It Takes a Populist to Know a Populist

Boniface notices another wrinkle of papal audacity:

The poor of the world oppressed by corrupt elites. The downtrodden encouraged to rise up and take their destiny into their own hands. The great leader, the pope, urging them on and joining his voices with those of the oppressed. A call to translate the popular emotional anxiety and social angst of the poor into community action. Is this language not dripping with populist rhetoric? And this speech is just one example; these types of statements from Pope Francis are legion.

The point is not whether Pope Francis is correct or not. In much of this, he certainly is. The poor of Latin America are oppressed. There is an elitist global cabal that would like nothing more than the economic enslavement of the downtrodden. That’s not the issue. The issue is that Pope Francis’ appeal is absolutely, definitively, without a doubt populist in nature.

Pope Francis is fundamentally a populist. It’s so intrinsic to his worldview he doesn’t even realize it. He recognizes demagoguery and populist appeals in leaders whose agenda is in conflict with his own, but fails to identify populist rhetoric in his own appeals. Steeped in the neo-Marxian populism of Latin America, his brand of Argentine populism does not seem like populism to him – to him it’s just, well, it’s just the way leaders speak.

Again, this is not a critique of the pope’s ideas or his initiatives. But it does demonstrate that his assertion that “populism” is essentially evil is untenable, for he himself is a populist, and populism cannot be “evil” when used by one’s opponents but Christlike when done by the pope – and Pope Francis is the world’s most prominent populist.

All Down Hill After John Witherspoon?

Anthony Bradley wonders (again) what has happened to Presbyterians and why they lost their momentum. First it was as popular voices among evangelicals, now it’s as dispensers of wisdom about the world:

I am wondering, then, for those who are raising their children in the Presbyterian tradition what resources exists for forming Presbyterian identity in terms of an understanding marriage & family (i.e., the relationship between covenant marriage & covenant baptism in America’s marriage debate), issues related to social & political power & federal political theory (which is derivative of federal theology), divorce and remarriage, war and social conflict, apologetics, and so on? How does a covenantal world-and-life view, and Presbyterian understandings of power structures, unlock the implications for a theology of work & economics when applied to international third world development, and so on?

By extension, I am also wondering what happened to Presbyterians as known and normative leaders of culturally leveraged institutions in American society and culture? Mark Twain and William Faulkner were Presbyterian. More Vice-Presidents of the United States have been Presbyterian more than any other denomination (Presbyterians rank 2nd for the US Presidency). Presbyterians rank 2nd in terms of placement on the Supreme Court in US History. I could go on. . . .

An initial thought is to wonder why Presbyterians need to go to another Presbyterian for instruction on the federal government. Isn’t reading the Federalists and Anti-Federalists (Presbyterian or not?) good enough?

Another wonder is whether Presbyterians have ever been all that influential as Bradley’s post assumes. To meet his criteria — “what Presbyterians are speaking to these issues or leading institutions that are (like think tanks or colleges and universities” — at least three sets of circumstances need to be in play. First, a person needs to be Presbyterian (what kind — Old Side, New Life, Neo-Calvinist — is another question)? Second, such a person needs to be writing on a vast number of public policy type subjects. So far Tim and David Bayly suffice. But then, third, and this is the kicker, the person needs to be sufficiently well known for folks in the pew to consult him or her (sorry, Tim and David). As it stands, lots of Presbyterians have lots of thoughts on all sorts of subjects and publish them (on the interweb). But no one of them stands out with Francis Schaeffer notoriety.

The problem, then, may have less to do with Presbyterian decline than with the diversification of communication technology and the formation of diverse pockets of affinity.

At the same time, Presbyterians need not feel so bad, at least if misery loves company. Bradley’s question applies just as much to Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, and — boy does it ever — to Congregationalists (nee Puritans). Among Western Christians, Rome stands out as distinctly different in this regard since Roman Catholics have an endless supply of public intellectuals who are doing their best imitations of popes, who speak constantly to a host of issues below their pay grade. This may explain much of Rome’s contemporary appeal to converts. If you want a church with all the answers to life’s pressing questions — don’t go to Guy Noir but to the Vatican. But if you believe in the spirituality of the church and the sufficiency of Scripture, you don’t need a Presbyterian pontiff to tell you how to live. You go to church, say your prayers, work dutifully at your callings, and take your lumps.

