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If Only Right-Wing Christians Knew Where Their Ideas Came From

Progressive evangelical Christianity is not merely a relic of the 19th century; it’s making a comeback.

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You’ll find all of these examples, and more, if you pick up any good book on 19th-century U.S. history.

I picked up one such book at random, just as I was beginning to write this column: Alan Trachtenberg’s The Incorporation of America, one of the most insightful histories of the Gilded Age, from the 1870s to the 1890s. When historians go looking for evangelicals supporting left-leaning government policies, they almost always look at the era of reform before the Civil War, not the Gilded Age that followed it. Yet just thumbing through Trachtenberg’s book I easily found evidence that the pattern lasted right through the 19th century.

Trachtenberg points out the powerful evangelical impulse in two of the era's greatest political bestsellers, Henry George's Progress and Poverty and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. George wrote glowingly of "the noble dreams of socialism." Bellamy advocated "the religion of solidarity... a system of public ownership... to realize the idea of the nation ... as a family, a vital union, a common life."

Both denounced the injustices of the emerging corporate system with "evangelical fervor," says Trachtenberg, sustained by "religious emotions of 'solidarity.'"

But there was more going on than just utopian words. There were workers organizing in the factories and the streets, dominated in the 1870s and 1880s by the Knights of Labor. The Knights intended to use government to achieve their goals—goals that today's progressives still struggle for, like a fair and just income tax structure, guaranteed equal pay for women, and government ownership of utilities and transportation systems.

And they built their movement upon "an unmistakable fusion of republicanism and evangelical Protestantism," in Trachtenberg's words. "Workers found in Protestantism a profound 'notion of right' for their struggles." They made “'the religion of solidarity’ proclaimed by Edward Bellamy and other Protestant reformers … a living experience within labor.” Obviously they saw no conflict between evangelical Christianity and a strong central government enforcing laws to create economic justice.

By the 1890s the Knights’ leading role in labor movement had been eclipsed by the American Federation of Labor. But as the Knights declined, the spirit that moved them was being picked up by an eclectic mix of movements that came to be grouped under the umbrella term, Populists. Their program was laid out most famously in the 1892 declaration of the People's Party, which demanded that government support the interest of "the people," not "capitalists, corporations, banks, trusts."

That declaration was "composed in evangelical accents" and "rang with echoes of revivalism" as well as "backwoods democracy and grassroots outrage," as Trachtenberg writes. "Populist spokesmen clothed themselves in the garb of righteous evangels."

Like the Knights, the Populists were on a crusade to eliminate sin. But their political ideas also "drew from the movement's roots in native radicalism, in a secular rhetoric of 'equal rights' and 'anti-monopoly.'" And the main weapon Populists aimed to use was political power—enough power to make sure that their policies were enacted through government legislation, regulation, and strict enforcement.

Like most historians, Trachtenberg traces the decline of the Populists to their fateful decision, in1896, to join with the Democrats in making William Jennings Bryan their joint candidate for president. Bryan ran three times for the top job and lost all three times. Today, on the left, he’s most remembered as the evangelical Christian zealot who decried the teaching of evolution in the 1924 Scopes trial. But the infamous trial came near the end of his long life.

For most of that life he, more than any other American, carried the banner of radical reform in the name of God. It's worth reading the details in Michael Kazin's recent biography of Bryan. Kazin, a leading authority on Populism and an important progressive intellectual in his own right, makes it clear that in the late 19th century, and on into the early 20th, millions of evangelical Protestants saw it as a religious duty to demand that a strong government right the economic wrongs of the corporate capitalist system. The left in that era could not have emerged as a significant force without the tremendous boost it got from evangelical faith.