Evangelicals, Populism, and Resentment

Evangelicals are hard to understand without reference to populism (as we've discussed here). So let's delve into the populist aesthetic and see how it works. Consider the usefulness of ugly emotions. The quintessential populist speech was delivered by William Jennings Bryan in 1896, at the Democratic convention that nominated him for president. The issue that year was the gold standard, which Bryan opposed because he said a limited money supply harmed farmers and laborers. His speech bristles with at least two kinds of resentment.

On the surface, Bryan expresses resentment of wealth. He turns to the pro-gold delegates in the convention hall and says, "When you come before us and tell us that we are about to disturb your business interests, we reply that you have disturbed our business interests by your course." Populism is often reduced to this formulation, that the rich are too rich. But Bryan is talking about something deeper.

He targets the issue of status, asserting a new definition of a "business man." Notice the socially explosive contrasts:

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 crossroads 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 . . . .

That's powerful stuff, not because it's about money, but because it's about status -- the relative worth of rural and urban people. The paragraph expresses people's resentment when their culture fades under the dominance of something alien. Here's another explosive moment from Bryan's speech:

You come and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms, and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.

This rhetoric aims at the gut. It pits one way of life against another.

The populist aesthetic of resentment has not changed after 112 years of campaigning. Here is Governor Mike Huckabee, the evangelical former-candidate, in a speech at an Elks Lodge in Cedar Rapids, Iowa before the caucuses last January:

If you go to caucus Thursday night and give me an opportunity to come out of here winning this caucus, I am going to tell you, it will stun the political chattering class — all those folks out there in the Wall Street to Washington axis of power who love to predict what you are going to do, who have it all figured out, because after all, money is what makes politics. It is all about the money.

It's only "about the money" for Huckabee to the extent that money is a symbol of status. Notice his word choices, aimed at the guts of the Elks Lodge members. There is an "axis of power" -- power over you -- that runs from "Wall Street to Washington" -- not the locations but the class markers. The rich people in the axis "love to predict what you are going to do."

More from the same speech: "Well, I know I have been outspent in this state 20 to 1. I understand what that means. Just like some of you understand that your whole life you feel like you have been outspent 20 to 1 in about everything you have ever tried to do." See the heads nod vigorously. "That's right. Everything I have ever tried to do."

On Super Tuesday, after winning several southern states, Huckabee linked his constituency's anger at the party establishment to the obvious biblical images. As reported in the New York Times he said, “Tonight, we are making sure America understands that sometimes one small smooth stone is even more effective than a whole lot of armor.” He took a specific shot at Mitt Romney: “And we’ve also seen that the widow’s mite has more effectiveness than all the gold in the world.” Gold again.

On some other blog, they can argue about the economics of the middle class. I'm not saying that everything's financially rosy in the average household.

I am saying that evangelicals now use a political rhetoric that flatters "true believers" and creates whole classes of enemies they can blame for their woes. Wall Street wants to buy the Iowa caucuses. Washington bureaucrats are conspiring to destroy the family. Hollywood elites are imposing their values on The People.

I have two questions:

1. Does populism leave the evangelical soul softer or harder?

2. Does an agnostic bond trader on Wall Street know that there's a difference between crucifying Jesus on the cross of Calvary and crucifying farmers on a cross of gold? Will the farmers be able to help him distinguish the two?

By the way, in 1896 William McKinley won the presidency and Bryan lost.