The ongoing furor about Christianitys role in American politics is provoked especially by the conjunction of difficult moral issues with rising conservative activism and closely fought elections.
In the recent flood of books about this, several warrant special attention:
American Theocracy (Viking) by Kevin Phillips. This one-time Republican analyst attacks Americas oil dependence and indebtedness but especially decries religious conservatives alliance with the Republican Party.
Our Endangered Values (Simon & Schuster) by Jimmy Carter. The former Democratic president shares many partisan themes with Phillips in a superficial attack on fundamentalism in politics and within his own Southern Baptist Convention.
American Gospel (Random House) by Jon Meacham. This Newsweek magazine editors discursive historical essay says that in a democracy, its inevitable that religious groups will address public issues.
Washingtons God (Basic Books) by Michael and Jana Novak. The authors examine the faith of the first president and religious precedents he set.
A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (Knopf) by Michael Kazin. This is the best of the lot. A Georgetown University expert on the Populist era provides an engaging portrait of a three-time (1896, 1900, 1908) candidate for president.
Bryans movement fused Bible-based moralism with the Democratic Party. That history demolishes Phillips claim that with Bush-era Republicans, for the first time, the United States has a political party that represents some say over-represents true-believing frequent churchgoers.
Phillips did find some actual theocrats, known as reconstructionists. But despite his insinuations, they have negligible impact on Americas church or state.
He loathes conservatives who address gay marriage, school prayer, sex education, intelligent design or the war on terror. But he never explains why they are un-American theocrats but not religious and secular types who preach the opposite values.
Carter has the same sort of problem. He thinks separation of church and state forbids corporate church activism, limiting agitation to individuals. Is it illegitimate for churches to lobby about black and immigrant rights, federal spending for the poor, environmental protection or other liberal causes? If not, Carter never explains the difference.
Kazin, a self-described secular liberal, calls Bryan a great Christian liberal. Todays Democrats and liberals, Kazin observes, suppose they can safely ignore moral issues grounded in religious conviction, yet most Americans dont share their mistrust of public piety.
The case of Bryan is a reminder that their forebears embraced religious activism, and a warning to conservatives and Republicans that some crusades will be seen as mistakes in the long term.
Today, Bryan is remembered mostly for one mistake: opposing the teaching of evolution at the 1925 Scopes Trial. Kazin says that religiously, Bryan was not a fundamentalist as we now understand that term. Bryan opposed Darwinism not only as an attack upon the Bible but upon the downtrodden, because survival of the fittest was being applied to society.
Other Bryan errors, in retrospect, were alcohol prohibition and the support for Jim Crow policies on race that he shared with all major Democrats of that era. Except for race, the Democrats ceased being Americas more conservative party due to Bryans impact.
Consider his then-radical proposals:
Income taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals, government regulation of banks and the stock market, antitrust laws, federally insured bank deposits, protection for labor union members and strikers, federal aid to education and highway construction, workmens compensation, a minimum wage, government farm subsidies and food inspection, publicly funded campaigns, womens right to vote and direct election of U.S. senators.
And 2006 doves take note Bryans hostility to American militarism overseas bordered on pacifism.