Phil brought up William Jennings Bryan and Populism a little way down the page, and I thought I’d meditate on the subject today.
All most people remember about Bryan nowadays is that he was the guy they based the Brady character in “Inherit the Wind” on (here’s an interesting web page that’ll explain a lot of things you don’t know about the Scopes Trial, if all you know of it is what you saw in the movie or the play). Bryan ran for president three times, and he was a serious candidate. He was the standard-bearer for Populism (today we’d say liberalism) around the turn of the Twentieth Century.
“How can this be?” we wonder today. “How can an evangelical, Bible-believing Christian be a liberal?”
That question brings us to an aspect of American history that’s mostly forgotten today. Throughout the 19th Century, evangelicalism and liberalism in America were (by and large) the same movement.
Whence comes today’s liberal’s certainty that the changes he wants to implement cannot help but make the country a far better place, a veritable Heaven on earth? It comes, in part, because he has inherited the vision of the Abolitionists (most of them Christians, like Charles G. Finney and Henry Ward Beecher), who saw, with considerable justification, their crusade against slavery as a Biblical drama, the Exodus and the Apocalypse rolled into one. The antislavery movement, I believe, marked the birth of a brand new form of pleasure—the pleasure of being a moral crusader. The moral crusader (be his crusade wise or foolish, good or bad) enjoys the delights of living on the moral high ground. If the struggle brings success and fame, the crusader is smugly aware that he deserves it. If it brings suffering and martyrdom, he dies with the pleasure of knowing he’s the pioneer, “truth forever on the scaffold,” as the poet Lowell wrote.
After the slavery fight had been won, the evangelical community looked around for a new crusade, a new way to improve society and usher in the Kingdom. By consensus, the next great goal became Prohibition.
Prohibition involved a subtle change of focus. It wasn’t hard to believe that slavery should be ended, and that slaveholders should be forced to give up their slaves, whatever the cost to them. Prohibition moved on to target a voluntary commercial activity, in which nobody was forced to participate (the Prohibitionist argued that drunkards were, for all intents and purposes, slaves to Demon Rum, and so the case was the same). The moral crusaders had moved from rescuing people held against their will, to prohibiting free transactions based on a conviction that they knew better than other people what was good for them.
It was a long struggle, but they won at last. Booze got banned (a by-product, by the way, was Women’s Suffrage. Prohibitionists pushed Women’s Rights hard, because women were overwhelmingly anti-saloon).
But it was sometime around there that a schism occurred. The liberals of the East looked out at the great, unwashed mass of Progressive evangelicals and said, “These really aren’t our kind of people.”
The Scopes Trial is said to have been the rupture point. Intellectuals like H. L. Mencken were offended by Bryan’s opposition to Darwin. They washed their hands of him and his followers. The intellectuals moved toward Socialism, the evangelicals, gradually, toward conservatism.
It took a while. I’ve heard a story of one of the founding fathers of my church body. Back in the 1940’s he’d been elected to the Minnesota State Legislator as an independent. Being an independent, he had to decide for himself which party he would caucus with.
“I looked across the chamber,” he said, “and I asked myself, ‘Which party best represents the principles of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?’
“I did not hesitate. I went immediately and caucused with the Democrats.”