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3 November 2008
Thanks to D.
From The New Republic, May 10, 1922.
The campaign of William Jennings Bryan against science and in favor of obscurantism and intolerance is worthy or serious study. It demands more than the mingled amusement and irritation which it directly evokes. In its success (and it is meeting with success) it raises fundamental questions about the quality of our democracy. It helps us understand the absence of intellectual radicalism in the United States and the present eclipse of social and political liberalism. It aids, abets and gives comfort to the thoroughgoing critics of any democracy. It gives point to the assertion of our Menckens that democracy by nature puts a premium on mediocrity, the very thing in human nature that least stands in need of any extraneous assistance.
For Mr. Bryan is a typical democratic figure. There is no gainsaying that proposition. Economically and politically he has stood for and with the masses, not radically but "progressively." The most ordinary justice to him demands that his usefulness in revolt against privilege and his role as a leader in the late progressive movement -- late in every sense of the word, including deceased -- be recognized. His leadership in antagonism to free scientific research and to popular dissemination of its results cannot therefore be laughed away as a personal idiosyncrasy. There is a genuine and effective connection between the political and the doctrinal directions of his activity, and between the popular responses they call out.
What we call the middle classes are for the most part the church-going classes, those who have come under the influence of evangelical Christianity. These persons form the backbone of philanthropic social interest, of social reform through political action, of pacifism, of popular education. They embody and express the spirit of kindly goodwill toward classes which are at an economic disadvantage and toward other nations, especially when the latter show any disposition toward a republican form of government. The "Middle West," the prairie country, has been the centre of active social philanthropies and political progressivism because it is the chief home of this folk. Fairly well to do, enough so at least to be ambitious and to be sensitive to restrictions imposed by railway and financial corporations, believing in education and better opportunities for its own children, mildly interested in "culture," it has formed the solid element. in our diffuse national life and heterogeneous populations. It has been the element responsive to appeals for the square deal and more nearly equal opportunities for all, as it has understood equality of opportunity. It followed Lincoln in the abolition of slavery, and it followed Roosevelt in his denunciation of "bad" corporations and aggregations of wealth. It also followed Roosevelt or led him in its distinctions between "on the one hand and on the other hand." It has been the middle in every sense of the word and in every movement. Like every mean it has held things together and given unity and stability of movement.
It has never had an interest in ideas as ideas, nor in science and art for what they may do in liberating and elevating the human spirit. Science and art as far as they refine and polish life, afford "culture," mark stations on an upward social road, and have direct useful social applications, yes: but as emancipations, as radical guides to life, no. There is nothing recondite or mysterious or sinister or adverse to a reputable estimate of human nature in the causes of this state of mind. Historians of thought point out the difference between the fortunes of the new ideas of science and philosophy in the eighteenth century in England and France. In the former, they were accommodated, partially absorbed; they permeated far enough to lose their own inherent quality. Institutions were more or less liberalized, but the ideas were lost in the process. In France, the opposition was entrenched in powerful and inelastic institutions. The ideas were clarified and stripped to fighting weight. They bad to fight to live, and they became weapons. What happened in England happened in America only on a larger scale and to greater depths. The net result is social and political liberalism combined with intellectual illiberality. Of the result Mr. Bryan is an outstanding symbol.
The fathers of our country belonged to an intellectual aristocracy; they shared in the intellectual enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Franklin, Jefferson, John Adams, in their beliefs and ideas were men of the world, especially of the contemporary French world. Their free-thinking ideas did not prevent their being leaders. A generation later and it is doubtful if one of them could have been elected town selectman, much less have become a powerful political figure. When Mr. Taft was a candidate for President, a professor of modern languages in a southern college was dismissed from his position because he remarked to a friend in private conversation that he did. not think that the fact that Mr. Taft was a Unitarian necessarily disqualified him for service as President. The incident is typical of the change wrought in a century, a change which became effective, however, quite early in the century. There are histories of the United States written from almost every point of view; but the social and political consequences of the popular evangelical movement which began in the early years of the nineteenth century do not seem to have received the attention they deserve. A large part of what is attacked under the name of Puritanism has next to nothing to do with historic Puritanism and almost everything to do with that second "Great Awakening" which began in the border, southern and western frontier states in the first decade of the last century.
