Among some liberals there exists a sentiment that religious-minded individuals, particularly evangelical Protestants, are politically suspect and culturally unfit. The reaction to Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter is a case in point. So, too, was the reaction to a deeply religious man of another era--William Jennings Bryan. When he died shortly after his appearance in the famed Scopes monkey trial, Bryan was remembered this way by H. L. Mencken: "[He] lived too long, and descended too deeply into the mud, to be taken seriously hereafter by fully literate men, even of the kind that write schoolbooks."
Mencken's wish seems to have been realized; who can remember the last time that Bryan's name was mentioned approvingly among liberal activists or at a Democratic convention? Perhaps it is because the Great Commoner stood in the face of modernity and claimed that evolution had no truck with right thinking. Or because he employed metaphors like "cross of gold." Or because he wore baggy pants and wide-brimmed hats and sweated profusely when Clarence Darrow grilled him during the Scopes trial.
What historian Richard Cherny brings to our attention, however, is that the Illinois native also possessed a passionate commitment to liberal values. Not only did he run for president against conservatives William McKinely and William Howard Taft, he also worked for a progressive income tax, women's suffrage, and self-determination for American colonies. And, according to Cherny, these beliefs were as rooted in his evangelical Protestantism as they were in the writings of Jefferson and the political rhetoric of Jacksonian Democrats.
Cherny argues that the central elements of Bryan's faith included the fatherhood of God, the atonement of Christ, and the brotherhood of man (a concept which Cherny says "unquestionably" included women). "Bryan's belief that all men were brothers reinforced and became inseparable from his belief that all men were equal," writes the author. The fatherhood of God had particular influence on Bryan's commitment to self-government. Bryan once quoted Henry Clay in saying, "It would be a reflection on the Almighty to say he created people incapable of self-government."
Bryan's religious orientation towards...