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Sunday, February 05, 2006

William Jennings Bryan and Being a Liberal Christian

Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University, has written a new biography of William Jennings Bryan, the great Christian reformer, orator, and populist leader of a century ago. I haven't read the book, which has only just been released, but I have read some short pieces by Kazin in which he talks about what Bryan's career and ideas can teach us about Christianity and progressive politics in America, both historically and today. In particular, there is this essay from Dissent, and this one from The American Prospect, the latter of which led to an interesting debate between Kazin and Kevin Mattson. All are worth reading.

A number of Kazin's claims in these pieces are particularly noteworthy. First, he argues that the apparent disunion today between "traditional" or "orthodox" Christian faith and liberal reforms only goes back a generation or two; in fact, the way Bryan used obvious scriptural imagery and argument to attack corporate greed and militarism and defend labor unions and public campaign financing was not only not unique, but in fact was common to the thinking and rhetoric of practically every populist or progressive politician well into the first-half of the 20th century. (And among black politicians and civil rights leaders, much longer than that.) Second, Kazin is convinced that, as much as he--a self-described "secular leftist"--is made somewhat uncomfortable by it, those on the left in America today will never enjoy influence again unless they can learn to "speak in unabashedly moral terms....[and] base their moral claims on one or another religious tradition." He has little patience for the "dishonest pandering of the last two Democratic nominees for president, who mouthed banalities about 'respecting people of faith' and asking 'What would Jesus do?' before switching into their standard stump speeches"--no, he insists, the marriage of religiosity and progressive politics (a marriage that was practically rock solid in white, Protestant American life before the intellectual and social transformations of the 1950s and 60s) has to go deeper than that:

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....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....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.

It should surprise no reader of this blog that I'm completely on board with this program. In particular, it's great to see someone like Kazin wrestle with the fact that one cannot separate the Bryan who attacked laissez-faire economics and defended populist farming policies in 1896, from the Bryan who supported Tennessee's effort to prosecute John Scopes in 1925 for teaching "any theory that denies the story of the Divine creation of man as taught in the Bible"--in other words, for teaching evolution. If you were serious about the first, in Bryan's mind, then of course you had to be serious about the second: the cruelties of Social Darwinism and the reductiveness of evolutionary biology were both contradicted by scripture. As Kazin put it, speaking of Bryan and his supporters, "they could not conceive of a moral language that neglected the Bible or viewed it as no more than a captivating historical text." In other words, they were Bible-based Christians first, and liberals and populists and progressives second--or better, they were the latter because they were the former. The latter described how they interpreted and implemented their commitment to the Bible, and that label was important (because there were just as many Christians then as now who insisted the message of Christianity was otherwise--Pat Robertson today probably has a lot in common with the shamelessly wealth-praising preacher Russell "Acres of Diamonds" Conwell of Bryan's day)....but it was not their primary label. On the contrary, their social mores and political convictions were constrained and defined by the authority of the Biblical tradition. And if 20th-century American liberalism--as it continued down a path set by cynics and secularists like Clarence Darrow and H.L. Mencken--gradually became something which (again in Kazin's words), "harbor[ed] a nagging contempt for the God-fearing, the unhip, and the poorly educated"....well then, evangelical Christians of the heartland and liberal politics would have to part ways. Which, tragically, is exactly what has happened. (That's not the whole story, of course: it ignores the important role of race, and the failure--a tragic and terribly divisive one for liberal reform movements--of white evangelicals, including Bryan, to ever seriously address racism in America. But to ignore the "traditionalist" aspect of the story is just as limiting, something which Kazin's study of Bryan makes clear.)

This notion of authority, and the importance for anyone on the left who embraces or at least wants to makes use of the power of Christianity to acknowledge it, is something I've discussed before. This is one of the reasons I admire Hugo Schwyzer's writings so much; as he makes clear in a recent blog post, he is both saddened and frustrated by those Christians on the left who get so intimidated or angry at the "Christian Right" that they cannot be up front about (indeed sometimes deny or hide) their own commitment to the Christian faith. Hugo points the finger in the exactly right direction: at certain types of liberal Christians who--for numerous reasons well described by Kazin--have found themselves over the course of the past 50 years associating and agreeing more and more often with secularists (often well-heeled, well-educated ones), and who, because they don't want to offend their allies (and also often just because they want to distinguish themselves from those "Bible-thumpers" on the other side of the political aisle), have purposefully emptied their arguments of any serious appeal to religious tradition. He writes:

It's no wonder that the Christianity of the left seems so superficial! When was the last time any of us heard a sermon from Al Sharpton that was based on a rigorous explication of the New Testament? How often do we hear from Jesse Jackson how his relationship with Jesus leads him to take the stances he does? Whatever you think of Jerry [Falwell] and Pat [Robertson], they make an explicit connection between Scripture and politics; at best, leaders on the left do so obliquely and too often, they don't do it at all.

