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July 24, 2012 2:56 PM The Lost Progressive Tradition of American Fundamentalists

By Ed Kilgore

In a long piece at for Alternet (republished at Salon) mainly intended to challenge progressive stereotyping of Christians, James Rohrer mentioned a strange aspect of American religious and political history that’s always fascinated me as well:

Alton is a village in Sioux County, Iowa, which is statistically one of the most reliably Republican counties in the United States. It is a stronghold of evangelical Christianity, the sort of place where neighbors might scowl at you if you mow your lawn on the Sabbath. Every four years Republican presidential candidates swarm Sioux County during primary season the way bees hover over clover fields. Despite his Catholicism, Rick Santorum signs sprouted like dandelions across Sioux County this past year, as the overwhelmingly Protestant electorate set aside their theological views for the sake of political expediency. This is “red state America,” proudly dyed red, white and blue.
Most Sioux County voters are descendants of Dutch Protestant immigrants who settled the area more than a century ago. Their grandparents and great-grandparents were if anything even more theologically conservative, more pietistic, and more inclined to lace every conversation with biblical injunctions. But a century ago, the local folk opened their Bibles and found admonitions against rich rulers exploiting the poor. They found Jesus preaching that the “sinners” would enter the Kingdom of God before the Chamber of Commerce types, and understood that disciples must speak out against the Trusts and war profiteers. I just spent a week reading through the Alton Democrat for 1900, which routinely drew upon the Bible to editorialize against the imperialist ambitions of the United States -even dubbing its capitalist rulers “immoral” and “evil”- and to denounce the moneyed aristocracy that unjustly controlled the destiny of the people.

Rohrer goes on to suggest there is nothing inherently conservative—politically or economically—about theologically conservative evangelical Protestantism—or even fundamentlism.

I noted the same historical anomalies and expressed the same hopes a while back in a review for the Washington Monthly of Michael Kazin’s fine recent biography of William Jennings Bryan:

The lesson for right-wing populists, especially those of the Christian right, is pretty clear: Once upon a time, right here in America, tens of millions of people read the Bible daily and read little else; believed it to be the literal and inerrant Word of God; and somehow interpreted it as a saga wherein God repeatedly delivered His people from the predations of the rich and the powerful and the privileged, perpetually condemned their subjugation as a divine commandment, and further commanded that they respect their equality as His children. In other words, those politicized Christians who have formed a firm alliance with Mammon and Mars on the grounds that the Word’s main message today is to condemn abortion and homosexuality and feminism are forever vulnerable to those faithful who read their Bible and see otherwise.

Rohrer seems convinced that the only reason today’s conservative evangelicals tilt so heavily in a politically conservative direction is that the Right and not the Left takes them seriously:

That the “heartland” has in recent decades swung so far away from the populist tradition of Bryan is not because there is something intrinsically authoritarian or anti-democratic in the religious beliefs of the masses, but because Republican strategists in the last two generations have done a far better job than progressives at organizing, marketing and communicating their message in a way that appeals at a visceral level to the hopes and fears of many people. To change America, we must change this reality.

While I fully share Rohrer’s concern about the tendency of many secular progressives to lump together people of faith as though all of them are just a supernatural jolt away from joining the Theocratic Right, I do fear his counsel to seek “common ground” with conservative evangelicals because they leaned Left politically over a century ago will do little more than encourage the kind of clumsy “outreach” efforts that has kept Barack Obama coming back to the spider’s webs of leaders like Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes, and validating their pretences to serve as spokesmen for American Christians generally. As I noted in my piece on Kazin’s book, the Ku Klux Klan was part of Bryan’s populist coalition as well, and considered itself a “progressive” organization well into the 1920s. It is more than mere Republican propaganda and pandering that’s led so many conservative evangelicals into the political Right. It also involves a powerful counter-cultural rejection of the very trends towards equality and universlism—i.e., liberalism—that were once associated with the advent of capitalism. Indeed, you don’t have to be any sort of materialist to observe that such culturally reactionary impulses may attract many Americans—particularly those in the suburban megachurches remote from the life or traditions of places like Sioux County, Iowa—to conservative evangelical religion in the first place.

