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The righteous cause: the life of William Jennings Bryan.

Among some liberals there exists a sentiment that religious-minded individuals, particularly evangelical Protestants, are politically suspect and culturally unfit. The reaction to Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter is a case in point. So, too, was the reaction to a deeply religious man of another era--William Jennings Bryan. When he died shortly after his appearance in the famed Scopes monkey trial, Bryan was remembered this way by H. L. Mencken: "[He] lived too long, and descended too deeply into the mud, to be taken seriously hereafter by fully literate men, even of the kind that write schoolbooks."

Mencken's wish seems to have been realized; who can remember the last time that Bryan's name was mentioned approvingly among liberal activists or at a Democratic convention? Perhaps it is because the Great Commoner stood in the face of modernity and claimed that evolution had no truck with right thinking. Or because he employed metaphors like "cross of gold." Or because he wore baggy pants and wide-brimmed hats and sweated profusely when Clarence Darrow grilled him during the Scopes trial.

What historian Richard Cherny brings to our attention, however, is that the Illinois native also possessed a passionate commitment to liberal values. Not only did he run for president against conservatives William McKinely and William Howard Taft, he also worked for a progressive income tax, women's suffrage, and self-determination for American colonies. And, according to Cherny, these beliefs were as rooted in his evangelical Protestantism as they were in the writings of Jefferson and the political rhetoric of Jacksonian Democrats.

Cherny argues that the central elements of Bryan's faith included the fatherhood of God, the atonement of Christ, and the brotherhood of man (a concept which Cherny says "unquestionably" included women). "Bryan's belief that all men were brothers reinforced and became inseparable from his belief that all men were equal," writes the author. The fatherhood of God had particular influence on Bryan's commitment to self-government. Bryan once quoted Henry Clay in saying, "It would be a reflection on the Almighty to say he created people incapable of self-government."

Bryan's religious orientation towards equality also reinforced his Midwestern instinct to distrust corporate power. "There is increasing necessity," Bryan wrote, "for legislation which will protect the God-made man from injustice at the hands of the law-created person, known as a corporation." If a corporation ccan avoid punishment here," Bryan reasoned, "it need not worry about the hereafter." Prohibiting monopolies and guaranteeing the rights of the individual were the alternatives, and Bryan worked much of his life to achieve them.

Unfortunately, the ethic of service Bryan possessed might seem foreign today. After all, we live in an era in which college students plan to make mega-bucks and presidential candidates deride public servants. Bryan felt strongly "the obligation to contribute in helpfulness," serving his adopted home of Lincoln, Nebraska for two terms in Congress; he also ran for the presidency three times and served as secretary of state for two years during Woodrow Wilson's first administration.

Directly related to Bryan's belief in service was his sense of community. That, too, had a distinctly religious flavor. "No one lives unto himself or dies unto himself," he said. "The tie that binds each human being to every other human being is one that cannot be severed." Each citizen should "exert himself to the utmost to improve conditions for all and to raise the level upon which all stand."

Cherny's closing paragraph might say it best for still skeptical liberals: "The key to understanding Bryan is to approach him on his own terms.... As an evangelical Protestant, his concepts of Christian duty and service and his belief in perfection led him to seek to rescue people from industrial oppression and from immorality. As a public figure, he found Christian love more compelling than logic." Not bad sentiments, really. They could help dash the assumption that Christian duty, service, and love are the sole preseve of the religious right.
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Author:McKenzie, William P.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1985
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