The evangelical who made Democrats liberal

Scott Farris has a feature in the Washington Post about how those who lost presidential campaigns often had big and long-lasting effects on their parties and on the nation.  Barry Goldwater and George McGovern would be the obvious examples.  But the most powerful influence, according to Farris, was that of evangelical Christian best known today for battling Darwinism in the Scopes trial:

But the greatest transformation probably occurred in 1896, when William Jennings Bryan, 36, became the youngest man ever nominated for president.

Throughout the 19th century, the Democrats had been the conservative, small-government party. In a single election, in which he campaigned with “an excitement that was almost too intense for life,” as a contemporary reporter wrote, Bryan remade the Democratic Party into the progressive, populist group it remains today.

The 1896 campaign was an extraordinary struggle. Every major newspaper, even traditionally Democratic ones, endorsed Bryan’s opponent, William McKinley. Even Democratic President Grover Cleveland urged supporters to work for McKinley’s election, not Bryan’s. The Republicans significantly outspent Bryan, but he countered with a matchless energy, personally addressing 5 million people over the course of the campaign. Instead of being buried in a landslide, he won 47 percent of the popular vote and carried 22 of the 45 states.

Bryan, who saw religion as a force for progressive reform, is sometimes portrayed as a simpleton, even a reactionary, because of his crusade against the teaching of evolution as fact. Yet in many ways he was far ahead of his time. In 1896 and in his subsequent presidential campaigns in 1900 and 1908, he advocated for women’s suffrage, creation of the Federal Reserve and implementation of a progressive income tax, to name a few reforms. When Franklin Roosevelt implemented the New Deal, Herbert Hoover sniffed that it was just Bryanism by another name.

via The most important losers in American politics – The Washington Post.

This reminds us of a time when the conservative Christians we now call evangelicals tended to be politically liberal.  How do you account for that?  Can it be that applying the Bible to politics can cut both ways?

I would like you liberal readers to pay tribute to William Jennings Bryan.  You tend to say today that religion should be kept out of politics.  But don’t you appreciate how “Bryanism” gave us the New Deal and changed the Democratic party from the conservative small-government party to the progressive and big-government party it is today?

I would like you conservative readers to criticize William Jennings Bryan.  Don’t you think he should have kept his religion out of politics?  Are there elements of “Bryanism” in the Christian right today?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Caleb Land

    As a conservative I will criticize Bryan, but not because his religion influenced his political ideas. I would be critical of Bryan because I disagree with his application of biblical principles in the public sphere. The Bible has much to say about public life and there is much wisdom and many principles to be gained there. The problem is when christians on the right and left do poor hermenutics and apply teaching directed at the church to the civil government. This is what Bryan was guilty of.

  • Caleb Land

    As a conservative I will criticize Bryan, but not because his religion influenced his political ideas. I would be critical of Bryan because I disagree with his application of biblical principles in the public sphere. The Bible has much to say about public life and there is much wisdom and many principles to be gained there. The problem is when christians on the right and left do poor hermenutics and apply teaching directed at the church to the civil government. This is what Bryan was guilty of.

  • Tom Hering

    Bryan was a mix of what we, today, consider distinctly liberal and distinctly conservative ideas. As is Barack Obama. As are half the Republican candidates. Meh – so are most voters.

  • Tom Hering

    Bryan was a mix of what we, today, consider distinctly liberal and distinctly conservative ideas. As is Barack Obama. As are half the Republican candidates. Meh – so are most voters.

  • Matt

    Let’s get a couple of things straight about Bryan if we are going to talk about him.

    Yes, he was against evolution. But he was also an opponent of the Butler act which was the law Scopes was tried for violating. And, in fact, far from objecting to the small fine as he is shown doing in the play “inherit the wind,” Bryan himself offered to pay the $100 Scopes was fined when he was found guilty.

    The fact is that, in the end, our religion will always play a large part in all vocations of life, including our participation in the political realm. I agree with some parts of what Bryan did and disagree with other things. But that he made political decisions based on his religious beliefs is not something I will criticize him for. Allowing one’s belief to influence one’s actions is simply the core definition of integrity.

    That being said, the religious right is wrong, not in allowing their religious beliefs to influence their political efforts, but in seeing political efforts as the goal of Christianity to the point that they skip the real power of Christianity, the proclamation of Law and Gospel. They are attempting to achieve sanctification without first proclaiming sin and justification.

    Christianity has influenced politics best by simply creating Christians who, in the following out of their daily lives, simply live out their faith. More and more, however, I am seeing religious leaders attempting to change behavior, whether through politics or sermons, without first proclaiming Christ and salvation. And this is the essence of hypocrisy.

