Thursday, January 12, 2012

WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: A Lesson in Faith and Politics

Today we often think of Evangelical Christians and other religious conservatives as being aligned with the Republican Party. The Democrats are usually thought of as the party of the secular left - - staunch supporters of legalized abortion and advocates of "gay rights." It may come as a surprise, therefore, to learn that the leader of the Democratic Party one hundred years ago was a devout Evangelical Christian: William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was a renown orator, three-time candidate for President, and Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. He closed his career as a prosecutor in the famous Scopes evolution trial of 1925.

Bryan was a loyal Democrat if there ever was one. He held to the traditional view of his party that the honest, hardworking laboring men and women of America were being systematically exploited by the wealthy financiers on Wall Street. Therefore Bryan saw it as his Christian duty to speak up on behalf of the oppressed and downtrodden. And so he began his political career by promoting the free coinage of silver as a way of expanding the money supply and thereby easing the burden on debt ridden farmers. He favored lower tariffs and was an early proponent of a federal income tax. He attacked trusts and monopolies and advocated the government ownership of railroads. Although reluctant at first, he eventually became a whole-hearted supporter of the prohibition movement (Democrats traditionally opposed prohibition.) After the Spanish-American War of 1898 he opposed the annexation of the Philippines. He was generally opposed to war, and resigned from Woodrow Wilson's cabinet over what he perceived as a bias in favor of the allied powers. Bryan was seen as a dangerous radical in his lifetime, but he was also a hero to millions of farmers and workers in rural America who admired his eloquence, moral fervor, and patent sincerity.

Bryan's last great battle was against the teaching of the theory of evolution in the public schools. Today we often see Creationism as a conservative cause, at odds with the liberal, progressive policies Bryan espoused throughout his career. But in Bryan's own mind the two were closely linked together. Evolution was about the ruthless struggle for existence - - the survival of the fittest. Progressive politics, however, rested on the moral foundation of Christian compassion. Social Darwinism is the very antithesis of the Social Gospel. And to use taxpayer money to tear down civilization was utterly beyond Bryan's comprehension. Accordingly he advocated outlawing the teaching of evolution in tax supported schools.

The major test case came in 1925 when John T. Scopes, a high school teacher in Dayton, TN, was arrested for teaching evolution in class. Bryan was invited to join the prosecution; the ACLU provided a defense team that included Clarence Darrow, one of the top trial lawyers in the nation, and, ironically, once a political supporter of Bryan. In an unusual move the defense called Bryan himself to the witness stand, and for two hours Darrow subjected Bryan to a withering cross examination in which he tried to make Bryan's faith in the Bible look naïve and ridiculous. As it turned out, Bryan did not get a chance to cross examine Darrow, and as a result Bryan's reputation was irreparably damaged. Bryan died shortly after the trial. It was a tragic end to a heroic life.

Bryan always couched his positions in moral terms. But there were some disturbing inconsistencies in his stance. He was reluctant to challenge his party's position against prohibition at first, and at times he cooperated with Tammany Hall, the corrupt political machine in New York City. But the most serious blot on Bryan's character was his attitude toward race relations. The Democratic Party in his day stood firmly for white supremacy and racial segregation, and Bryan throughout his career offered lame excuses for his party's stance. In perhaps the most deplorable episode in his career, Bryan was Secretary of State when President Wilson ordered the segregation of the federal government. Even though the matter was undoubtedly discussed in cabinet meetings, Bryan evidently said nothing in protest. He was too much of a party loyalist to challenge the racial attitudes of his southern white supporters.

This raises an important question for any Christian who takes his faith seriously and loves his country dearly: is it possible for a Christian to participate in the political process without compromising his faith? Bryan certainly thought he could. But Bryan was possessed of a certain naïve optimism about human nature, and at other points he was simply too much a part of his time and culture to see the faults and shortcomings of his own party. It was easy for him to denounce Wall Street plutocrats; it was harder to see fault with the Ku Klux Klan. The former, after all, were Republicans; the latter were loyal Democrats. It was hard for him to find fault with the "good guys" in the ongoing war against evil.

As Americans it is our privilege to choose our own leaders, and it is our duty to vote. But as Christians our first responsibility is toward God, and for this reason we must be careful about aligning ourselves too closely with a secular political party. Parties represent various competing interests in society; as Christians we must be concerned about the common good. Politics is the art of compromise; but as Christians we must stand firmly for the truth.

