Friends of Padre Steve’s World
Do you remember when conservative Christian politicians and preachers actually supported working people? I am not kidding, there was a time when some did exactly that and did so in the highest reaches of their political parties. Unlike today’s preachers they were not just lobbying for more tax cuts for the most wealthy, and extolling the job “creators” over the the people whose labor actually produces products, instead they spoke boldly on behalf of regular people. Sadly today all of the major political figures as well as most of the minor ones who claim to be “conservative Christians” have more in common with the greedy Robber Barons than one of the most celebrated conservative Christian politicians who has ever lived.
William Jennings Bryan was one of the most influential politicians of his era. Bryan served as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, he was a Senator and three time Presidential Candidate. He was also a very conservative Fundamentalist Christian perhaps most famous, or perhaps infamous now as one of the prosecuting attorneys at the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925. In fact I can find that Bryan’s handling of that case played to the basest religious and social hatred of his day and though he thought that he was defending “Biblical” values ended up making Christians look but small minded, intolerant and hateful. The movie Inherit the Wind, though a fictional account of that trial, shows how decent Christians can become consumed with hatred in the name of righteousness. It is a sad thing that Bryan is most remembered for the Scopes Trial than when he bucked the political system of both the Republican and Democratic parties to speak up for workers and small businessmen. Personally I cannot imagine Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio or any other supposedly Christian political doing what Bryan did.
Whether one agrees on Bryan’s fundamentalist religious doctrine regarding the creation of the earth or the manner of how God created the earth, one has to admit that of pre-Great Depression politicians he was quite amazing. Especially in how he saw through the Godlessness of unbridled capitalism and the devaluation of workers by valued capital over the people that actually produced anything.
As an American and a Christian I have to look at the body of work and life of a man. I don’t have to agree with all that they stood for or did and though I find much fault in Bryan and his supporters in the Scopes Trial I do not throw out the good things that he did and got right.
I think the apex of Bryan’s political thought is encapsulated in his speech at the Democratic National Convention of 1896, what is now called the Cross of Gold Speech.
When one looks at it now it really is timeless. Bryan saw through the charade that was being played out by politicians and the big money Wall Street types that they represented with great verve. It was a speech that one might have heard come from a prophet in the Old Testament.
I am just going to quote a couple of pertinent sections from the speech to trigger the thought of anyone reading this article. I think that they could be spoken today in light of the way that many conservative Christians both Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants, Roman Catholics and those that preach the so called “Prosperity Gospel” have thrown their support behind ideas that are nothing more than unvarnished, crude materialism of the worst kind. In fact I believe that it is nothing more than the “baptism” of such thought by Christians are among the biggest reasons for the massive exodus of people from the churches and the rise of the “Nones,” or those with no religious preference.
“We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited in its application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer; the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the cross-roads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, who begins in spring and toils all summer, and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much business men as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world. We come to speak of this broader class of business men.”
His words are striking in their directness and honesty. They are not only Christian but they are deeply American. He called on his Democratic party, which had been as bad as the Republicans during the age of the unregulated Robber Barons who used the Gold Standard to manipulate the markets and eliminate silver as currency to their benefit to be different:
“Upon which side will the Democratic Party fight; upon the side of “the idle holders of idle capital” or upon the side of “the struggling masses”? That is the question which the party must answer first, and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter. The sympathies of the Democratic Party, as shown by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses, who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic Party.”
His arguments could be called true Christian populism. Bryan talked about two ideas of diametrically opposed types of government and economics:
“There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.”
He concluded his speech with this statement.
“Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
When I hear the unholy trinity of politicians, pundits and preachers who extol the virtue of capital over labor and the worship of wealth as the highest good I wish that there would be some that would remember that the people who actually make things, grow things, fix things and maintain things are not just human capital, but people.
And after all, it is people that matter…