“The strange composite voice of many million singing souls”

Thomas S. Kidd at The Gospel Coalition has an interesting article about the dangers of marrying religious movements with politics or, more specifically, politicians. Kidd’s case study is the infamous Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. That trial became the downfall of William Jennings Bryan, the Nebraska politician known as “the Great Commoner” who had made losing presidential elections an art form long before Adlai Stevenson and Hillary Clinton. The image of Bryan that endures nearly a century after his death is that of a bombastic, self-righteous, and intellectually shallow “fundamentalist” crusading against such “progressive” ideas as evolution and scientific inquiry. This Bryan of popular folklore was largely the creation of journalist H.L. Mencken, who covered the Scopes Trial in which Bryan led the prosecution against a Tennessee biology teacher charged with (and ultimately convicted of) violating a state statute against the teaching of evolution in the classroom. The 1960 film based on the trial, Inherit the Wind, portrayed Bryan (through a character named Matthew Harrison Brady) almost precisely as he had been described in Mencken’s less than objective reporting.

The real William Jennings Bryan, however, could not be so easily pigeonholed as a backward-thinking rube. More than any other political figure of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, he paved the way for the shift in the Democratic party away from laissez-faire capitalism to economic populism and the big government liberalism ultimately enshrined in FDR’s New Deal. In other words, the man so vilified by present-day liberals for his unswerving commitment to religious “fundamentalism” was himself a liberal, and a passionate one at that.

That is not to say, of course, that Bryan’s religious faith was a mere sidelight. On the contrary, it was the fuel that ignited his passion for the causes he championed. In the epilogue of his 2006 biography, A Godly Hero, Michael Kazin summarizes Bryan’s legacy.

The rhetoric of shared responsibility sounds rather hollow today, except when it is tethered to a war of self-defense against terrorists. Yet a century ago, those who spoke about collective sin and collective redemption occupied the mainstream. They took their place in a long narrative of reform that included the abolitionists, early temperance agitators (who battled poverty as much as saloons), the Knights of Labor, and the Populist insurgency — all led by men and women whose faith motivated their activism. From William Lloyd Garrison to Sojourner Truth to Frances Willard and Edward Bellamy, nineteenth-century progressives never advanced without a moral awakening entangled with notions about what the Lord would have them do.

To inspire another such upheaval was Bryan’s fondest desire. His record was impressive, particularly for someone who held no office during most of his career. Starting with the campaign of 1896, the Democrats ceased being the more conservative of the two major parties — with the fateful exception of their support for Jim Crow. Bryan was the leading proponent of three constitutional amendments — for the income tax, the popular election of senators, and prohibition. He also did much to place on the national agenda a variety of other significant reforms: insured bank deposits, government-owned railroads, publicly financed campaigns, and a reliable method for preventing war. None of these became law during his lifetime — he had better luck with statewide curbs on the teaching of Darwinism. But it was certainly not for lack of promotion or resolve. “With the exception of the men have occupied the White House,” wrote William Gibbs McAdoo in 1931, “Bryan . . . had more to do with the shaping of the public policies of the last forty years than any other American citizen.”

It is probably fortunate that he was never elected president. As Bryan demonstrated while secretary of state, he relished confrontations over principle and abhorred compromise. If he had captured the White House, that trait would have made it difficult for him to rally an enduring majority in what would have been a nation rent by angry divisions of class, region, and party.

But neither was he a classic demagogue, burning to seize power and vengeful toward anyone who opposed him. Unlike Tom Watson, Huey Long, George Wallace, and others of their ilk, Bryan never appealed to the violent or authoritarian impulses of his fellow citizens. He was satisfied to feed a grassroots hunger for changes in the American social order, which he believed would have profound moral implications. Bryan’s oratory infused the idea of a welfare state with passionate intensity. If the Golden Rule was too simple a prescription, it was certainly superior to impersonal bureaucracy or strong-man rule.

Whatever he achieved depended on the power and durability of his voice and the romantic tenor of his words. Every other progressive giant — TR, Woodrow Wilson, Robert La Follette, Jane Addams, Booker T. Washington, and the radical Eugene Debs — was a gifted orator. But each had to worry about operating an institution — whether a local one such as Hull House or Tuskegee Institute, a state, or the entire federal government. But Bryan could devote decades to honing the art of preaching both for God and for the welfare of the common white American.

