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

william_jennings_bryan 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."

Will writes:

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.

billy_graham_eisenhower 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.



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24 thoughts on “William Jennings Bryan, Billy Graham & the Evolution of Christian Populism in America

  1. 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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  4. 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.

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    • @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.

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      • @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.

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    • 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.

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