Hugo is engaging in a little hyperbole here, of course; as Kazin documents, in many African-American Protestant churches at least, the link between scriptural authority and progressive politics is alive and well. But that, of course, simply highlights the real struggle that people like Hugo and I are going to have with many of our fellow leftists when it comes to articulating a properly liberal Christian agenda....because truly insisting upon the defining power of one's Christianity means that the "liberal agenda" must be shaped in obedience to a prior, not-necessarily "liberal" religious faith. (Kazin points to the influential African-American Baptist minister Walter Fauntory, a man with impeccable progressive credentials, whose commitment to the authority of the Biblical text has led him to oppose efforts to legalize same-sex marriages, at the same time while he attacks those conservatives who use, in his view, arguments over gay marriage as a distraction from the sort of progressive social and economic imperatives dear to his Christian heart, as they were to Bryan's.) In my view, if one entirely equates liberalism with the expansive and distinctly modern philosophical vision of fully emancipated persons, then Christianity can't be liberal, since Christian doctrine--like any doctrine about the divine worth holding--asks the human self to submit to a higher order of things, to be bound to the rule of a community, to obey something other than individual interest. You can certainly be, as I see things, a "liberal Christian," in the same way that one can be a liberal communitarian or nationalist: that is, one can take up one's identity and use it and think about it in ways that respect modern notions of individual rights and needs. As far as that way of thinking goes, I'm happy to embrace the label "liberal Christian," and I assume Bryan would have done the same. But that is because we can see something about liberality and reform and populism and egalitarianism in the Christian tradition, to which we are obedient. To make those commitments mere supplements to what Kazin harshly but accurately called the "standard stump speeches" of contemporary liberalism, however earnestly felt, misunderstands the contextual source of faith's power in the first place.

None of this will be easy to make happen, of course--it wouldn't be easy even if all progressives were in agreement with myself and Schwyzer (and Kazin), and it certainly won't end disputes between various liberal Christians themselves. Bryan's reading of Christianity was hardly uncontested during even amongst those who sympathized with his positions, and it wouldn't be today either, as there are many ways in which one can speak of being "obedient" to Christianity above and beyond any given political ideology. Hugo's friendly, faithful arguments with other Christians over what obedience to a tradition means is one such example (clearly, he and Fauntory would disagree on at least some points!); our own dispute over what being "pro-life" truly requires is another. I easily can imagine that more than a few secular liberals cynically but perhaps truthfully observing that since the sort of "grace and humility" which Hugo rightly notes this kind of political and spiritual articulation requires is not much in evidence in America today, maybe trying to inject it into the left is just bad idea. I, however, tend to think that the example of Bryan teaches us that we Americans are and always will be hungry for such religious "injections." The Republican party has been the sole beneficiary of such for too long; I look forward to the Democrats slowly but surely overcoming their distaste for moral authority and tradition and debate, and perhaps making room for a "revivalistic ethos" once more.


Lee said...

One worry I have about arguments like Kazin's is that it seems like he still essentially thinks of Christianity as a means  to progressive social reform. This doesn't strike me as all that different from certain neoconservative intellectuals who want religion for the masses but don't believe it themselves. Something about that just doesn't sit well with me - the strength of someone like Bryan after all was that he really believed this stuff. It seems to me that what progressives need (and I say this as someone who wouldn't necessarily identify myself as a progressive, so take it for what it's worth) are leaders who are themselves believers, not secular mandarins who mouth (with varying degrees of plausibility) religious slogans in order to get the hoi-polloi in board. The idea of a "moral equivalent of conservative religiosity ... that can inspire both believers and non-believers on the left" strikes me as dangerous for precisely this reason: it takes an ultimately instrumentalist view of religion that subordinates it to political goals.  