That rhetoric and the new style of politics it helped to create may be his most enduring legacy. “Um, um, um. Look at all those folks — you’d think William Jennings Bryan was speakin’,'” jokes a character in To Kill a Mockingbird as her Alabama town fills up for a dramatic trial. After the stirring contest of 1896, most presidential candidates learned to engage in an aggressively affable, go-to-the-people campaign to demonstrate that theirs was a cause of and for the common people. For over half a century, every subsequent Democratic nominee, with the exception of the hapless Alton Parker and John W. Davis, played the happy populist warrior — cracking jokes, beaming for the cameras, flaying the corporate rich before audiences of the insecure. Even after its party’s candidates stopped bashing “economic royalists,” Democrats tried their best to appear friendly, optimistic, and visionary. John Scopes, of all people, regretted that Bryan hadn’t survived into the age of television, when “he could have projected his personality to millions” and had a good chance of being elected president. For Americans with a sense of history, Bryan remains a paragon of eloquence for “a lazy-tonged people.” And unlike contemporary candidates for high office, he wrote every word that he spoke, except when he was quoting someone else.

The triumph of the ever-accessible, always loquacious political style helps reassure ordinary citizens as well as to mobilize partisan crowds. As the federal government grew in size and complexity, Americans hankered for leaders who could make the enterprise of governing seem more personal and comprehensible. The electorate struck an implicit bargain with the political class: “If we can no longer understand or control much of what you do, at least give us men and women at the top who can comfort us and, on occasion, provide a thrill.” This was as true for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush as it was for Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy.

Yet Bryan was a great Christian liberal, and to neglect the content of his prophecies sells both his career and American political history short. Vachel Lindsay wrote in 1915:

When Bryan speaks, the sky is ours,
The wheat, the forests, and the flowers,
And who is here to say us nay?
Fled are the ancient tyrant powers.
When Bryan speaks, then, I rejoice.
His is the strange composite voice
Of many million singing souls
Who make world-brotherhood their choice.

Critics from Mencken onward failed to appreciate what drew millions of Americans to Bryan and that our own era of nonstop satire and twenty-four-hour commerce manifestly lacks: the yearning for a society run by and for ordinary ┬ápeople who lead virtuous lives. As everyone who heard him could attest, Bryan made significant public issues sound urgent, dramatic, and clear, and he encouraged citizens to challenge the motives and interests of the most powerful people in the land. That is a quality absent among our recent leaders, for all their promises to leave no man, woman, or child behind. Bryan’s sincerity, warmth, and passion for a better world won the hearts of people who cared for no other public figure in his day. We should take their reasons seriously before we decide to mistrust them.

[Adapted from Locusts and Wild Honey, 4/12/12]

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Horace Bushnell: A misguided herald sounding an uncertain trumpet

Naturalistic theology (often referred to as theological liberalism) did not appear as a challenge to orthodoxy overnight. Its precursors constituted the panoply of heresies repudiated by the Ancient Church and, as the preacher of Ecclesiastes long ago observed, there is nothing new under the sun. The rise of naturalistic theology first in Europe and then in America was, in large part, merely a repackaging of old lies in newer, more sophisticated, wrapping.

In his encyclopedic history of homiletics, The Company of Preachers (Kregel, 1998), David L. Larsen notes the rise of “New England theology” in the early nineteenth century and the negative influence it had on the preachers of the day. Like most expressions of naturalism, this was a theology of denial, not affirmation. New England theology denied the orthodox doctrines of sin, depravity, and imputation, paving the way for even more radical departures from the faith as the century progressed.

The person at the center of the transition from doctrinal purity to theological liberalism, was Horace Bushnell (1802-1876), a gifted preacher with a penchant for pushing the doctrinal envelope well beyond acceptable limits.

