Skip to main content

Features

Unlikely praise

Liberal author Michael Kazin on fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan as a hero for the left

Unlikely praise

Here's an early nominee for 2006 oxymoron sentence of the year: Michael Kazin, liberal Georgetown professor and frequent contributor to The Nation and other Bush-despising publications, writes an appreciative biography of William Jennings Bryan, often portrayed by the left as the dumbest major American politician until . . . George W. Bush.

What's going on? Smart Democrats know that when Republicans grab four out of five white evangelical votes, liberal candidates are running not only uphill but up Mount Rushmore. Dems need to change this in 2008, and Everyone Must Do His/Her/Its Part: Some must hit the pews, others the phone banks, and Mr. Kazin has already done his brilliantly by writing a readable history of the three-time presidential candidate who embodied liberalism from 1896 through 1924.

Bryan's defense of fundamentalism in the 1925 Scopes trial ruined his reputation among liberals for the next 80 years, but A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (Knopf, 2006) should rehabilitate him-and should alert GOPers to a likely Democratic flank attack in 2008.

WORLD: During the 1896 campaign Bryan likened Republicans to a pharaoh who "lives on the toil of others and always wants to silence complaint by making the load heavier." John Kerry toward the close of his campaign tried to bring to bear the Bible against George W. Bush but couldn't gain traction. Do you see future Democratic Party candidates looking more to Bryan than to recent technocratic candidates?

KAZIN: First, thank you for giving me the opportunity to comment about my book and its relevance to contemporary affairs.

I doubt many Democrats will invoke Bryan, since his image as an ignorant hick is still so powerful in the public imagination. But I do think more of the party's candidates will begin talking openly and proudly about their religious faith and will connect their beliefs to the policies they favor. Tim Kaine did that during his 2005 campaign for governor in Virginia, particularly when he talked about his opposition to the death penalty. And many commentators believe his frankness helped him win a surprisingly easy victory. In politics, success usually breeds imitation.

WORLD: You write that Bryan gained popularity "because he so publicly campaigned in the name of Christian principles and was never known to have transgressed them. This image enabled him to avoid the reputation of most politicians as opportunistic hypocrites." As Democratic candidates talk about their religious faith, will they say it's merely their personal belief or will they campaign in the name of Christian principles as Bryan did?

KAZIN: I'd make a distinction between a politician who, like Kaine or President Bush, invokes his faith to explain why he takes a certain position and one who, like Bryan, calls on Christian voters to support him because he shares their religious beliefs and seeks to apply them, aggressively, to worldly affairs. Today, neither Democrats nor, I suspect, most Republicans would feel comfortable making the type of appeal that Bryan did. During Bryan's heyday, a century ago, most Americans were Protestants who held their religion superior to all others. Today, over 80 percent of Americans still identify themselves as Christian. But they tolerate and increasingly applaud a rich diversity of faiths-Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, even some types of non-theistic spiritualism.

WORLD: You note that in 1919 Bryan demanded that Congress subsidize farm prices and pay an immediate bonus to World War I vets, and that he also "helped kindle support for nationalized railroads and a government-run telephone and telegraph system." What do you think a contemporary Bryan within the Democratic Party would call for?

KAZIN: I doubt he (or she) would support such programs today, which smack of democratic socialism! In terms of economic policy, we live in a decidedly more conservative era than Bryan did. However, one can imagine a contemporary Christian liberal advocating certain laws that, as Bryan put it in 1922, "put human rights before property rights . . . and put the teachings of the Savior into modern language and apply them to present-day conditions." Liberals of faith might cite the Sermon on the Mount when supporting such measures as a living wage (an idea first developed by Monsignor John Ryan of Catholic University) and guaranteed health insurance for all children.

WORLD: Most Americans believe in intelligent design of some kind, as did Bryan, but the left tends to ridicule any such idea. If your book succeeds in encouraging a new appreciation of Bryan, will it be only because of his economic proposals, or do you think Bryan's opposition to Darwinism-founded as much on his critique of Social Darwinism and racist "survival of the fittest" ideology as on the Bible-will resonate among some on the left?

KAZIN: The last thing about Bryan that most people on the left would accept is his opposition to Darwinism. They hold a stark image of him as a foe of scientific learning and of free speech in the classroom. Moreover, few if any exponents of either intelligent design or creationism seem to equate Darwinism with Social Darwinism, as Bryan did. And, thankfully, it's rare to hear anyone espouse eugenics today, as many Darwinists did in the 1920s. The result is that supporters and foes of Darwinism now fight more about the facts of evolution and whether intelligent design is science or religion than about the political consequences of either position.

I should add that the position which Bryan took during the 1920s, which culminated in the Scopes trial, was not the same as that which proponents of intelligent design advocate. He argued that public schools should not teach any "hypothesis that links man in blood relationship with the brutes." He didn't support the teaching of an alternative theory about the origins of humankind; Bryan thought the biblical faith of most Americans would take care of that.

WORLD: You conclude that Bryan's popularity stemmed from what "our own era of nonstop satire and twenty-four-hour commerce manifestly lacks: the yearning for a society run by and for ordinary people who lead virtuous lives." You apparently want today's Democratic Party to tap into that, but isn't there a rift between the populist economic goals of the left and the anti-bourgeois cultural goals?

KAZIN: Certainly, Democrats and the left in general are more certain that corporations are unfair to workers and consumers than that one should attack the libertarian or libertine aspects of American culture. Some voters who agree with the former view don't trust Democrats to defend their moral and religious values, and this probably helped defeat both Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. Yet, when it comes to cultural norms, Christian conservatives are not always models of consistency themselves. They steadfastly oppose gay marriage, even though gay men and lesbians who want to get married and have children are behaving in a classically bourgeois fashion. Don't take the word of a liberal like me; a growing number of conservative commentators, such as David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan, also point this out quite forcefully.

WORLD: Your book seems very well-timed, given the attempt by Jim Wallis and others on the religious left to contest GOP dominance among evangelicals. Do you see a trend to do through scholarship what Wallis is attempting to do through agitation?

KAZIN: Yes! More and more liberal historians and social scientists, whether or not they are Christians, have been writing about the religious underpinnings of American politics and American culture and arguing that people of faith have been active as often on the left as on the right. I'd mention such path-breaking works as David Chappell's A Stone of Hope (about the civil-rights movement as a religious revival), Kenneth Fones-Wolf's Trade Union Gospel (about labor and Protestantism in Philadelphia during Bryan's day), and Amy Sullivan's forthcoming Resurrection, about efforts to revive a Christian left in recent years.

If my biography of Bryan helps to inspire more works of this kind, I'll be a happy man.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books: His latest is Abortion at the Crossroads. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.