October 2, 2008
Christian Populism, Then and Now
— Robert S. McElvaine
Vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin may seem at first glance to have much in common with Christian populist William Jennings Bryan: Both present themselves as representatives of the Common Citizen and claim to believe that everything in the Bible is literally true. But is this populism -- or this Christianity -- in fact the same?
I would argue that the right-wing populism represented by Palin -- and, much more importantly, by the political movement that embraced her -- is the inversion of the populism represented by Bryan. Likewise, the Christianity preached by the Christian Right that is so enthralled with Governor Palin is the inversion of the Christianity preached by Bryan (and, at least as I see it, also an inversion of the teachings of Jesus).
On the surface, Sarah Palin appears to be similar to the Great Commoner. Some of the remarks about Bryan made by leading figures of his time who had the benefit of education parallel what similar people are now saying about Palin. Theodore Roosevelt called Bryan "an amiable, windy creature who knows almost nothing." Woodrow Wilson said Bryan was "amiable and charming," but "foolish and dangerous in his theoretical beliefs."
"He was himself the average man of a large part of that country [the West]," journalist Charles Wilson Thompson said of Bryan. "He did not merely resemble that average man, he was that average man." One might be tempted to say something similar about Palin. Nor is it difficult to picture Governor Palin in the dock at the Scopes Trial, having agreed, as Bryan did, to testify as an expert witness on the Bible.
Like the Boy Orator of the Platte, the Girl Orator of the Yukon burst on the national stage overnight, an example of someone arising from the frontier to do battle against the powerful and challenge for national office. Each became enormously popular with a segment of the American populace by delivering a fiery speech at a political party's national convention. But it is with those speeches that the similarity begins to unravel.
"The Interests" whom Bryan denounced in his memorable "Cross of Gold" speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention in Chicago were a far cry from the people Palin ridiculed in her speech in St. Paul. In right-wing populism's demonology, "The Interests" of Bryan's day have been replaced by "Elites," a switch which makes all the difference. The former (while also a coded nudge to anti-Semitic feelings) located common citizens' problems with Wall Street and corporate tycoons. "The Interests" are corporate bosses and their government collaborators, the rich who get richer as the poor get poorer -- the people who have just brought the nation once again to the brink of where their forebears brought it, in Bryan's era, in 1893 and again in 1929.
The term "Elites," on the other hand, associates with education, the academy, policy think tanks, government professionals, plus the media writ large and "Hollywood" in general. The "Elites" Palin rails against don't work on Wall Street; rather, they are centered in California, Washington, and Cambridge. Attacking them diverts the attention of the hard-hit segments of the population from those on whom Bryan focused his anger.
Bryan's left-wing populists spoke for the oppressed; today's right-wing populists generally side with those who daily press down on the brow of labor a crown of thorns and are in the business of crucifying humankind on a Cross of Greed. Those whom Bryan denounced as "the Interests" had much earlier been denounced by Jesus as "moneychangers". They had no place in Jesus' temple or in the Christianity of Bryan. Therein lies perhaps the most notable difference between the populisms of Bryan and Palin: While both rest on a kind of Biblical literalism, Bryan included Jesus' teachings in what he believed should be literally accepted. Most of today's Christian Right confines its literalism to a few chapters in Genesis and Leviticus, along with selected passages from Paul's epistles, and Revelation. The teachings of Jesus are too often reduced to the "Suggestions on the Mount."
This could be why "Interests" seem welcome in the temples of today's Christian populism. Bryan opposed and Palin opposes biological Darwinism. The Christian populists of Bryan's day also opposed social Darwinism, but today's Christian populists see social Darwinism as the way the world works. Anyone who thinks that Jesus would endorse social Darwinism obviously doesn't understand Biblical literalism in the same way that Bryan did, when he said at the Scopes Trial, "The Christian religion is a religion of helpfulness, of service, embodied in the language of Jesus."
For Bryan and the Christian populists of a century and more ago, populism consisted of an attempt to put the teachings of Jesus into practice by helping "the least of these," but for the Christian populists of today, populism is an attempt to reverse the teachings of Jesus by instead helping the moneychangers themselves.
Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts & Letters at Millsaps College. His new book is Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America (Crown).