One last thought about Anthony’s question comes from a period I know relatively well. During the first half of the twentieth century we did have Presbyterians who spoke on any number of issues, were well known and so had pretty large followings. These were William Jennings Bryan, Billy Sunday, J. Gresham Machen, and Carl McIntire. Maybe 1 in 4 isn’t bad. But if that’s going to be the percentage of Presbyterians we should heed when they start to pontificate about all of life, I’ll take my chances with guys who write for American Conservative.

What's the Difference between a Modernist and a Fundamentalist?

For those with stomachs to read, a revealing discussion is going on over at the Gospel Coalition and at Mere Orthodoxy about the debate between Al Mohler and Jim Wallis over social justice. What is striking in the original post which summarizes the debate, and in reactions from people who would appear to be evangelical, is how many born-again Protestants refer to social justice with a straight face. One reason someone might say “social justice” with a raised eyebrow is that critics of the Enlightenment, like Alisdair MacIntyre in Whose Justice, Which Rationality, suggested long ago that ideas like justice are a lot more complicated and owe a lot more to social settings like Enlightened Europe than the are abstract truths that everyone knows for sure and can readily implement.

An additional wrinkle in this discussion is how some evangelicals bend and twist in order to attach works to faith, sanctification to justification, word to deed, in order to add social justice to the proclamation of the gospel. Not to sound like Glenn Beck, but social justice is not only threatening the United States, but it’s also doing a number on evangelical Protestantism (and so many thought born-again Protestants were conservative; have I got a book for them?)

So to add a little clarity (as our mid-western correspondent reminded me this morning), I bring to mind the views of the modernist Harry Emerson Fosdick and the fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan on the task of the church (and the problem of doctrinal divisions) in alleviating social problems. Important to see is that both sides want a relevant faith and castigate denominational or theological differences. I don’t know how born-again infatuation with social justice will work out any differently for evangelicals than it did for their grandparents in mainline Protestantism. Another bad ending to a religious story.

Fosdick, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” (1922)

The second element which is needed if we are to reach a happy solution of this problem is a clear insight into the main issues of modern Christianity and a sense of penitent shame that the Christian Church should be quarreling over little matters when the world is dying of great needs. If, during the war, when the nations were wrestling upon the very brink of hell and at times all seemed lost, you chanced to hear two men in an altercation about some minor matter of sectarian denominationalism, could you restrain your indignation? You said, “What can you do with folks like this who, in the face of colossal issues, play with the tiddledywinks and peccadillos of religion?” So, now, when from the terrific questions of this generation one is called away by the noise of this Fundamentalist controversy, he thinks it almost unforgivable that men should tithe mint and anise and cummin, and quarrel over them, when the world is perishing for the lack of the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith. . . .

The present world situation smells to heaven! And now, in the presence of colossal problems, which must be solved in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake, the Fundamentalists propose to drive out from the Christian churches all the consecrated souls who do not agree with their theory of inspiration. What immeasurable folly!

William Jennings Bryan, “Freedom of Religion and the Ku Klux Klan” (1924)

The world is coming out of the war, the bloodiest ever known. Thirty millions of human lives were lost, three hundred billions of property was destroyed, and the debts of the world are more than six times as greate as they were when the first fun was fired.

My friends, how are you going to stop war? . . . There is only one thing that can bring peace to the world, and that is the Prince of Peace. That is, my friends, the One who, when He came upon the earth, the angels said, “On earth, good will toward men. . . . Is it possible that now, when Jesus is more needed, I say the hope of the world — is it possible that at this time, in this great land, we are to have a religious discussion and a religious warfare? Are you going my friends, to start a blaze that may cause you innumerable lives, sacrificed on the altar of religious liberty? I cannot believe it.

(P.S. Bryan’s speech was to the Democratic National Convention and in response to a report that proposed to exclude the KKK. The double irony is that the Democratic Party was a place where Christian appeals prevailed, and that such a faith as Bryan’s “conservative Presbyterianism” could embrace white supremacists for the sake of a civil religion that sought to apply Christ to social problems. In which case, it’s another proof of the errors both religious and secular that follow when you mix faith and politics — you get social gospel.)