William Jennings Bryan and the Christian Left

William Jennings Bryan, if he is known at all these days, is remembered as a buffoon, the fundamentalist opponent of Clarence Darrow in the famous Scopes trial as depicted by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee in their (screen)play, Inherit the Wind. But that picture of Bryan is dreadfully inaccurate, and Michael Kazin has written this fine biography “to gain a measure of respect for Bryan and his people.” Quoting historian E. P. Thompson, he would “rescue [them] from the enormous condescension of posterity” (xviii).

Bryan’s rightful claim to a lasting place in our national historical memory is based on a life spent at the very center of American politics for over forty years. Three times, in 1896, 1900, and 1908, he was the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, and when he was not a candidate, he was the Democrats’ most powerful figure: “more than any other man … [he] transform[ed] his party from a bulwark of laissez-faire into the citadel of liberalism we identify with Franklin D. Roosevelt and his ideological descendants” (xix). Bryan served as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, eventually resigning because his pacifism created conflict with Wilson and his cabinet prior to the United States entering World War I.

Few politicians before or after Bryan have inspired such adoration in his followers. A Godly Hero These followers, made up especially of the rural poor and working classes from the South and Midwest, most of whom were Christian, wrote letters to him by the thousands, declaring their devotion to him and their absolute trust in his wisdom and virtue.

Bryan was quite possibly the most notable orator in the history of American politics. During his life he delivered more than six thousand scheduled speeches and many more spontaneous ones. His primary pulpit was the Chautauqua. (As a sort of bonus side trip, Kazin takes the reader on a brief journey through that American institution. Begun in 1874 at Lake Chautauqua in western New York, these tent gatherings, usually in rural or small-town settings, offered a mix of entertainment–comedy, music, circus acts, plays–and speeches of moral edification. By 1920 there were a thousand tent circuits reaching as many as forty million people in a summer. For a good many years, Bryan was the undisputed king of the Chautauquas.)

Most of Bryan’s speeches were part sermon, part policy pronouncement. Kazin notes that Bryan’s political philosophy was a combination of Jefferson and Jesus. Jefferson’s fierce devotion to “equal rights for all and privileges to none” was combined with a firm commitment to the truths of Holy Writ. Unlike Jefferson, Bryan believed firmly in the divinity of Christ and the reality of his miracles and his resurrection.

Of course Bryan was not without flaws. His speeches could tend toward the melodramatic and sentimental. And while he was a champion of the poor and of women’s rights, a pacifist and an opponent of capital punishment, he was blind to the injustices suffered by African Americans or at least unwilling to challenge the Jim Crow laws of the South because of the political capital he had with Southern Democrats.

In addition to establishing Bryan’s legitimate place in American history, Kazin’s biography calls up a Christian political movement that is startlingly different from the Religious Right of today. Bryan and most of his followers were Christians espousing socialist (progressive, leftist) policies. “The poor man is called a socialist if he believes that the wealth of the rich should be divided among the poor,” Bryan observed, “but the rich man is called a financier if he devises a plan by which the pittance of the poor can be converted to his use” (39). Bryan’s sympathies were always with the poor.

Bryan and his followers a century ago could not be more unlike the politicians who have captured the hearts and minds of the Religious Right today. For example,

  • Bryan and his followers believed that the federal government “should counter the overweening power of banks and industrial corporations” and dramatically increase taxes on the wealthy (xix); most politicians of the Christian Right seek just the opposite.
  • In 1894 Bryan criticized Republicans “who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea,” Bryan said, “has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them” (65). Republicans endorsed by the Religious Right still espouse the “leak through” theory, dubbing it “trickle down.”
  • Bryan’s followers believed that their primary moral obligation was to “side with the common man and woman in their perpetual battle with the defenders of privilege, corruption, and big money” (124); voters on the Christian Right seem most concerned with abortion, capital punishment, and homosexual marriage.

These differences raise a profound question: Why are so many Christians today indifferent or opposed to liberal and progressive ideas? Kazin gives no easy answer to that question but he does suggest that the Democratic Party and secular liberals today fail to engage Christians because they have appealed only to their economic self-interest, ignoring moral issues and religious convictions. The followers of William Jennings Bryan “believed that politics should be a moral enterprise and that religion should purify the political world” (xx).

But American Christian churches have also failed. Who else can be blamed for the fact that so many Christians today seem unconcerned about issues of injustice, poverty, and disenfranchisement? Richard Hofstadter writes of the Progressive Era: “One of the primary tests of the mood of a society is whether its comfortable people tend to identify, psychologically, with the power and achievements of the very successful or with the needs and sufferings of the underprivileged. In a large and striking manner, the Progressive agitations turned the sympathies of the people downward rather than upward in the social scale” (quoted, 196). When we ask ourselves where the sympathies of most American Christians today are pointed, the direction seems to be upward, with the power and achievements of the successful.

Kazin’s A Godly Hero reminds me to keep my compass of concern pointed downward, like that of William Jennings Bryan, toward the suffering and underprivileged. What might a broader Christian politics in this country look like that did the same today?

Dave Schelhaas teaches English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.