Christian reaction to President Bush's election victory has been mixed. While many believers are expressing joy and relief at the election's result, a vocal minority worries publicly that the 'values' discussion has been too narrowly constructed. In a nation where the separation of church and state has been so beneficial for the church, Christians are not sure how to take pundits' proclamations of a new era of political power for the faithful.
America's curious political alliances remain a gray area for Christians accustomed to the Bible's black-and-white certitude. Sitting at the top of each party, wealthy elites call the shots, representing business interests (predominantly Republican) and the entertainment and media industries (predominantly Democratic). But thanks to the democratic process, these elites compete for the votes of millions of ordinary Americans, dependent on them to enact their agenda.
Christians are caught in the middle, presently divided. According to recently released polling data, born-again whites supported President Bush by a 72-27 margin. The contrast was even more dramatic, but reversed, among born-again blacks, who supported Senator Kerry 85-15. Each constituency is vital to its political sponsor's survival. Born-again Hispanics, composing nearly 50 percent of voters in that emerging swing ethnic group, supported Bush 56-44. In general, Christians who vote Democrat tout the government's obligation to promote economic equality, but downplay the political leadership's impact on sexual norms and abortion. Conversely, Christians who vote Republican know well the government's cultural impact. But they frequently brush aside the structural impediments to economic fairness.
The faithful in America have not always tolerated this dichotomy. Grassroots Christian activism spurred the great reforms of the Progressive Era and civil rights movement, simultaneously combating economic injustice and moral relativism. Evidenced by 53 percent of the electorate claiming a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the grassroots support is there. With history's help, Christian leaders can harness this tremendous influence and direct it for the holistic good of the church and all our neighbors.
In his disturbingly shrill analysis of Bush's victory, historian Garry Wills lamented "Bryan's revenge." He was speaking of William Jennings Bryan, the thrice-defeated presidential nominee, champion of populism, and fatal victor of the 1925 Scopes evolution trial. One can imagine the great orator responding to Wills, as he did to an opponent in his renowned 1896 "Cross of Gold" speech, "The great gentleman from Wisconsin [or in this case, Evanston] has said that he fears a Robespierre. My friends, in this land of the free you need not fear that a tyrant will spring up from among the people."
A devout evangelical and U.S. Congressman from Nebraska, Bryan fought the business interests of the Northeast, which he said unfairly manipulated the economic system at the expense of farmers and wage-earners. His powerful rhetoric inspired politically marginalized Americans. "The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor or a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error," he told the Democratic National Convention in 1896. He strongly opposed a move to the gold standard, which he argued would further solidify the moneyed elite's grip on the economy. "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold," Bryan declaimed.
Bryan spoke as a prophet ahead of his timebecause he never won an election after 1892, his ability to directly implement policy was severely limited. Though considered radical while he was running for President, many of his proposed reforms were later enacted. In 1913, the 16th amendment to the Constitution was ratified, establishing a graduated income tax. In 1914, the 17th amendment provided for direct election of U.S. Senators. Then, in 1920, the 18th amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale, and distribution of alcohol. Just a few months later that year, the 19th amendment enabled women to vote.
However, the stereotype perpetuated by Wills and every high-school history textbook depicts Bryan not as a champion of progressive reform, but as a fundamentalist buffoon. This reductionist history reflects less of what Bryan did and more of what happened when he died. His court-room testimony at the Scopes trial, lampooned by H.L Mencken and immortalized in Inherit the Wind, has become the de facto point of social retreat for conservative Christians. Mercilessly mocked and losing ground in many of the nation's denominations and seminaries, the faithful remnant hibernated while theological liberals co-opted the "social gospel" (which, as historian Timothy L. Smith has taught us, had in fact been pioneered by social-reformist evangelicals) and shaped America's political agenda.
Decades later, the "social gospel" achieved its greatest victory on an urgent moral question of the daysegregation. Where white evangelical Christians once led the abolitionist fight, they found themselves peripheral to the debate and frequently complicit in the problem. Meanwhile, black evangelicals forged an alliance with liberal whites to persuade public opinion against racism and segregation.
As with Bryan's prairie populism, the civil rights movement forced its concerns on the national agenda through the sheer tenacity and number of its agitators. But tenacity and numbers alone could only do so much to rectify society's ills. So long as the political structures remained skewed against minorities, they would protect injustice; blacks' ability to overcome inequality would remain hampered.
