The Lost Progressive Tradition of American Fundamentalists

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.