Bushnell has been called the father of liberalism, and indeed in moving beyond New England theology he lurched very close to Unitarianism. Certainly in God in Christ he lapsed into Unitarian thinking, espousing a modal view of the Trinity. In his Vicarious Sacrifice and Forgiveness and Law, Bushnell jettisoned transactual and propitiatory aspects of the atonement. In a reaction against revivalism, he opted for gradualism rather than conversion in his book Christian Nurture. Neither did he believe a child to be depraved. He believed the child was to grow up never knowing that he or she is other than a Christian.

Charles Hodge spoke of his views as “less than Christian.” For Bushnell the Bible was essentially figurative. In 1866 he indicated his leaning toward understanding the fall in Eden as a myth. Jesus was teacher rather than the crucified and suffering God. His were “orthodox memories, Unitarian hopes.” The old wine had not survived being transferred to new bottles. He scoffed at the idea of the Second Coming. He was very theological but he did not preach sound doctrine.

What Bushnell lacked in doctrinal substance, he made up for in homiletical style. This was not enough, however, to spare him criticism for going off the theological and exegetical reservation.

Yet Bushnell was a preacher’s preacher. There was a virility in his style and a fire inside him, but the common people were not drawn to his variety of naturalism. Early on, he gained a reputation as a public speaker of note, and his ability to title sermons is dramatic. Little wonder he was offered the presidency of the College of California (later the University of California at Berkeley), which he turned down.

Bushnell’s celebrated sermon on “Unconscious Influence” is based on John 20:8, “Then went in also that other disciple.” But for Bushnell this had nothing to do with the resurrection or Jesus Christ. He did not do exegesis, and even Brastow speaks of his interpretations as often “fanciful” and lacking “the support of recognized exegetical canons.”

[Larsen, p. 528]

In the end, Bushnell must be characterized, in Larsen’s words, “as a tragic figure in American pulpit annals” whose “influence upon successive generations has been unfortunate.” For all his intellect and homiletical ingenuity, he was a misguided herald sounding an uncertain trumpet.

Still relevant: Peter Berger on American apostasy

It has been over a quarter of a century since Peter L. Berger delivered his 1987 Erasmus Lecture entitled, “Different Gospels: The Social Sources of American Apostasy.” While the social, religious, and political landscape were somewhat different at the time, his observations on the not so rosy state of the American church, particularly its mainline Protestant franchises, remain astoundingly relevant today. Consider his caution against blurring the lines between the temporal and eternal realms.

If we are liberated by faith, we act in the full knowledge of the precariousness and tragic unpredictability of all human projects. Most important, we act in this world not to be saved, not to attain some perfect purity or justice (which goals are not attainable), but to be of specific and necessarily limited service to others. Paul addresses himself to the Galatians on this issue when he insists that the freedom of the Christian is to be used as an opportunity for service, in love of one’s neighbor (Gal. 5:13-14). Let me put this in terms as worldly as I can find: we get no moral brownie points for good intentions or noble goals. The moral measure of actions is their probable consequences for others. This is especially so in the case of political actions, because this is a category of actions with particularly unpredictable and potentially disastrous consequences. Precisely because of this, we are most likely to be effective politically (effective, that is, in being of service to our neighbors) if we ground ourselves in a realm beyond politics, thus becoming free to deal with political reality soberly and pragmatically. We cannot do this if we look on politics as the realm of redemption.

Elsewhere, he relates a personal story to illustrate how churches which immerse themselves in political agendas lose sight of the things that matter most.

Some time ago a friend of mine went through a very difficult period when it was suspected that he might be suffering from cancer. It turned out later that this was not the case, but during this anxiety-ridden period neither he nor his family was given any attention by the clergy or the active members of his congregation. This is a congregation famous for its social and political activism. No one was interested in what, compared with the allegedly great historic challenges or our age, was the trivial matter of one man’s fear of pain and death. The people of this congregation had more important things to do–attacking the “root causes” of hunger by lobbying in Washington, organizing to “show solidarity” with Nicaragua, going on record (“making a moral stand”) against apartheid. My friend says that during this time he felt like an invisible man in that congregation. Needless to say, this is a congregation that religiously employs “inclusive language.” (Again, I can hear some mutterings: Can one not lobby in Washington and also minister to the sick? Perhaps. In this case, the first activity precluded the second. And one may reflect that it is easier to love people in distant lands than people next door.)