Whereas now we look back on segregation as an obvious injustice, millions of ordinary Americans and fair-minded Christians did not see the problem. Even Billy Graham's moderate efforts to end segregation were staunchly opposed by a number of fellow believers. Yet many courageous politicians, aware of the cost their stance might exact at home, nevertheless supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Of course, even more than 40 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, racism remains potent and injustice persists. The limitations, not to mention the dangers, of Christian engagement in politics are familiar. In his landmark work, Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr warned, "If Romans 13 [obedience to political authority] is not balanced by 1 John [warning against loving the world] the church becomes an instrument of state, unable to point men to their transpolitical destiny and their suprapolitical loyalty; unable to engage in political tasks, save as one more group of power-hungry or security-seeking men."
Yet for Niebuhr, the danger of inaction is greater, for the culture shaped by political leaders affects every Christian and the neighbors we love. "Man not only speaks but thinks with the aid of the language of culture," Niebuhr observed. "Not only has the objective world about him been modified by human achievement; but the forms and attitudes of his mind which allow him to make sense out of the objective world have been given him by culture. He cannot dismiss the philosophy and science of his society as though they were external to him; they are in him . He cannot rid himself of political beliefs and economic customs by rejecting the more or less external institutions; these customs and beliefs have taken up residence in his mind."
Bryan's populists and the civil rights movement show the power of the mobilized masses in American democracy. Now in our own day, the masses have gathered once again, mobilized by a desire to see their government promote righteousness and justice. With faith in God and a healthy skepticism of government's limitations, we can channel this power to love our neighbors.
Collin Hansen is assistant editor for Christianity Today magazine. More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Bryan's entire Cross of Gold speech is available from the Douglass Archives of American Public Address.
Articles on Bryan and the Scopes trial from our sister publication Christian History & Biography include:
The Man They Made a Monkey | William Jennings Bryan won the battle but lost the war against teaching evolution in the schools. (March 3, 2000)
Darrow Takes the Stand | Bryan cross-examines his adversary. (1997)
The Monkey Trial | The first trial of the century revealed a great divide separating American Christians. (1997)
How to Pray for Our Troops | This Veteran's Day, let's commend our men and women of the services to the God who brings good even from the most evil circumstances. (Nov. 05, 2004)
Reports of the Revival | The Confederate camp became "a school of Christ." (Nov. 05, 2004)
Courting the Catholic Voter | A new book tells the fascinating story of how America's Catholics decided past elections. (Oct. 29, 2004)
The Politicians' Patron | As the Roman Catholic "patron saint of politicians," Thomas More is not quite a model for all seasons. (Oct. 22, 2004)
The Vanishing Act of the Church in Turkey | A church worn down by Christian rivalry and Islamic jihad hangs on in the land of Nicea and Ephesus. (Oct. 15, 2004)
Cockroaches and the Nicene Creed | To an accompaniment of whale songs, the worshippers glory in God's creation; there's no service quite like the annual blessing of the animals at St. John the Divine. (Oct. 08, 2004)
Romanticism Gone to SeedPart II | Have the holiness and Pentecostal movements really been "hyper-vertical" and "anti-domestic"? (Oct. 01, 2004)
Getting the Word Out | An exhibit at the Huntington Library shows how Bibles big and small gave power to the people. (Sept. 24, 2004)
The Roots of Pentecostal ScandalRomanticism Gone to Seed | The sexual stumblings of prominent ministers point to a hidden flaw in Pentecostal spirituality. (Sept. 17, 2004)
Think TV | A PBS special personalizes the questions of God, morality, miracles, and the afterlife in the lives of C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud. (Sept. 10, 2004)
The Friends of The Christ of The Passion | Popular interest in the person of Jesus is widening to include his closest friends. But who were these people, really? (Sept. 03, 2004)
A God's-Eye View of Gutenberg | The rise, fall, and redemption of the Father of the Information Age. (Aug. 27, 2004)
Revisiting the Pagan Olympic Games | New scholarship on the ancient Olympics reminds Christians why Emperor Theodosius outlawed the event so many centuries ago. (Aug. 20, 2004)