It is not without significance that Andrew Jackson.. the first "church-going" President, was also the first political representative of the democratic frontier, the man who marks the change of the earlier aristocratic republic into a democratic republic. The dislike of privilege extended itself to fear of the high1y educated and the expert. The tradition of higher education for the clergy was surrendered in the popular denominations. Religion was popularized, and thought, especially free-thought which impinged adversely upon popular moral conceptions, became unpopular, too unpopular to consist with political success. It was almost an accident that even Lincoln could be elected President. Nominal tribute, at least, has had to be paid to the beliefs of the masses. When popular education was extended and colleges and "universities" were scattered towards the frontier, denominational agencies alone had sufficient social zeal to take part. When state universities were founded they were open to the suspicion of ungodliness; and generally protected themselves by some degree of conformity to the expectations imposed by the intellectual prejudices of the masses. They could go much further than denominational colleges, but they could not go so far as to cultivate the free spirit. There were reserves, reticences and accommodations.
The churches performed an inestimable social function in frontier expansion. They were the rallying points not only of respectability, but of decency and order in the midst of a rough and turbulent population.. They were the representatives of social neighborliness and all the higher interests of the communities. The tradition persisted after the incoming of better schools, libraries, clubs, musical organizations and the other agencies of "culture." There are still thousands of communities throughout the country where the church building is the natural meeting-house for every gathering except a "show." The intensity of evangelical life toned down, and the asperities of dogmatic creeds softened. But the association of the church with the moral and the more elevated social interests of the community remained. The indirect power of the church over thought and expression increased as its direct power waned. The more people stopped going to church, the more important it became to maintain the standards for which the church stood. As the frontier ceased to be a menace to orderly life. it persisted as a limit beyond which it was dangerous and unrespectable for thought to travel.
What the frontier was to western expansion. slavery was for the South. After a period of genuine liberalism among the southern clergy, the church became largely a bulwark of support to the peculiar institution, especially as the battle took a sectional form. The gentry became at least nominally attached to the church in the degree in which clericalism attached itself to the support of slavery. The church was a natural outlet and consolation for the poor whites. It was upon the whole the most democratic institution within their horizon. It is notorious that the most reactionary theological tendencies have their home in the South. The churches there can thank God that they at least have not contaminated their theology with dangerous concessions to modern thought. In the South the movements to withhold public funds from public educational institutions which permit the teaching of evolution have their greatest success.
Mr. Bryan can have at best only a temporary triumph, a succés d' estime, in his efforts to hold back biological inquiry and teaching. It is not in this particular field that he is significant But his appeals and his endeavors are a symptom and a symbol of the forces which are most powerful in holding down the intellectual level of American life. He does not represent the frontier democracy of Jackson's day. But he represents it toned down and cultivated as it exists in fairly prosperous villages and small towns that have inherited the fear of whatever threatens the security and order of a precariously attained civilization, along with pioneer impulses to neighborliness and decency. Attachment to stability and homogeneity of thought and belief seem essential in the midst of practical heterogeneity, rush and unsettlement. We are not Puritans in our intellectual heritage, but we are evangelical because of our fear of ourselves and of our latent frontier disorderliness. The depressing effect upon the free life of inquiry and criticism is the greater because of the element of soundness in frontier fear, and because of the impulses of good will and social aspiration which have become entangled with its creeds. The forces which are embodied in the present crusade would not be so dangerous were they not bound up with so much that is necessary and good. We have been so taught to respect the beliefs of our neighbors that few will respect the beliefs of a neighbor when they depart from forms which have become associated with aspiration for a decent neighborly life. This is the illiberalism which is deep-rooted in our liberalism. No account of the decay of the idealism of the progressive movement in politics or of the failure to develop an intelligent and enduring idealism out of the emotional fervor of the war, is adequate unless it reckons with this fixed limit to thought. No future liberal movement, when active liberalism revives, will be permanent unless it goes deep enough to affect it. Otherwise we shall have in the future what we have had in the past, revivalists like Bryan, Roosevelt and Wilson, movements which embody moral emotions rather than the insight and policy of intelligence.