  • Matt

    Let’s get a couple of things straight about Bryan if we are going to talk about him.

    Yes, he was against evolution. But he was also an opponent of the Butler act which was the law Scopes was tried for violating. And, in fact, far from objecting to the small fine as he is shown doing in the play “inherit the wind,” Bryan himself offered to pay the $100 Scopes was fined when he was found guilty.

    The fact is that, in the end, our religion will always play a large part in all vocations of life, including our participation in the political realm. I agree with some parts of what Bryan did and disagree with other things. But that he made political decisions based on his religious beliefs is not something I will criticize him for. Allowing one’s belief to influence one’s actions is simply the core definition of integrity.

    That being said, the religious right is wrong, not in allowing their religious beliefs to influence their political efforts, but in seeing political efforts as the goal of Christianity to the point that they skip the real power of Christianity, the proclamation of Law and Gospel. They are attempting to achieve sanctification without first proclaiming sin and justification.

    Christianity has influenced politics best by simply creating Christians who, in the following out of their daily lives, simply live out their faith. More and more, however, I am seeing religious leaders attempting to change behavior, whether through politics or sermons, without first proclaiming Christ and salvation. And this is the essence of hypocrisy.

  • SKPeterson

    After reading this I’m putting in this disclaimer: Man, do I get polemical, and quick!, in this comment. Guns blazing and all that.

    What a devil’s choice – W.J. Bryan or McKinley (and T.R. Roosevelt). Progressivism of the Left or of the Right is dangerous, meddlesome stuff and we got it in spades. Most of the current problems we have as a nation in terms of foreign policy adventurism, overwrought regulation, excessive taxation, manipulation of the money supply, irresponsible spending and persistent debt accumulation began right there. Sure, it was “perfected” by the likes of FDR, but why Hoover was “sniffing” at Bryanism is beyond me, he implemented it quite well under his own administration. [Somewhat like all of the Bush administration officials who started the "Too Big to Fail" bailouts and excessive spending and then act surprised when Obama upped their ante and pushed the national debt out of the stratosphere and well into orbit; it's a matter of degree, not principle.]

    How Bryan actually was able to run as a Democrat is a real surprise. It is something I definitely need to read up on. Grover Cleveland was the last great or good Democrat to hold office as President (I’ll say IMHO, but it really is true), ;) and his ideas are at such odds with Bryan that I don’t know where they come from. Even the Progressivist Republicanism of T.R. Roosevelt was of a different order from that of Chester Arthur. It just seems odd that after experiencing one of the greatest periods of economic expansion and improvements in the general welfare in the history of mankind (~1870 – 1900) as evidenced by just about every measure conceivable, that both political parties would embrace the dead hand of Progressivism and actively seek to hamper the vibrancy of the nation economically, culturally and socially.

    It is in many ways, very sad; we are now paying the price for the foolishness of our forefathers. And it seems that that foolishness has been Biblically visited upon this nation for seven generations. Time to bury the tired corpse of Progressive politics championed by Bryan, Wilson, T.R. Roosevelt, Hoover, FDR and their apologists for the past century plus and return to the wisdom of the Founders.

  • SKPeterson

    After reading this I’m putting in this disclaimer: Man, do I get polemical, and quick!, in this comment. Guns blazing and all that.

    What a devil’s choice – W.J. Bryan or McKinley (and T.R. Roosevelt). Progressivism of the Left or of the Right is dangerous, meddlesome stuff and we got it in spades. Most of the current problems we have as a nation in terms of foreign policy adventurism, overwrought regulation, excessive taxation, manipulation of the money supply, irresponsible spending and persistent debt accumulation began right there. Sure, it was “perfected” by the likes of FDR, but why Hoover was “sniffing” at Bryanism is beyond me, he implemented it quite well under his own administration. [Somewhat like all of the Bush administration officials who started the "Too Big to Fail" bailouts and excessive spending and then act surprised when Obama upped their ante and pushed the national debt out of the stratosphere and well into orbit; it's a matter of degree, not principle.]

    How Bryan actually was able to run as a Democrat is a real surprise. It is something I definitely need to read up on. Grover Cleveland was the last great or good Democrat to hold office as President (I’ll say IMHO, but it really is true), ;) and his ideas are at such odds with Bryan that I don’t know where they come from. Even the Progressivist Republicanism of T.R. Roosevelt was of a different order from that of Chester Arthur. It just seems odd that after experiencing one of the greatest periods of economic expansion and improvements in the general welfare in the history of mankind (~1870 – 1900) as evidenced by just about every measure conceivable, that both political parties would embrace the dead hand of Progressivism and actively seek to hamper the vibrancy of the nation economically, culturally and socially.