So while I definitely agree with Rohrer’s argument that people of faith must have a place in any successful progressive coalition, and share his frustration at the ignorance and intolerance that often leads what can only be described as anti-religious bigotry on the Left, I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in any specific outreach to conservative evangelicals on grounds that we can convince them to read their Bibles differently and flip from a Christian Right to a Christian Left. Certainly there is always a chance of a split on American Right, particularly as the Randian hatred of altruism takes ever stronger root among conservatives and the underlying contempt of economic royalist for their Bible-believing foot soldiers becomes manifest. But those developments are largely beyond the control of progressives, and we’d be better advised to strengthen alliances between secular and religious folk who have more obvious common ground.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Cranky Observer on July 24, 2012 3:08 PM:

    Assumes facts not in evidence. Liberals certainly stereotype hard right-wing christianists and their religiosity, but that is not the same thing as Christianity no matter how hard the former claim it is.

  • Inkadu on July 24, 2012 3:11 PM:

    And don't forget the red scare. The war against atheist communism must have completely transformed the politics of religious groups. There's also the possibility that progressive liberalism doesn't make for the same cadre of devout, faith-driven and self-assured partisans as conservatism. "Or we may be wrong," isn't something you want in a costly belief system.

  • c u n d gulag on July 24, 2012 3:31 PM:

    And how do we start a conversation with these people?

    The minute they find out you're a Democrat, you're automatically in league with Satan, and they discount any and every thing to try to say.

    Maybe if we could get them to turn off-Rush and right-wing talk radio, and switch-off FOX "News," question what their ministers are telling them, and read the damn Bible for themselves, we might stand a chance.

    Until then, I'm at a loss as to how to even approach people like this.

    I'm sure there are people of faith who are readers and commenter here who could help and old Liberal Agnostic - please do so.

  • Sean Scallon on July 24, 2012 3:31 PM:

    And what common ground would that be? Having declared much of the belief system of many religious persons to be too extreme or hateful to really build alliances around, what does that leave you with? The declining mainline churches are already politically aware and some cases very active, but this hardly brings people to the pews and given that such churches are relics of the old racistsexistclassist WASP elite from a postmodern viewpoint, it's hardly a foundation of anything. There's a reason why the Left is turning secular/nonreligious and focus on economics and inequality isn't going to change this trend.

  • POed Lib on July 24, 2012 3:45 PM:

    And it is the BAYYYYYBEEEESSSSS. You know, the scarlet letter A. Abortion.

    The rightwing wacks are convinced that Geezus is anti-abortion, although Geezus never not even once says anything about abortion. He talks over and over about the poor.

    Until people say FIRMLY and WITH CONVICTION that Geezus was not a Repukeliscum, was opposed to the love of money and supported the poor, and that it is FULLY IMPOSSIBLE to be a conservative and a Christian, the rightwing wacks will continue to have a lot of influence on this group.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on July 24, 2012 4:01 PM:

    Re: Cranky Observer above, I think all you have to do is peruse a couple of relevant threads on blogs like this one or TPM to see that some progressives have scorn for all people of faith, not just right-wingers. Obviously we can debate how widespread that scorn is.

  • Mimikatz on July 24, 2012 4:02 PM:

    Inkadu, you are right, but it was called "godless communism".

    This is an important point. During the late 19th Century and into the 1920s evangelical Christians were predominantly nativists and were in opposition to Catholic immigrants. In addition most immigrants at least initially came to the cities, while rural areas were the bastion of white Protestants. The Dems became identified with the urban areas and with immigrants. The Prohibition movement was supported by a rather bizarre coalition of evangelicals and other religious prohibitionists, suffragists, populists, progressives and nativists. Populism had some strange bedfellows, remember, and so did progressivism.

    The Communist revolution in Russia was a perfect wedge to separate white evangelicals from their progressive and populist roots. It fit in with nativism and hostility to cities and their "other" populations and deflected the populists' anger away from the capitalists who exploited them.

    Given this history, it seems pretty hopeless to they to turn white evangelicals toward today's Progressive political because they are too identified with the very people and changes that upset the religious right. The most that can be done is to point out thar the banksters and lords of finance are as predatory today as when they tried to crucify mankind on a cross of gold. But Progressives can't betray the rest of their modern coalition to try to appeal to right-wing Christians.

