Do you remember that there was a time when Conservative Christian Politicians and preachers actually supported working people and the poor? There was a period where this was true, but with the economic affluence and the political influence that we have enjoyed since the end of the Second World War we have left those days far behind.
I mean really, there was a time when preachers were not just lobbying for tax cuts for the rich in the name of the “Prosperity Gospel” or and extolling the wealthy “job creators” over the people who actually produce or serve products. Late last night I had an interaction on Facebook that was discouraging, wealthy preachers defended the most opulent and extravagant excesses of mega-church pastors. It was disheartening, especially one attacked a man who I went to war with, and who since has endured more trying medical issues than most of us will experience in our lives when he challenged the Episcopal Priest. What I read broke my heart.
My Church History professor at Southwestern Baptist seminary back in 1988 and 1989 Christian attitudes then that is even more appropriate today. He noted that a:
“reason that many Christians are not servants is more honest: it is that we just don’t want to be servants. We live today in a “winner” society. We value the winners, whether it be in sports, business, or wars….The American Dream is success, climbing to the top of the ladder, making it, winning…. In most metro areas, on most weekends, you can go to a conference in some church where a person (for a fee) will tell you how God wants you rich….This obsession with success, money, and power is the American dream carried to its logical conclusion. It is middle-class Americanism, pure and simple. It is more motivated by greed, selfishness, and pride than by Christ. And in the churches, we have bought it. We want to be “at the top”,” not “at the bottom.”…..We coat our Americanism with a thin veneer of Christianity in an attempt to make it more palatable, but God will not have it. Let’s call this version of the American Dream what it is: selfishness, self-righteousness, and sin.” (Young, Doyle L New Life for Your Church Baker Book House, Grand Rapids Michigan 1989 pp.55-56)
I heard Dr. Young speak about this in class. I was a young Army officer, who had just left active duty to go to seminary. We were in the process of a financial meltdown brought about by the Texas oil bust of the late 1980s and my wife’s illness. We were learning what it was like to be poor. We lost almost everything but ourselves and our dogs during that time. We went to churches where the opulence was over the top, where the pastor drove a Porsche, and not a bottom end or used one. We struggled through seminary and made it, with me working two jobs and being in the National Guard. Most of the time we wondered where the money to get the next meal, tank of gas, prescription medicine, tuition payment or books. When I called the TBN prayer line just for prayer during the darkest days I was told be a “prayer warrior” that “it was obvious that I was not in God’s will because otherwise God would be blessing me.” That angered me and hardened my resolve to get through seminary. There were a good number of people who helped us, some because they felt that god wanted them to help us, others just because they were compassionate souls. This made me very sensitive to social justice and wary of those who get rich off of God’s people.
It wasn’t always this way.
William Jennings Bryan was one of the most influential politicians of his era. He 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 “defending” “Biblical” ideas ended up making Christians look but small minded, intolerant and hateful. The movie Inherit the Wind, though a fictional account of that trial show how decent Christians can become consumed with hatred in the name of righteousness, little different than other “sincere believers” that are willing to kill in the name of God.
Whether one agrees on certain points of religious doctrine regarding the creation of the earth or the manner of how God created the earth that he espoused one has to admit that of pre-Great Depression politicians he was quite amazing. This was especially true in how he saw through the Godlessness of unbridled Capitalism. He saw how workers by were devalued by those who saw them as nothing more than a way to increase their wealth. As an American and a Christian look at the body of work and life of a man. 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 your thoughts, for you will not hear this in the vast majority of conservative Christian churches of all denominations which have been infected with the so called “Prosperity Gospel.” These churches 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 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 his 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.”
He talked about two ideas 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.
That’s enough for today. Expect some more on this and similar topics soon.