Editor’s Note: This column has been re-printed with permission from The Observer at Bard College.
The setting was the St. Paul Methodist Church in Lincoln, Neb. The year was 1890. The occasion was a dinner in honor of a few prestigious guests whose names have been lost to history. The speaker was a little-known, 30-year-old lawyer named William Jennings Bryan, who had been abruptly called upon to undertake the oratorical duties of the evening when his more distinguished partner had been called out of town on urgent business. Many years later he would attain great national prominence as a three-time Democratic nominee for president, a pioneer of both the populist and progressive movements and a Secretary of State who served our nation admirably during the years directly preceding its entry into World War I. An entire article could be written lauding William Jennings Bryan; the purpose of this two-part work, however, is to focus on a little-known speech that Bryan delivered on that spring evening, before his political career had even begun.
The speech was called “The Law and the Gospel,” and when I discovered it while perusing Bryan’s chronicle of his 1896 presidential campaign, I was shocked at the prescience of its rhetoric to one of the great issues currently impacting the modern world.
In America, we have witnessed the rise of a political faction known as the religious right. Their fundamental belief is that the Christian Bible should be used not merely as the basis for conducting their personal lives (they have the right to use it in such a manner), but also as the foundation for how government should affect the lives of its citizens. For a personal religious belief to influence a single matter of public policy would be dangerous to our Constitution in its own right. More frightening about the religious right, however, is the sheer scope of the subjects that they wish to be put under the influence of their faith, through means both direct and subtle. Their agenda includes everything from whether a woman has a right to an abortion and gays and lesbians the right to marry to what our children should be taught in their schools and how our nation should conduct its foreign policy.
What they advocate is not dangerous solely because it would infringe upon the fundamental right of all human beings to liberty, it is also dangerous because it undermines one of the fundamental tenets that America’s founding fathers established for the direct purpose of preventing the rise of theologically-driven totalitarianism. Indeed, there is no single major ideology as dangerous to the preservation of American values as that currently espoused by the Christian Right, for it is they who threaten to render moot the optimistic prophecy made by Thomas Jefferson, one of freedom’s greatest architects, in 1802:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God . I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
It behooves all patriotic Americans to do everything in their power to fight the encroaching influence of the Christian Right. Simply addressing their claims issue by issue is not sufficient. We must also attack the underlying basis of their argument - that our founding fathers created a quasi-theocratic republic, rather than a democracy. By attempting to redefine the very essence of “Americanism,” they attempt to perform a subversive form of revolution; rather than destroy American values by openly attacking them, they instead attempt to convince people that their personal ideology is in fact the one that has been “American” all along. This effort has thus far been successful, especially since the opponents of the Christian Right - liberal and conservative alike - often fail to recognize what exactly it is that they are doing. By failing to fight the fundamental germ of the Christian Right’s argument, they allow them to smother the most basic values of Americanism in the embrace of their faulty ideas. We must not allow them to continue painting those who oppose their views as being against God. America’s - and Christianity’s - most basic values can only be preserved when their advocates are willing to fight just as strongly for them as the Christian Right is to fight against them - to tear them down so as to erect an edifice of their own liking.
Matt Rozsa is a graduate student in the College of Arts and Sciences. He writes a column of historical vignettes for The Eagle.