  • Bill K on July 24, 2012 4:04 PM:

    Also consider the Israel situation. In 1900 there was no Jewish homeland. Now the religious right yearns for the end days and strongly support the defense of Israel as part of Revelation. That's one reason we can attack Iraq but not North Korea.

  • golack on July 24, 2012 4:08 PM:

    The reformation was, in many ways, an attack on using the Church's power and influence to keep those in charge, in charge.

    Now that those who toppled the Catholic church's power are in power (in the current POG party), and are in the money, well, maybe, we can just read the passages that we like...

  • SecularAnimist on July 24, 2012 4:16 PM:

    Ed Kilgore quoted Rohrer: "Republican strategists in the last two generations have done a far better job than progressives at organizing, marketing and communicating their message in a way that appeals at a visceral level to the hopes and fears of many people. To change America, we must change this reality."

    The "reality" is that what Rohrer euphemistically calls "appeals at a visceral level to the hopes and fears of many people" by "Republican strategists" has been a Goebbels-like campaign of vicious lies, hate speech and vile propaganda, funded by ruthless, rapacious, reactionary billionaires like Scaife, Murdoch and Koch, carefully calculated to exploit the fears, resentments and other weaknesses of vulnerable people.

    The reason that fundamentalist Christians in particular have fallen for this crap is simply that they are one of the groups that has been specifically targeted with powerful propaganda and sophisticated brainwashing techniques, that were systematically researched, tested and designed by the most insidious and amoral minds of Madison Avenue to manipulate them, using their particular vulnerabilities.

  • Anonymous on July 24, 2012 4:59 PM:

    @POed Lib,

    Indeed. Jesus never said anything about abortion. Neither did the Bible. The closest that Bible ever came to discussing abortion is Exodus 21:22-23. Although, it does proscribe a death sentence in the event of the death of the child in question. This is actually the source of the whole eye-for-an-eye thing.

    "22. If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.
    "23. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,
    "24. eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,"

    etc. etc.

    Of course, Jesus Himself said (Matthew 5:38 & 39):

    "38. Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
    "39. But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."

    (KJV, because I was raised a Southern Baptist).

    As for the rest of Ed's topic. Well, the modern Prosperity Doctrine is simply a 21st Century version of the Divine Right of Kings. God has obviously blessed them with power and wealth, so they deserve it. You don't have the blessing of power and wealth, so God has found fault in you. Or something. Those whom God has blessed should be treated with respect and obedience.

    Call it, the Divine Right of the Wealthy.

    Either way, it is crap. And a slap in the face of Christ Himself, judging by his own words regarding the love of money. Of course, He would just turn his cheek to let you slap him again.

  • Bruce S on July 24, 2012 5:09 PM:

    One of the more hopeful signs I've seen that the so-called "evangelicals" aren't an impenetrable force in the current period is the difference in acceptance of gay marriage by young "evangelicals" (nearly 50% among 18-29s) compared to their older counterparts who are much more unanimous in their opposition. This is one of those "culture war" issues that one might have assumed was lost to the Religous Right. The prospect of generational shift is real.

    Whenever we have these discussions, of course, there is a racial component that is often unspoken. African-American Christian theological traditionalists are NOT a reserve army for the GOP, obviously - even when there's some conservative tug in their ranks on the "hot button" culture war issues. This fact alone is living proof of Rohrer's basic thesis. You don't have to go back to William Jennings Bryan to find great Christian progressives (although - his unfortunate final crusade against evolution aside - Bryan totally succumbed to the racist wing of the Democratic Party and white populism - left or right - has a pretty consistently racist history. That said, Bryan was very much allied with the women's equality movement of his day.)

    The facts are that the most hard-core demographic of liberal Democratic Party supporters are also probably the most fervently Christian population segment among us.

    Three words for folks who despair of the potential for progressive Christianity: Martin Luther King. Nuff said...

  • Mitch on July 24, 2012 5:16 PM:

    The verbose Anon, above, quoting Bible verses.

    I could have sworn I entered my name.

  • Bruce S on July 24, 2012 5:22 PM:

    "the modern Prosperity Doctrine"

    Frankly, this is in my view akin to a heresy. It's NOT Christianity in any Biblically recognizable sense. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Golden calfs, mammon, rich men trying to thread the needle and all that. I'm hardly a biblical literalist nor do I believe in exclusive theology, but I do know opportunistic practitioners of almost insultingly false attempts to twist Christ's message to accommodate and personally profit from "sanctifying" narcissistic consumerist capitalism when I see them.