    It is in many ways, very sad; we are now paying the price for the foolishness of our forefathers. And it seems that that foolishness has been Biblically visited upon this nation for seven generations. Time to bury the tired corpse of Progressive politics championed by Bryan, Wilson, T.R. Roosevelt, Hoover, FDR and their apologists for the past century plus and return to the wisdom of the Founders.

  • Tom Hering

    Regressivism! Huzzah! :-D

  • Tom Hering

    Regressivism! Huzzah! :-D

  • Paul Brownback

    The discussion of religion in politics or in education or in any other arena usually conveys that the alternative is some sort of neutral position. But this is not the case. The alternative almost always constitutes a liberal worldview, which is religious in its own right. Therefore, the issue is not should we include religion but whose religion. In the absence of biblical religion, tax payers money now supports the unabated teaching of the religion of the left in public institutions. The left self-righteously advocates the separation of church and state while vigorously propagating the doctrine of their church at state expense. I agree with the comments above that Bryan’s problem was not advocating religious ideas but advocating ones that were more populist than biblical.

  • Paul Brownback

    The discussion of religion in politics or in education or in any other arena usually conveys that the alternative is some sort of neutral position. But this is not the case. The alternative almost always constitutes a liberal worldview, which is religious in its own right. Therefore, the issue is not should we include religion but whose religion. In the absence of biblical religion, tax payers money now supports the unabated teaching of the religion of the left in public institutions. The left self-righteously advocates the separation of church and state while vigorously propagating the doctrine of their church at state expense. I agree with the comments above that Bryan’s problem was not advocating religious ideas but advocating ones that were more populist than biblical.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Comments 4 and 5 together made my day!

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Comments 4 and 5 together made my day!

  • Tom Hering

    Is the definition of religion getting just a little too broad here? I know it serves purpose of demonizing liberals, but really …

  • Tom Hering

    Is the definition of religion getting just a little too broad here? I know it serves purpose of demonizing liberals, but really …

  • steve

    Tom, #8, I know many people on all sides of the political spectrum who hold to their views as dogmatically as if they were religion. So, perhaps we can use the term “dogmas” here, rather than religion, but Paul’s point is not lost. The fact that one doesn’t profess the majority religion doesn’t make one any more neutral or, more specifically, any less dogmatic.

  • steve

    Tom, #8, I know many people on all sides of the political spectrum who hold to their views as dogmatically as if they were religion. So, perhaps we can use the term “dogmas” here, rather than religion, but Paul’s point is not lost. The fact that one doesn’t profess the majority religion doesn’t make one any more neutral or, more specifically, any less dogmatic.

  • kenneth

    I am certainly not a liberal but in bygone yeass of bad oate sowing I still recognize some good as far as progressivism goes. It could be easily said that the protestant churches were etrenched and needed the push that Jennings started. Social Security may be going bankrupt but I am glad for it. There just is no perfect mix of church and state and even thoughTeddy Roosevelt moved the nation toward an illusionary goal he did stand up for the “common man”. Even the founders gave little concern for then as an elite group that were deeply entrenched in the misery of Enlightment mentality.

    As you might have guessed I was a star struck socialist who thought Marx was the last word. God be praised I was redeemed from that 20th century miasma. For all the regret though I appreciate democratic party leaning toward a more humane interaction amongst the classes. If there were no movement away from authoritarian values that demeaned human beings worthfulness, that is the essence of Christian values, the Magna Carter would have been of no use. And though the millions of deaths that were the result of Communism’s defining of human beings is no justification for “progress” yet lives that are lost in the cause for dignity that Christianity brought to the world were not for nought. As was said above “nothing to die for is nothing to live for… And God’s last Word is absolutely sure!

  • kenneth

    I am certainly not a liberal but in bygone yeass of bad oate sowing I still recognize some good as far as progressivism goes. It could be easily said that the protestant churches were etrenched and needed the push that Jennings started. Social Security may be going bankrupt but I am glad for it. There just is no perfect mix of church and state and even thoughTeddy Roosevelt moved the nation toward an illusionary goal he did stand up for the “common man”. Even the founders gave little concern for then as an elite group that were deeply entrenched in the misery of Enlightment mentality.

