The Common Good
January-February 1997

Prophetic Anger

by Perry Bush | January-February 1997

The lingering power of evangelical populism.

The embrace of free-market, conservative politics by large numbers of evangelicals has so substantially altered the American political landscape in recent years that many people have come to conclude that it has always been so. Certainly it is tempting to point to the cozy relationships that many evangelicals have established with the wealthy and powerful, and read this relationship backward into history.

Yet such conjectures proceed on thin historical ice. Beneath the veneer of a monolithically conservative reading of the evangelical past lies a different kind of story. From the Second Great Awakening through the Gilded Age and well into our own day, evangelicalism has also nurtured a throbbing kind of revivalist populism, one that delivered both Christ's blessing to the poor and his angry rebukes to their wealthy exploiters. While this evangelical populism has been seduced in recent years by determined political forces, its appeal and power still linger.

In the years before the Civil War, so powerfully did revivals sweep through American society that historians commonly refer to the era as the great age of Democratic Evangelicalism. Some scholars have stressed how this new religious impulse strengthened the hands of economic elites, who discovered in it a useful new means by which to socialize and discipline an unruly working class.

Beyond the market centers, however, evangelicalism took on different tones, colored more by Jeffersonian precepts and the rich brew of radical egalitarianism left over from the American revolution. As shaped by full-throated preachers such as traveling Methodist revivalists Francis Asbury and "Crazy" Lorenzo Dow, and early Baptist leader John Leland and Disciples of Christ founder Elias Smith, an evangelicalism emerged that proved less comforting to pious, middle-class entrepreneurs.

These revivalists presented, in the words of Notre Dame historian Nathan Hatch, an "inversion of authority" between the rich and poor. The meek and lowly, cried these preachers, were the true source of spiritual insight and the intended inheritors of Christ's kingdom, rather than the dandied aristocrats in their fine churches. Much of the revivalists' anger focused on religious and political elites, but often slid over to include economic ones as well. When ordinary people decide to "take the management of our affairs into our own hands," promised Elias Smith for example, "...such privileged classes will be as useles[s] as candles at noonday."

THIS INCIPIENT evangelical populism only grew in power and volume in the years following the Civil War, if for no other reason than the fact that populist revivalists found many more targets for their wrath. In the era referred to as the Gilded Age, American society witnessed a chasm that yawned even wider between millions of immigrants and working poor lodged in teeming, crowded slums, on one hand, and a small number of wealthy capitalists engaged in conspicuous consumption, on the other.

Industrial captains such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan made sure that even laissez-faire governmental policies, dedicated to the unhampered operations of business, did not stand in their way. Moreover, they trumpeted ideologies such as Social Darwinism and Carnegie's "Gospel of Wealth" that rationalized their self-centered economic behavior.

Against the backdrop of such conditions, another great wave of revivals once again burst forth, this time located in the burgeoning urban centers. Led by evangelists such as Dwight Moody, Russell Conwell, and the converted ballplayer Billy Sunday, these revivals took on an immediate and conservative cast.

Moody viewed the world as a "wrecked vessel," and hurried to pull drowning souls into his spiritual lifeboat. Marketing Christianity like the business genius he was, Moody's message thus repeated the soothing Horatio Alger truisms that the system was sound, opportunities were legion, and wealth lay available to all who would diligently pursue it. Given this content, and the level of corporate sponsorship funding such campaigns, socialist organizers quickly branded Moody and others as enemies of the working class. Many historians have taken their cues accordingly, thus reinforcing a depiction of evangelicalism as one that made continued common cause with the wealthy and powerful.

Yet the industrial titans who rushed to bankroll Moody's crusades might have listened more closely to the quality and tone of the evangelical voices appearing in their wake. Skilled historians such as Herbert Gutman and Ken Fones-Wolf have uncovered them for us. They leave little doubt that many working people rooted their lives and political ideologies in models offered less by Marx and more by Jesus. In either case, these were voices testifying to a completely different revivalist spirit than what Moody or Rockefeller had intended.

These workers saw in Christ a common laborer like themselves, and recognized the apostles as rough-hewn fishers and farmers. The labor journal Railway Times depicted Christ as "an agitator such as the world has never seen before... finally murdered to appease the ruling class of his time." Long forgotten labor leaders such as William Sylvis and George McNeill, as well as the more famous Eugene Debs, found great success as organizers by deeply intertwining evangelical appeals in their work; so did Knights of Labor founder Uriah Stephens, who had once trained for the Baptist ministry.