Christians should participate in the political process, but not necessarily in partisan politics. We should be issue oriented, not party oriented. We can accomplish more for the cause of truth by protesting and letter writing than we can by campaigning for a flawed candidate. And sometimes it makes more sense to vote for a minor party candidate than it does to support one of the two major parties that are a part of the established system in Washington. Let every Christian search his own conscience, and act accordingly!   


  1. Sorry, Bob: I think the argument is much stronger that in return for Southern support of their national ticket, the Democrats allowed the South to run their internal affairs their own way. The South was satisfied with the arrangement, and the national Democrat party was indifferent how the Southern states governed themselves. It wasn’t a glorious arrangement, but it was politically expedient. Creationism in the science classes of state-run Southern schools was one of those concerns. Constitutional objections ought to have been a constraint here, but as so often happened such are were ignored in the business of practical politics. Bryan, to maintain his support from the Clan made the 'illegal' teaching of evolution his issue. He thought he couldn't lose and, technically, he didn't. But he hardly won.

    Consider some of his responses when on the stand:

    Darrow: You believe that the big fish was made to swallow Jonah?

    Bryan: I am not prepared to say that; the bible merely says it was done.

    Darrow: You don’t know whether it was the ordinary run of fish, or made for that purpose?

    Bryan: You may guess; you evolutionists guess.

    Darrow: But when we do guess, we have a sense to guess right.

    Bryan: You do not do it often.


    Darrow: But you do believe He made them — that He made such a fish and that it was big enough to swallow Jonah?

    Bryan: Yes sir. Let me add: One miracle is just as easy to believe as another.

    --- -----

    How about his understanding of physics:

    Darrow: Do you believe Joshua made the sun stand still?

    Bryan: I believe what the bible says. I suppose you mean that the earth stood still?

    Darrow: I don’t know. I am talking about the bible now.

    Bryan: I believe the bible absolutely.


    Darrow: Do you believe at that time the entire sun went around the earth?

    Bryan: No, I believe that the earth goes around the sun.


    Darrow: Don’t you believe that in order to lengthen the day it would have been construed that the earth stood still?

    Bryan: I would not attempt to say what would have been necessary …

    Darrow: Can you answer my question directly? If the day was lengthened by stopping either the earth or the sun, it must have been the earth?

    Bryan: Well, I should say so.


    Darrow: Now, Mr. Bryan, have you ever pondered what would have happened to the earth if it had stood still?

    Bryan: No.

    Darrow: You have not?

    Bryan: No; and the God I believe in could have taken care of that, Mr. Darrow.

    --- -------

    How about the story of the Flood:

    Darrow: You believe the story of the flood to be a literal interpretation?

    Bryan: Yes, sir.

    Darrow: When was that flood?

    Bryan: I would not attempt to fix the date. The date is fixed, as suggested this morning.

    Darrow: About 4004 BC?

    Bryan: That has been the estimate of a man that is accepted today. I would not say it is accurate.


    Darrow: What do you think [about how to calculate the date of the flood]?

    Bryan: I do not think about things I don’t think about.

    Darrow: Do you think about things you do think about?

    Bryan: Well, sometimes.

    --- ------

    Bryan was a flaming creationist and a strong and visible supporter of the Clan... not all that unusual for a typical southern christian of the day.

    Today, we know better.

    Bryan shows us the inherent problem of assuming that faith in the inerrancy of scripture produces morality. It doesn't: all it produces is an undeserved respect for scriptural authority that may or may not be accurate, may or may not be moral, may or may not be right.

    I echo your sentiment that every person should search his or her own conscience and vote accordingly. Where I take exception to what you've written is this notion of 'we' you keep using, as if christians belong to the same voting block over particular issues. This contrary to agreeable notion that each person vote according to personal conscience.

  2. The Democratic Party in his day stood firmly for white supremacy and racial segregation, and Bryan throughout his career offered lame excuses for his party's stance.

    Spot the Christians in the crowd.
    One thing's for sure.
    You'd never catch them supporting "gay rights".

    If it were somehow possible to have a chaplain in a Southern prison in the 1920's ministering to a Klansman who helped lynch a black man (I know this is a far-fetched scenario!), what would he say to someone like a Klansman?

    Ku Klux Klan- A Secret History [1/9]