Posted by Lee

Russell Arben Fox said...

I completely agree, Lee, and as I read him Kazin does too. I think that's why he says--in the Dissent  piece at least--that he has profoundly mixed feelings about Bryan: he's a secularist, and he knows the "moral equivalent of conservative religiosity" can only be generated by a genuine, believing "liberal religiosity"--something which he, plainly, doesn't have to offer. I suppose maybe that, on some level, Kazin is making this argument instrumentally, because he really wants to see the left get some grass-roots firepower. But I tend to take him for his word: the lesson he seems to have gotten from Bryan is that anything less than the return of an actual "revivalistic ethos" to liberal Christian practice is just going to leave us leftists with more of John Kerry condescendingly telling red-staters that he "respects their faith." 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Russell Arben Fox said...


"Do we really want a politics of Biblical proof texting anyway? Do we want to say that the Bible 'proves' that liberal positions are correct?"

I don't want that, but I don't think that's what Kazin thinks Bryan represents, and it's not what I think of when I think of a thoroughly liberal Christian agenda. The point isn't to take the Bible as a step-by-step guide, but to take Christianity as a context that supplies the form of the basic argument. We have to talk about social justice, about family values, and this and that. Why? Because they Bible tells us so. That doesn't invite proof-texting, but it does invite some re-organization of the current liberal agenda, hopefully moving us towards a progressive context that more middle and lower-class white Christians could see themselves in and respect.

I think that some of what you say about Harriet Miers and Jimmy Carter can be disputed, or at least that the story is more complicated than you present it. But you're right about the secular hostility to this project on the left. And I have to admit you make a good point about the changing nature of (white) American Christian religiosity. It really is quite possible that Christian doctrine and practice has now, for so long, been seen as compatible with a consumer-oriented, mobile, privatized society, that trying to re-invigorate Christian voters will just bring more of that attitude to the polling booths, rather than any kind of populist solidarity. Bryan had the advantage that the Protestants he was speaking on behalf of really were  marginalized in American society; but if Southern Baptism and Methodism have made their peace with, and have in fact flourished in the context of middle-class existence, then who, exactly, is going to put together an insurgent, revivalist left? I don't know the answer to that (though I have hopes). 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

gaw3 said...

I have to second Jeremiah's reservations about how to approach this. Bryant as a Faithful progressive is an especially problematic for me because of his role in the Scopes trial. Also-- "cross of gold"?? Not all his rhetoric has aged well, whatever its electoral impact.

With that said, yes, people of progressive sentiments have got to open their hearts and show it.

I enjoy your blog very much. 

Posted by gaw3

Steve said...

Fundamentalists like Bryan believed in submitting to divine revelation, but erred in equating that revelation with a literalistic understanding of the Bible. The liberal ethos, on the other hand, in its reaction against dogmatic "extremes," can in some quarters tend to eschew anything in a faith tradition that would be binding or call forth radical and uncompromising commitment even unto death. Someone said of fundamentalism, "It all depends on what your fundamental is." What I think is greatly needed in our day, as in all times, is Christian faith that makes the commandment to love the central fundamental, the loving character of God the final authority, a close reading of the historical social context of oppression that conditioned the biblical writings rather than an extrabiblical theory of "inerrancy" the key to a sound hermeneutic, and drawing inspiration from the testimony of communities of faith and the example of Christ to live out love and justice in our times the central task of biblical reflection.

None of this requires treating the Bible as an inerrant repository of propositional truths, rejecting evolution, or condemning gays. All of that flows from the error of making inerrancy and a resulting "system" of teaching built out of forcibly harmonized texts the measuring stick. This practice has served the project of fundamentalist religious empire-building well, but it would have been alien and unnatural to the biblical writers themselves, who were concerned to nurture the strength of communities to withstand and resist imperial oppression and subversion. Even the modern preoccupation with the question of God's existence would have been peripheral to the biblical writers' concerns. They were not concerned with what "exists" but with how we, strengthened by the Spirit of God (whatever that "is") that we find in one another, can live out a peaceful and cooperative and abundant way of being human.

This life of discipleship, though not guided by a simplistic view of revelation, calls forth our deepest devotion and sacrificial commitment.

Steve said...

Ched Myers and jesusradicals.com are a couple of resources that have informed my understanding of what a "re-centered" faith looks like. Do you have any thoughts on them?