Monday, June 12, 2006

A Godly Hero

[Note: finishing three books in one week is a little unusual; however, we were able to get some time away last weekend. And, now that my grading is done, I feel free to read things that I had wanted to read or things that struck my fancy...]

Why write a biography about a three-time loser who is most well-known in American memory as the prosecuting attorney in the Scopes trial? That question of warrant must challenge any one who would take on the task of writing a book on William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), three-time Democratic presidential nominee known as "the Great Commoner." Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University, took up the task with great verve and suggested that in Bryan, progressives might find a way to meld a deep faith in the American people (a la Thomas Jefferson) with a profound faith in Jesus. The result--A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan--is a thoughtful book that charted not only the life of one man, but the times of one of the least studied and understood periods in American history.

Kazin followed Bryan from his small town roots in Salem, Illinois, to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he established a law practice as a precusor to his entrance into politics. And throughout the book, Kazin struggled to explain how Bryan was able to shape the Democratic party for nearly twenty years. Bryan's coming out party was the 1896 Democratic National Convention, where he was swept to the nomination on the strength of his famous "Cross of Gold" speech. And yet, the issues that motivated politics in that year seem strange to moderns--"free silver" and cutting the tariff raised passions that rival modern battles over Iraq, abortion, and tax cuts. Bryan's strength was not the originality of his positions; rather, Kazin suggests that it was Bryan's oratory that propeled him to national prominence, as he gave a voice to Middle America's fears, hopes, and aspiriations.

But it was not simply Bryan's oratory. Rather, Bryan was able to create a soft blend of Social Gospel uplift and progressive political nostrums that won the hearts of a number of people. Able to win the support of theological progressives such as Washington Gladden and Charles Sheldon while holding the respect of Bible-thumpers such as Billy Sunday, Bryan was able to centered his quasi-religious/political message around three key beliefs: belief in the Bible, belief in Jesus, and belief in the people. This led him to propose all sorts of progressive ideals that were co-opted by early 1900s presidents, Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson: progressive income tax; the federal reserve banks; federal insurance for bank deposits; the 8-hour day; child labor laws; and anti-trust regulations.

And so, through Bryan, Kazin is able to describe a great deal of the story of the 1880s to 1920s, the great period of progressivism and populism that transformed American politics and continues to affect modern day conversations. It is hard for moderns to remember a time when economic redistrubution through the progressive income tax was not the law of the land. And it is even more difficult to remember that this policy was seen as a fundamentally Christian one, proposed by Social Gospel follow-travellers such as Will Bryan.

Hence, one of the great ironies of American history is that Bryan has been remembered as a "conservative." Surely that was the result of his two final crusades--prohibition and evolution. And yet, both of these moral arguments were undertaken because Bryan wanted to preserve the purity of the people so that they might be free to do what Jesus would have them do: namely, loving their brothers under the fatherhood of God. Against the various "trusts" that held people down (the money trust; the liquor trust; the "academic" trust), Bryan waged a vigorous battle to make sure that the "people" would be free to pursue virtue. As a result, these two moral battles fit nicely with his political and religious ideology.

One of the interesting questions that struck me was who might be good historical comparison points for understanding Bryan. Two that came to my mind were Abraham Kuyper and Ronald Reagan. Kuyper, the Dutch newspaper man, Reformed intellectual, and Prime Minister, was Bryan's contemporary and shared a great deal of commonalities with the "Great Commoner." One interesting side project would be to compare Kuyper's 1891 speech, "The Problem of Poverty," with Bryan's own progressive diagnosis. Reagan shared Bryan's Illinois roots and his "sunny side of life" perspective, especially their deep and abiding faith in the American people. Perhaps it wouldn't be too much to think that if Bryan could come back to the political scene, as a result of the Reagan Revolution, he might have joined the GOP, rather than the Democracy.

By the end of the book, though, I was still unsure how Kazin would answer that opening question: why write this book? What is the moral of the story? Or to put it differently, does "Christian liberalism" really have a future? Even Kazin appeared unsure. If this book was meant to provide a roadmap for the presumptive 2008 Democratic presidential nominee, then no one should read this book--for in the end, Christian liberalism never got Bryan elected nor did it manage to keep the Democrats in power for long.

Perhaps the real value of the book is to raise the question--which Kazin does quite thoughtfully--whether liberals can be Christians (and conversely, whether Christians can be liberals) at all. If Bryan is any example, then the questions should be answered with a strong affirmative. And if that is the case, then perhaps the modern-day Democracy would do well to invite people of faith into their ranks to care for others with the compassion of Jesus. If they did, their former standard bearer, Will Bryan, would be proud.

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