A 19th Century Christian Statesman for the 21st Century?

A 19th Century Christian Statesman for the 21st Century? June 5, 2020

Once upon a time there was a Fundamentalist Christian who believed the Social Gospel, walked very near to a pacifist line, insisted on the role of big government in the life of the individual, and ran for President three times as a Democrat. If we had lived at the turn of the 20th Century, we and every American would have known the name William Jennings Bryan. As it is now, if we know anything about him it is likely through his representation in Inherit the Wind. Which is a fine movie, but really doesn’t do justice to the life and career of William Jennings Bryan. For that, you should pick up Michael Kazin’s book A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan.

From his career as an attorney to his (brief) tenure in the House of Representatives to his journalistic endeavors, Kazin gives us a lively and engaging introduction to Bryan’s life and a thorough look at Bryan’s politics and ambitions. Specifically, we see the connection between Bryan’s oratory, his political beliefs, and his ambitions.

“Other national leaders of the era… spoke widely and often, in distinctive styles that boosted their renown and advanced their ends. But for Bryan, tireless speechmaking was both a means and an end. It enabled him to express what, in his mind, were self-evident verities about morality, religion, and government. It also made him a prosperous and celebrated man who continued to make news for the rest of his life. Speaking common truths to millions of common people, he persuaded himself that he was doing God’s work by defending the interests of suffering humanity.” (123)

Bryan’s rhetoric especially appealed to a broad swath of Christians, from those of the Social Gospel variety to theologically conservative Evangelicals. Kazin is at least implicitly writing to remind Evangelicals that there was a time when they had different political inclinations than those of the George W. Bush administration. (A Godly Hero was published in 2006. To be fair, as an avowed secular liberal, I suspect that Kazin today would have different thoughts about a big government liberal who uses rhetoric to appeal to ‘the common man’, particularly Evangelicals.) And while I don’t particularly share Kazin’s (or Bryan’s) political inclinations, I appreciate the reminder that one need not be a conservative or a Republican (I can no longer link those two adjectives together) in order to be a Christian.

Image: Penguin

Theologically, this isn’t the book to read about Bryan. And that’s fine–A Godly Hero focuses on his political life rather than his religious life, so we can hardly judge Kazin for not writing a different book. But, from what I was able to glean here, Bryan was one of those interesting folks in history who came to be horrified with the logical conclusions of the movement he was a central part of. Like the leftover 1960s radicals who in the 21st century despair over the loss of freedom of speech, or the early 19th century Unitarians who broke away from orthodox Trinitarian Christianity only to find that their break enabled a new generation of theologians arise who not only challenged the Trinity, but the inspiration of Scripture itself (you can read Philip Gura’s excellent book on the Transcendentalists to learn more about that). In the same way, Bryan looks to have been a part of the Social Gospel movement, only to find that the theological liberals with whom he had spent his life weren’t content undermining the Trinity and the atonement, they also wanted to undermine the doctrine of Creation and the authority of Scripture. Hence the battles with evolution and Bryan’s involvement in the Scopes trial.

Overall, this book is a good read and well worth the time and attention of any Christian who wants to think seriously about what our involvement in politics ought to look like.

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO

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