Evangelicals and Populist Suicide

Decades ago, evangelicals and their hard-bitten brethren, the fundamentalists, rode off the cultural cliff, and the flag that snapped in the wind all the way down bore the stripes of populism. We've discussed here and here how believers are afraid of interacting with American culture. Fundamentalists shun the larger culture because they fear the contamination of worldliness. The position of evangelicals is softer. They adopt the forms of the consumer culture, using TV and pop idioms freely, but only in a parallel media universe that mimics the secular originals.

Believers have many historical models for participating in contemporary culture while living out pure doctrine, ethics, and spirituality -- models like the Princeton theologians we sketched last week. But both evangelicals and fundamentalists have rejected these models. We no longer produce leaders with the cultural depth of a J. Gresham Machen. The exceptions, like Francis Schaeffer, are glaring.

I believe we have rejected our historical models because we now see them as elitist. To hold the attitudes that education and the life of the mind should be important values in the local church, that the arts should be a vibrant part of church life, or that genuine scholarship in the pulpit is the least a congregation should expect, is to incur many evangelicals' wrath.

Regular people don't see the point of such fancy talk. And if regular people don't see the point, then there is no point. (I'm not slamming "regular people" here. I'm articulating what I think has become an ethos. I happen to think "regular people" will provide ways forward for evangelicalism.)

This expectation that spiritual leaders will set everything according to the standards of "regular people" is new, and distinctly American. It results from the evangelical embrace of populism.

I use the term populism in a specific sense. I refer to the political and cultural aesthetic that traces at least as far back as Andrew Jackson. This aesthetic transcends parties and factions, and has expressed itself across the ideological spectrum. It has these basic characteristics:

1. Populism is agrarian, southern, and western.

Jackson was from Tennessee, and was far removed from the aristocracy of Virginia and Massachusetts. He cast the aristocratic John Quincy Adams out of the presidency, and the shindig after Jackson's first inauguration left the walls of the White House smeared with cheese. Other populist figures in American history have been William Jennings Bryan (born in Illinois, moved to Nebraska), and Huey Long (governor of, and later U.S. senator from, Louisiana.)

The fact that evangelicalism is strongest in rural, southern, and western regions is not coincidental. Evangelicals have deeply anti-urban attitudes.

2. Populism feeds on suspicion of corporate, academic, financial, and cultural "elites."

Jackson was bent on destroying the Bank of the United States. Bryan made his career opposing the gold standard. Among this year's presidential contenders, the most virulent populists were John Edwards, pitting the "two Americas" against each other, and Mike Huckabee, pitting evangelicals against Republican insiders. Populists hate power "in the hands of a few."

Evangelical fear of "cultural elites" needs no elaboration. Used as a money-raising appeal, its effect is primal.

3. Populism is animated by resentment.

One of the things that makes populists so compelling is that they feel the resentments of a particular class personally. Jackson seemed to draw life from anger. Bryan identified closely with the plight of agrarian people in an increasingly industrial society. George Wallace was not compelling because he was a racist, as people outside the south imagine, but because his hostility to northern liberals was completely sincere. (Gay Talese is enlightening on this point about Wallace in his memoir, A Writer's Life.)

I may be flirting with controversy here, but . . . evangelicals thrive on their own cultural resentments. The Hollywood elite. The scientific establishment. The Ivy League elites. Evangelicals both cherish and resent their status as outsiders.

4. Populism can evoke positive emotions only through sentimentality.

As rhetoricians, populists gain quick and questionable access to wells of loyalty through cheap symbolism. The flag. "And I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free." Jimmy Carter (not James E.) in his cardigan sweater, carrying his own luggage. Bill Clinton's suddenly thickening accent.

Evangelical sentimentality is egregious. The juxtaposition of the stars and stripes with the cross. The happy-clappy music. The weepy testimonies. The southern pronunciation of CHEE-zus. Our dependence on these tricks is an embarrassment.

Line up Machen against these characteristics and he fails on every count. He was from the northeast. He was an Ivy League elite. The notes he hit in his rhetoric were not resentment and sentimentality. He made his case with scholarship, and based his appeals on principled reasoning.

This is probably why the Princeton leaders lost influence among fundamentalists, as the voices against modernism became less theologically informed and more populist. Like William Jennings Bryan, who turned the Scopes trial into a media frenzy and lost the cultural contest to Clarence Darrow -- lost it big time.

Over the next several weeks, I'll examine such issues as how the populist aesthetic works, how specific evangelical leaders like Mike Huckabee use it, what populism does to local churches, and why populism will always fail. I will not argue for a return to elitism. Still less will I argue that we need "another Machen," or "another Princeton."

But I will argue that evangelicals are deluded about the flag they carried off the cultural cliff. Their flag did not proclaim, "Jesus Saves!" Their flag said, "Small Towns Forever!"