  • nerd on July 24, 2012 5:29 PM:

    When I was a child I learned about the Golden Rule in Sunday School: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you".

    Later in life I learned about another Golden Rule: "Those that have the gold rule".

    I know which rule I prefer my elected leaders to follow. Do you?

  • Mitch on July 24, 2012 6:39 PM:

    @Bruce S.

    I am an atheist, so I cannot in good conscience call anyone out for heresy. But I do believe that the modern Fundamentalist movement, the Prosperity Doctrine and the demanding aggression the religious leaders have shown throughout history are all in opposition the teachings of Christ.

    The worst part about it all, in my opinion, is how it poisons even the best of people. I see it in my family, some of whom treat me very badly due to my atheism (and progressive views as well). But it is easiest for people to do evil, when they believe they are doing good - especially when they believe they are doing the will of God.

    I may at times be one of the people Equal Opportunity Cynic mentions above. One who sometimes has "scorn for all people of faith" although I really don't mean to come across that way. I most likely become defensive due to my many, many bad experiences living in the Bible Belt during my youth and my exasperation with those who deny science and seek to end education that they view as religiously offensive.

    Also, history has shown us - ad nauseum - what happens when zealots being to force their beliefs on others. We may live in "Enlightened Times" compared to the time of witch burnings, Inquisitions and Crusades. But we should never forget that Rome in it's day was more accepting of disparate faiths than we are even today.

    It would not take much to turn back the clock. And there are forces who really want to do so.

  • Doug on July 24, 2012 7:50 PM:

    Those fundamentalist "Christians" Rohrer writes about have had many opportunities to fully practice what they SAY they believe in and apply the teachings of their Messiah to others. Or, at least, try.
    They haven't.

  • Col Bat Guano on July 25, 2012 2:30 AM:

    Fundamentalists are not christians. They are authoritarians who blindly follow their leaders which is why they fit so well into the right wing. There is nothing the left could do to convince them to support liberal policies.

  • Lex on July 25, 2012 12:53 PM:

    Not only the Red scare but also the civil-rights movement pushed a lot of fundamentalists to the right.

  • yellowdog on August 01, 2012 5:47 AM:

    Let us not ignore the religious roots of American progressive politics, past and present. It is far too easy to secularize progressive politics and history in our thinking, so keen are we current-day progressives to keep church and state separate and to respect freedom of religious belief. However, there is a long tradition of Christians who have been vigorous progressive political reformers -- including the devout Bryan, who was a fierce critic of Wall Street and manipulative finance in his day, for what it did to the small farmers and small towns of the midwest, like Alton, Iowa. Woodrow Wilson was a fellow Presbyterian. Norman Thomas was too--ordained a minister in fact--this Thomas being the pacifist, socialist candidate for president who became one of the founders of the ACLU and an ardent supporter of the civil rights movement.

    Bryan veered into fundamentalism and Wilson into social darwinism. These strains of Christianity-- in modern evangelical belief -- are now heavily mobilized in politics. There are, though, other strains of Christianity, beyond these very vocal ones that are alive and well in the land--drawing on the better parts of Bryan and Wilson and from Thomas and Niebuhr and Howard Thurman and MLK and many other good-fight Christians. Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, and many other Democrats today come from this territory of Christianty--and are really uncomfortable with all the hally-hoo of the Christian right folks.

    Part of the horror of the Christian right about Obama is that there is in fact a Christian left--and Obama articulates its positions very credibly and easily if you are tuned in to hear him. Trashing or discrediting Obama's religious identity has been a core part of the political campaign against him. This has been huge. It is hardly accidental. There has been a long and steady effort to make the left seem unwelcome to Christians--and to make Obama seem hostile to Christianity--when in fact, his life story is a compelling narrative of coming into the faith in his adulthood.

    Sometimes non-Christian Democrats just don't appreciate how much questions of Christian identity (or non-identity) matter in the electorate. They do. If we Dems don't get how much religion has to do in keeping red places red, we have an awful lot to learn about American politics.