.

To challenge that bond, progressive Christians might engage in a serious moral dialogue with their conservative counterparts, to practice what Michael Walzer, the political theorist, calls “connected criticism.” One attempt to do this was Hillary Clinton's view that abortion is often “a sad, even tragic choice” but should remain a legal one. Another is the doctrine of a “seamless garment of life,” first voiced by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernadin and echoed recently by Jim Wallis, the evangelical author and organizer. To argue that Christian voters should consider the views of candidates on war, capital punishment, and a living wage as well as on abortion and euthanasia might force activists on both the left and right to think hard about and debate the merits of the distinctions they make.

In the end, the success of a political opening to white evangelicals and traditional Catholics depends upon the sustained resurgence of a grass-roots left. Many liberals still harbor a nagging contempt for the God-fearing, the unhip, and the poorly educated -- a weakness that GOP strategists from Lee Atwater to Karl Rove have skillfully exploited. As long as millions of ordinary churchgoers see no material advantage to voting for a Democrat and few places where secularists and evangelical believers are working together for the same political causes, they are likely to rely on institutions they already trust and leaders, both local and national, they already know.

For most of American history, such people saw no contradiction between practicing their faith and healing the wounds of an unequal society. Bryan declared that his overriding purpose was to place “the heart of the masses against the pocketbooks of a few,” and even his enemies didn't doubt his sincerity. Unless liberals can articulate their politics in such clear and passionate terms, their victories are likely to be fleeting and rare.

More than 80 percent of Americans hold strong religious beliefs, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Even Christians who don't regularly attend church regard the Scriptures and the example of Christ as moral touchstones that dovetail with the ideals of Americanism itself. Secular liberals ought to make their peace with this reality, while making sure that no religious faction -- such as creationists -- can install its doctrine into law.

In one of his last published poems, Czeslaw Milosz wrote:

If there is no God,

Not everything is permitted to man.

He is still his brother's keeper

And he is not permitted to sadden his brother,

By saying that there is no God.

A new liberalism could begin from the premise that one's fellow Americans of the lower and middle classes are brothers and sisters whose well-being ought to be the main goal of political activism and public policy. Despite their differences, that's what both Bryan and King were preaching. A revival may be possible today.

Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University. Parts of this essay are adapted from A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, to be published in February by Knopf.

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