The Berned-Over District
Writing from Rochester, NY, a week ahead of the recent New York Democratic Presidential primary, D
By Miriam Attia|May 5, 2016
Writing from Rochester, NY, a week ahead of the recent New York Democratic Presidential primary, D. D. Guttenplan likened the fervor surrounding Bernie Sanders’s political moment to the Protestant religious revivals that consumed that same region in the 1830s. In the editorial, Guttenplan tacitly figures Sanders as a secular analogue of the earlier revival’s central architect and promoter, Charles Grandison Finney.
Among the warrants for the extended comparison, Guttenplan cites Sanders’s thronging crowds, prone to enthusiasms; his self-positioning as the standard bearer for a range of equal rights movements, which Guttenplan reads as echoes of diverse and multiform quests for equality “sparked” by the “Great Awakening”; and his campaign’s “mobilizing effect” for the project of reclaiming the American Dream.
Does Guttenplan’s analogy withstand a closer look?
American presidential contests suggest revival comparisons simply by virtue of their susceptibility to golden-age reasoning: a revival, Finney notes, presupposes a decline and political candidates often seek traction with a rhetoric of getting back—to the Constitution, to the founders, to “The Greatest Generation,” to the Reagan era, and more. Sanders’s call to reclaim the viability of the American Dream and the efficacy of the will of “we the people” satisfies this basic condition.
His habitual attribution of the power of the political movement he shepherds to the people who compose it recalls Finney’s insistence that a revival is the work of human hands rather than of miracles. If one regards Sanders as the Democratic proponent of “new measures” (e.g., the unapologetic effort to claim and define “democratic socialism” as consistent with American ideals), then the Clinton versus Sanders opposition corresponds to the internal division in Finney’s nineteenth-century Presbyterian milieu between staid conservators and proponents of a more enthusiastic evangelicalism.
The most interesting resonance that emerges from Guttenplan’s analogy is the dual significance of fire: in Finney’s Lectures, revival conviction spreads like fire, but fire scorches the pamphlets and persons of revivalism’s detractors; at present, it is possible to “feel the Bern” both in salubrious and in uncongenial ways.
The most complicated resonance is Guttenplan’s portrayal of Rosario Dawson—a multiracial woman—as an exhorter, which recalls the momentary egalitarianism of early- to mid-nineteenth-century revivalism and invokes both the ongoing lack of ready access to venues of American political power for persons of color and the Sanders campaign’s own difficulties with garnering support from these voters.
Correspondences notwithstanding, Finney’s positive definition of “revival” as “nothing else than a new beginning of obedience to God” complicates matters. Revivalism, for Finney, is about faith and its salvific effects in a decidedly Protestant Christian register; by his own confession, Bernie Sanders is “not actively involved with organized religion,” and his belief in God “means that all of us are connected, all life connected, and that we are all tied together.” Guttenplan accounts for this by saying that Sanders’s revival is “of a peculiarly determinedly secular kind.” Like Finney’s revivalism, Sanders’s stump act “ma[kes] visible their [his auditors’] own power—in this case the power to change, not themselves but society.”
Leaving aside the naive use of the term “secular,” we note that Finney did regard revivalism as something that can transform society, and indeed his lectures shade towards the reformation of the nation, as much as of the church, as they progress. Crucially, though, the reformation of the individual is prerequisite to this work, and aside from Sanders’s appeals to his audience for sustained political engagement (read, actually voting), his implied public comprises victims (of Citizens United, of Wall Street) more so than sinners.
Perhaps more damning for the analogy, Finney’s Rochester revivals have been construed (e.g. Johnson; see Resources) as the means whereby entrenched merchant elites reconstituted their political power upon experiencing the unanticipated and, to them, deleterious effects of their prior divestment from household-centered modes of patriarchal moral suasion in the market revolution. We wager that Bernie Sanders is not seeking a revival of this type.
Whatever its merits, Guttenplan’s conceit invites consideration of Finney’s own counsel to leaders of revivals: “While its promoters keep humble, and in a prayerful spirit, while they do not retaliate, but possess their souls in patience, while they do not suffer themselves to be diverted, to recriminate, and grieve away the spirit of prayer, the work will go forward.” By analogy, Sanders should refrain from negative campaigning against Clinton, make efforts to rein in and correct the so-called “Bernie Bros,” and commit to the patience-game of delegate collecting in order to usher in the (“secular”) millennium.
Sanders’s electoral losses in New York and other New England states seem to preclude the thoroughgoing revolution for which he had initially campaigned (i.e., a Sanders presidentiad). Whether he can sustain the revival for long enough to influence the Democratic Party’s eventual platform remains to be seen.
Bump, Philip. “Bernie Sanders’s supporters are passionate—but maybe not as much as you think.” The Washington Post, February 20, 2016, The Fix.
Finney, Charles Grandison. Lectures on Revivals of Religion. New York: Fleming R. Revell Company, 1868.
Guttenplan, D.D. “Bernie Sanders Is Doing Something More Than Just Running for President.” The Nation, April 13, 2016, Election 2016.
Johnson, Paul E. A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837. Twenty-fifth anniversary edition. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.
Meyer, Robinson. “Here Comes the Berniebro.” The Atlantic, October 17, 2015, Politics.
Sellers, Frances Stead and John Wagner. “Why Bernie Sanders doesn’t participate in organized religion.” The Washington Post, January 27, 2016, Politics.
Image: Watercolor by J. Maze Burbank of an 1839 Methodist revival during the Second Great Awakening in the U.S. (public domain).
The authors (in alphabetical order), Miriam Attia, Liz Brocious, Joel Brown, Doug Collins, Danielle Cox, Hannah Fitch, Jenny Frary, Ben Garrett, John Howell (instructor), Colton Lott, Diane Picio, Zach Ralston, Erin Simmonds, and Sam Stella, are members of the University of Chicago Divinity School's Spring 2016 quarter course "The Second Great Awakening."
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