The architects of Gilded Age evangelical populism found plenty in the gospels by which to condemn the reigning economic order of their day. "If the present system be right," cried one organizer of a sailors' union in 1892, "then Christianity is a lie."

Carnegie's cheerful maxims received similarly rough treatment from the Locomotive Fireman's Magazine. These labor editors regarded Carnegie's teaching as a mere attempt to "wriggle out of the tight place in which Christ's words place him." Instead, the paper judged the steelmaster and his fellow industrialist H.C. Frick as "brazen pirates [who] prate...of the 'spirit of Christ'" but "who plunder labor that they may build churches...."

THE SAME EVANGELICAL heritage undergirded the struggles of rural Americans who by the 1880s had launched themselves on the political trajectory that would finally result in the People's Party. Many of the poor farmers struggling against the powerful economic forces reducing them to the status of sharecroppers found in revivalist Christianity both a source of hope and biblical judgment.

Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the religious commitments of their foremost leader, William Jennings Bryan. To refuse to recognize Bryan's deep-seated evangelicalism is to strip away all historical meaning from the phrase. Out of this orientation, Bryan condemned monopolies, attacked corporate power, and championed the interests of common people.

Social class boundaries did not restrict these currents of prophetic evangelical populism, which melded easily into the sweeping reforms of the progressive era in the early 20th century. Many historians have posited a deep gulf that supposedly existed between evangelicals and social gospel progressives. Upon closer examination, however, large numbers of middle-class reformers resist such easy compartmentalization.

Norris Magnuson has demonstrated the deep social concern of a generation of evangelical social workers, a concern that often provoked them to issue sharp denunciations of economic injustice. And populist concerns were present in the pre-eminent evangelical cause of the era, prohibition. Many of the thousands of respectable women who knelt to pray in front of saloons did so out of anger at the "liquor trust" that preyed on working people.

Numbers of such middle-class women refused to restrict their social concerns to alcohol. Womens' Christian Temperance leader Francis Willard—who had once served on Dwight Moody's staff—endorsed the populist crusade, campaigned for women's suffrage, and worked hard to form close ties between the cause of prohibition and organized labor.

The course of events that would transform the political commitments of many evangelicals was set by the 1920s. The fundamentalist-modernist battles of that decade are well-known. The effort by evangelicals to recapture their former cultural dominance was thoroughly defeated and, in debacles like the Scopes trial, they found themselves derisively dismissed by mainstream culture. In the conventional view, revivalist Christians crept humiliated back into their rural retreats, never, apparently, to be heard from again; The Nation confidently proclaimed in 1926, for instance, that "the fundamentalist menace" had been safely disposed of.

The exaltation came too soon. Historians such as George Marsden and Joel Carpenter later uncovered indications of the continued vitality of conservative Protestantism. Revivalist Christians did not disappear. They merely took stock and rebuilt, even in the economic collapse of the 1930s. They did so, however, with a new sense of resentment. In his important recent book, The Populist Persuasion, Michael Kazin describes how evangelicals began to direct their rage not at economic elites but at intellectual, liberal ones.

THE STAGE WAS THUS set for the redirection of evangelical populism. The seduction came through the age-old attractions of wealth and power. It was made possible by two concurrent developments in the 1940s and 1950s: one in evangelical ranks, and the other in mainstream society.

Early in the 1940s, an influential group of fundamentalist leaders broke away from their colleagues to fashion a new coalition under the auspices of a new group, the National Association of Evangelicals. These new or "neo" evangelicals did not differ much from the fundamentalists in their theology. Instead, the break came because of what these evangelicals saw as the fundamentalists' determined patterns of separation, an isolationism that marred their efforts to reach America for Christ. More positive and inclusive in tone, these new evangelicals built a broad coalition of conservative Protestants that would sustain a new wave of revivals.

They encountered a mainstream society surprisingly receptive to their message. Youth for Christ rallies in 1945 attracted unexpectedly large audiences, spurred on by political figures who sensed in the evangelical message a means by which to reinforce a decaying public morality and to renew American civic faith. These purposes took on even more urgency with the onset of the Cold War, as national leaders readied the country to face a new totalitarian enemy officially preaching class war and atheism. Evangelicalism could prove central in combating this evil—as long as the new evangelicals agreed to tone down certain discordant notes in their message.

Thus it was that, following the 1949 revivals in Los Angeles by an obscure preacher named Billy Graham, the reactionary publisher William Randolph Hearst commanded his editors to "puff Graham." Fame, power, and influence quickly followed, and naturally so. Graham thoroughly intertwined his gospel message with the needs of Cold War culture, dishing out nationalist declarations and condemnations of communism at every stop. Meanwhile, he uttered not one word about economic injustice here at home. Politicians flocked to evangelical revivals, presidents established regular prayer breakfasts, and celebrities by the score proclaimed themselves born again.