    As you might have guessed I was a star struck socialist who thought Marx was the last word. God be praised I was redeemed from that 20th century miasma. For all the regret though I appreciate democratic party leaning toward a more humane interaction amongst the classes. If there were no movement away from authoritarian values that demeaned human beings worthfulness, that is the essence of Christian values, the Magna Carter would have been of no use. And though the millions of deaths that were the result of Communism’s defining of human beings is no justification for “progress” yet lives that are lost in the cause for dignity that Christianity brought to the world were not for nought. As was said above “nothing to die for is nothing to live for… And God’s last Word is absolutely sure!

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Kenneth referred to “the Magna Carter” (@10).

    Is that what Democrats are calling him now? Will they stop at nothing, lionizing even that one-term administration?

    “He’s history’s greatest monster!”

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Kenneth referred to “the Magna Carter” (@10).

    Is that what Democrats are calling him now? Will they stop at nothing, lionizing even that one-term administration?

    “He’s history’s greatest monster!”

  • DonS

    This reminds us of a time when the conservative Christians we now call evangelicals tended to be politically liberal. How do you account for that?

    I’m not sure this is a correct statement. Evangelicals have always been clustered in the South, which was a Democratic stronghold, in the wake of Reconstruction, until Republicans finally broke through in the ’80′s and ’90′s, convincing Southerners that their values were more Republican than Democratic. So, while it is true that a lot more evangelicals used to be Democrats than are today, I don’t think that means they were more liberal. The conservative Democrat has largely disappeared.

  • DonS

    This reminds us of a time when the conservative Christians we now call evangelicals tended to be politically liberal. How do you account for that?

    I’m not sure this is a correct statement. Evangelicals have always been clustered in the South, which was a Democratic stronghold, in the wake of Reconstruction, until Republicans finally broke through in the ’80′s and ’90′s, convincing Southerners that their values were more Republican than Democratic. So, while it is true that a lot more evangelicals used to be Democrats than are today, I don’t think that means they were more liberal. The conservative Democrat has largely disappeared.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Well, DonS, the populist movement, which was indeed very strong in the South, consisted mostly of what we would call evangelical Christians. It was the populists who crusaded for a lot of what are now “liberal” programs. Now one could argue that these voters were really carrying out their self-interests. They were mostly farmers who were at a disadvantage with the railroads and owed lots of money to the banks. Bryan advocated inflation as a way for farmers to pay back their debts with discounted dollars. But this did take the form of moral preaching. As Bryan said in his famous speech, he didn’t want the people to crucified on a cross of gold. (That is, he opposed the gold standard.) The populists also pushed for moral issues, such as prohibition.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Well, DonS, the populist movement, which was indeed very strong in the South, consisted mostly of what we would call evangelical Christians. It was the populists who crusaded for a lot of what are now “liberal” programs. Now one could argue that these voters were really carrying out their self-interests. They were mostly farmers who were at a disadvantage with the railroads and owed lots of money to the banks. Bryan advocated inflation as a way for farmers to pay back their debts with discounted dollars. But this did take the form of moral preaching. As Bryan said in his famous speech, he didn’t want the people to crucified on a cross of gold. (That is, he opposed the gold standard.) The populists also pushed for moral issues, such as prohibition.

  • DonS

    Dr. Veith, I think you might be defining “evangelical Christians” a bit broadly. Huey Long, for example, the consummate populist of that era (early 20th Century), does not seem to have been a very devout Christian, though southern politicians of that era certainly could speak the talk, it being a necessity for political survival. And if you are going to define practically all southerners as being evangelical Christians, because they attended southern Baptist churches (which weren’t necessarily particularly theologically conservative until the Southern Baptist denomination was re-captured by conservatives in the ’70′s and ’80′s, by the way), then you also have to acknowledge that a lot of evangelical Christians weren’t populists, and thus weren’t politically liberal in those days.

    The important thing to understand is that there was practically no conservative movement, as we know it today, having any political power in the U.S. until a resurgence began to occur in the late ’50′s, when conservative thinkers like Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, and Ayn Rand began to circulate their influential writings, and Barry Goldwater ran his quixotic 1964 campaign. Prior to that time, during the New Deal, and the onset of other such social welfare programs, the only opponents based their arguments on cost to society — choices between social welfare and social welfare-lite, essentially. It was only later that conservatives constructed more forceful theoretical arguments, based on concepts of individual freedom and dignity, helping people to understand that bigger government necessarily meant reduced liberty.

    So, the point — a large majority of evangelical Christians have always been largely conservative in their political views — but the political tenets of conservativism, Christian or otherwise — have grown and developed over the past few decades into an understanding that big government has downsides far beyond mere economic costs to the private sector — there is a huge moral and personal cost as well.

