The Life of Bryan

Michael Kazin explains why American politics needs another William Jennings Bryan.
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Take your pick:

• William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) was the blustering bigot of the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial" in Dayton, Tennessee.

• Bryan was the stalwart defender of Christian truth during an era of rapid theological and cultural shifts.

• Bryan was the infamous three-time loser for President.

• Bryan was the "Great Commoner," a pious populist who spoke for the masses when industrial fat cats ruled America.

Scholars unsympathetic to Bryan's beliefs and causes have for years solidified his legacy as a retrograde blowhard. But a new biography from Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin argues that a Bryan revival might be just the thing to resuscitate populist pols, including Christian liberals.

Kazin makes no effort to disguise the intent of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. "I wrote this book, in part, to gain a measure of respect for Bryan and his people," Kazin writes in the first chapter, "The Romance of Jefferson and Jesus." "[W]e lack politicians, filled with conviction and blessed with charisma, who are willing to lead a charge against secular forces whose power is both mightier and more subtly deployed than a century ago. Perhaps the story of an earnest and eloquent, if not godly, hero can help."

Kazin has chosen an almost impossible task. Today's progressives aren't clamoring for a fervent evangelical known more from Inherit the Wind than for his economic egalitarianism. Conservatives will applaud Bryan's righteous rhetoric, but will cringe at his simplistic populism. Still, in the hands of a capable historian, Bryan reemerges as strangely relevant for today. Secular elites like those who mocked Bryan can't regain power without religious populists. And evangelicals can't ...

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