It was altogether a breathtaking reversal for a group of religious conservatives who had been hooted out of mainstream culture only a few decades before. Yet it came at a price. In positioning themselves to reach mainstream society with their call to Christ, evangelicals opened themselves to influences coming the other way, too. Before long those influences had wrought a sea-change in the political choices many evangelicals inherited from their populist 19th-century ancestors.

In the hands of figures like Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace, and especially Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, for the first time in American history, Kazin argues, "large numbers of activists and politicians were employing a populist vocabulary to oppose social reform instead of support it." Under such influences, a hefty bulk of evangelicals have come to focus their populist anger not at economic elites, but at a sinister cabal of liberals and "secular humanists" who have seemingly manipulated the federal government for selfish, anti-Christian ends. In this manner large sectors of evangelicalism have assumed a prominent place in the conservative political coalition that has dominated American politics since the 1960s.

In doing so, many evangelicals have come to make common cause with forces that are not only outside their tradition, but in some cases stand in direct opposition to it. In many ways the political and economic forces of the 1980s resembled those of a century earlier. As in the Gilded Age, once again powerful elites have muscled across governmental policies deregulating and "freeing" the economy and "reforming" the tax structure.

In a refreshing burst of candor from a conservative political analyst, in his book The Politics of Rich and Poor, Kevin Phillips has laid out the results in stark detail. As (among other helpful measures) Reagan lowered the top individual tax rate for the very wealthy from 70 percent to 28 percent, the number of millionaires more than doubled from half a million in 1980 to 1.3 million in 1988. In Phillips' words, "no parallel upsurge in riches had been seen since...the era of the Vanderbilts, Morgans, and Rockefellers."

Meanwhile, people in the middle and lower strata of the economy did not fare as well. Uncounted numbers of blue-collar jobs were relocated overseas, a million-and-a-half midlevel management positions disappeared, real wages stagnated and even declined, and most Americans' leisure time fell precipitously as they increased their work hours to keep up.

In contrast to the Gilded Age, however, this more recent ascendancy of selfish economic interests came accompanied by loud cheers by many evangelicals. They voted by increasingly larger proportions for the political leaders advocating such policies. They even more thoroughly enveloped their gospel message in American nationalism, and rode their suspicion of "state welfare programs" to an active opposition of governmental endeavors favorable to the poor. Instead, intoned Jerry Falwell, the inherently biblical and Godly "free enterprise system encourages ambition, incentive, competition, and hard work."

In such perspectives, evangelicals have demonstrated their accommodation to political and economic forces that their ancestors had once opposed with fervor. In this accommodation, they have betrayed their past.

THE STORY IS NOT quite finished, however. Since the 1960s, evangelicals have also witnessed in their ranks a growing sense of social conscience and a small but effective prophetic voice, gradually increasing in volume and power. Such currents have been expanded by the addition of new groups into the revivalist coalition.

These have come to include African-American evangelicals, whose own bitter history has rendered them largely hostile to the savage class war against the poor conducted by the radical Right. So, too, have evangelicals been joined by Anabaptist and Reformed groups, whose own recent process of acculturation has increasingly placed words like justice squarely in the center of their vocabularies.

For people interested in recovering the latent power of populist evangelicalism, the greatest resource lies in the evangelical tradition itself. Evangelicals, for instance, revere the Bible. What would happen if they came to obey the whole Bible, thundering as it does with cries for economic justice, rather than the more common evangelical Bible in which nearly all such commands have been neatly eviscerated?

Evangelicals adore Jesus. What would happen if the Christ they worship resembled less a supply-side Messiah, smiling benignly on the exploitive application of free-market economics, and came to resemble more the biblical Christ, who began his ministry promising to upset the established patterns of violence and oppression?

Evangelicals proudly portray themselves as the inheritors of a proud Christian tradition that the nation has supposedly fallen away from. What if this vision of evangelical history encompassed a more complete and accurate version of the evangelical past? What if it included the vigorous revivalists who preached, along with heaven, angry denunciations of wealthy elites who ground the face of the poor?

Might evangelicals, in other words, once again embrace their prophetic populist tradition? God speed the day.

PERRY BUSH is associate professor of history at Bluffton College in Bluffton, Ohio, and author of the forthcoming book, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism and Modern America at War (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)