  • DonS

    Dr. Veith, I think you might be defining “evangelical Christians” a bit broadly. Huey Long, for example, the consummate populist of that era (early 20th Century), does not seem to have been a very devout Christian, though southern politicians of that era certainly could speak the talk, it being a necessity for political survival. And if you are going to define practically all southerners as being evangelical Christians, because they attended southern Baptist churches (which weren’t necessarily particularly theologically conservative until the Southern Baptist denomination was re-captured by conservatives in the ’70′s and ’80′s, by the way), then you also have to acknowledge that a lot of evangelical Christians weren’t populists, and thus weren’t politically liberal in those days.

    The important thing to understand is that there was practically no conservative movement, as we know it today, having any political power in the U.S. until a resurgence began to occur in the late ’50′s, when conservative thinkers like Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, and Ayn Rand began to circulate their influential writings, and Barry Goldwater ran his quixotic 1964 campaign. Prior to that time, during the New Deal, and the onset of other such social welfare programs, the only opponents based their arguments on cost to society — choices between social welfare and social welfare-lite, essentially. It was only later that conservatives constructed more forceful theoretical arguments, based on concepts of individual freedom and dignity, helping people to understand that bigger government necessarily meant reduced liberty.

    So, the point — a large majority of evangelical Christians have always been largely conservative in their political views — but the political tenets of conservativism, Christian or otherwise — have grown and developed over the past few decades into an understanding that big government has downsides far beyond mere economic costs to the private sector — there is a huge moral and personal cost as well.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Well, conservative Americanism, complete with hijacked Christian religious expression, language etc., is as much a religion as “a liberal worldview” (Paul, #6). Both have their prophets, their dogma’s and their anathema’s. And woe betide those who dare question….

    Neither of those two has much to do with the religon called Christianity, though both really try very hard to co-opt it.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Well, conservative Americanism, complete with hijacked Christian religious expression, language etc., is as much a religion as “a liberal worldview” (Paul, #6). Both have their prophets, their dogma’s and their anathema’s. And woe betide those who dare question….

    Neither of those two has much to do with the religon called Christianity, though both really try very hard to co-opt it.

  • Lutheran

    What KK said (#15).

  • Lutheran

    What KK said (#15).

  • Bob

    Here’s a great primer (there are several more) on the topic –

    “The Unequal Yoke: Evangelical Christianity and Political Conservatism”

    http://www.amazon.com/Unequal-Yoke-Evangelical-Christianity-Conservatism/dp/159752977X/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1325603490&sr=1-4

  • Bob

    Here’s a great primer (there are several more) on the topic –

    “The Unequal Yoke: Evangelical Christianity and Political Conservatism”

    http://www.amazon.com/Unequal-Yoke-Evangelical-Christianity-Conservatism/dp/159752977X/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1325603490&sr=1-4

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Tom @2,

    I dare you to name one clearly conservative thing that Obama holds to that he has not been duplicitous about, or that puts him at odds with the mainline liberal streak found in his party.

    Dude, I like ya, but sometimes I wonder at your faith in government.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Tom @2,

    I dare you to name one clearly conservative thing that Obama holds to that he has not been duplicitous about, or that puts him at odds with the mainline liberal streak found in his party.

    Dude, I like ya, but sometimes I wonder at your faith in government.

  • http://www.drslewis.org/camille/ Camille K. Lewis

    Oh dear me, no, no. Bryan is hardly a political liberal. I guess I should say “was hardly a political liberal.” I tend to get stuck in the historical present.

    There is a lot to admire about Bryan. One of my favorite and most genuinely progressive things about him is that he loudly objected to eugenics. He and the Catholics agreed on that point — over and against the “scientists.”

    But he disagreed with eugenics over and against that most powerful of Protestant forces at that time. A a force that did represent evangelicals in the South and the North. An organization that was quite a conservative force, a melding of so-calle religion and politics. A group that adored Bryan and that collected what today would be $6mill to start a college in honor of him.

    The Klan.

  • http://www.drslewis.org/camille/ Camille K. Lewis

    Oh dear me, no, no. Bryan is hardly a political liberal. I guess I should say “was hardly a political liberal.” I tend to get stuck in the historical present.

    There is a lot to admire about Bryan. One of my favorite and most genuinely progressive things about him is that he loudly objected to eugenics. He and the Catholics agreed on that point — over and against the “scientists.”

    But he disagreed with eugenics over and against that most powerful of Protestant forces at that time. A a force that did represent evangelicals in the South and the North. An organization that was quite a conservative force, a melding of so-calle religion and politics. A group that adored Bryan and that collected what today would be $6mill to start a college in honor of him.

    The Klan.


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