The Politics of Service

Since President George W. Bush's 2004 electoral victory, there has been a flood of books promoting apocalyptic visions of impending theocracy. Reading them, you might think the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition invented Christian political activism in the 1980s.

Christians have long applied the teachings of their faith to their politics. Yet today's activism is an anomaly. Traditionally, faith-based activism has not been so closely associated with one party. During the tumultuous years when America grew into a financial superpower, Christians spread across the political spectrum. They often rallied to their economic allies, such as populists, socialists, and conservatives.

William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, and Abraham Kuyper would have disagreed about plenty. Yet all three brought their faith to bear on the great social challenges of their day and saw politics as an arena in which to serve their neighbors as agents of God's grace.

Williams Jennings Bryan (1860-1925)

The Great Commoner

Williams Jennings Bryan trusted a God who sided with common folk. Bryan made a name for himself in the Progressive Era by fighting the economic elites of his own Democratic Party. His oratorical skills catapulted him all the way to the party's nomination for President in 1896 when he famously harangued the gold standard. “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns,” Bryan thundered, stretching out his arms. “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

Three times Bryan ran for President; three times he failed. Nevertheless, besides Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, Bryan dominated the era of reforms that ran from the 1890s to the 1920s. He championed four constitutional amendments enacted during this period—prohibition, direction election of senators, the income tax, and woman suffrage. Known as the “Great Commoner,” Bryan opposed the business interests that he believed had undercut America's working classes. “There can be no good monopoly in private hands until the Almighty sends us angels to preside over the monopoly,” he argued.

Traits that won Bryan the masses made him controversial and unpopular among others. A great speaker during an age of oratory, Bryan came across as a loud demagogue to many business and political leaders. He stuck to his principles and resigned his position as secretary of state in Woodrow Wilson's cabinet as America prepared to enter World War I. But Bryan had appeared inept in his efforts to mediate the conflict, and his simple piety did not impress opponents. Yet according to biographer Michael Kazin, “admirers embraced him because he so publicly campaigned in the name of Christian principles and was never known to have transgressed them.”

Unfortunately, Bryan's name became associated with the fundamentalist retreat due to his role in the 1925 Scopes evolution trial. Dubbed the “Fundamentalist Pope” by H. L. Mencken, Bryan feared the nascent theological liberalism of his Presbyterian denomination. He eagerly took the stand at the Scopes trial in defense of God's Word, when Clarence Darrow picked him apart.

But Bryan did not entertain any retreat from culture. “Sometimes the Christian has sought to prepare himself for immortality by withdrawing from the world's temptations and from the world's activities,” Bryan said. “Now he is beginning to see that he can only follow in the footsteps of the Nazarene when he goes about doing good and renders 'unto the least of these,' his brethren, the service that the Master was anxious to render unto all.”

Dorothy Day (1897-1980)

Advocate for the downtrodden

It is perhaps symbolic that a mover and shaker like Dorothy Day survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. As she watched her mother help the earthquake's homeless, Day developed a sensitive heart toward “the least of these.” But it was socialism—not the church—that first harnessed her activism. In 1917 police arrested the budding journalist while she protested at the White House for woman suffrage. The activist Day saw little use for a meek Jesus. “I wanted a Lord who would scourge the money-changers out of the temple,” Day wrote in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, “and I wanted to help all those who raised their hand against oppression.”

Nevertheless, the time Day spent in prison tried her commitment to secular activism. She even asked for a Bible and sought comfort from the Psalms. For years after she left prison, Day's interest in Christianity grew slowly but steadily. Love for the poor drew her to the Roman Catholic Church, whose huddled masses she met while reporting among immigrants.

Day's move toward Catholicism came at a cost. She split with her common-law husband, Forster Batterham, when Day gave birth to their daughter, Tamar, in 1927. Day, feeling the guilt of an earlier abortion, saw Tamar's birth as a sign of God's mercy and forgiveness, and had her baptized. Like many of Day's radical friends, Batterham would not tolerate religiosity. “It was not because I was tired of sex, satiated, disillusioned, that I turned to God,” Day wrote. “It was because through a whole love, both physical and spiritual, I came to know God.”

While writing for the Catholic magazine Commonweal in 1932, Day met the man who would steer her toward her life's calling. Peter Maurin, a French immigrant and former monk, urged Day to launch a newspaper that would spread Catholic social teaching. Maurin supplied the philosophy behind The Catholic Worker, but Day provided the journalistic know-how. The newspaper's pacifism and advocacy for the poor afforded Maurin and Day numerous opportunities to back their words with action. Yet on two occasions things became so difficult that Maurin asked Day to quit with him.

By 1936, 33 Catholic Worker houses had sprouted nationwide as the growing network of newspapers opened their doors to the down and out. But some staff members lamented Day's commitment to the “undeserving” poor. They preferred to spend the limited funds on socialist propaganda. Day held her ground, and the dissenters left.

Likewise, World War II tested the newspaper's integrity. When The Catholic Worker declined to choose sides, two-thirds of their readers quit taking the paper. Maurin wondered if they should give up, since the world evidently didn't want to listen. “God gives us our temperaments,” Day remembered, “and in spite of my pacifism, it is natural for me to stand my ground, to continue in what actually amounts to a class war, using such weapons as the works of mercy for immediate means to show our love and to alleviate suffering.”

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920)

Prime minister with a message

Though known as a conservative, Abraham Kuyper backed William Jennings Bryan for President in the 1900 election. Being a Dutch citizen, he couldn't vote, but Kuyper's ties to America ran deep. He believed “America represented the future of liberty on our planet,” according to theologian John Bolt. He couldn't help feeling affinity for America, home to so many Dutch immigrants.

In his native Netherlands, Kuyper earned his reputation as a man of many gifts and boundless energy. He founded the Anti-Revolutionary Party, the first national party in the Netherlands and a forerunner to Christian Democratic parties in Europe. An ordained minister, Kuyper started a Christian university and two Christian newspapers, including The Standard in 1872. At the pinnacle of his political career, Kuyper served as the Dutch prime minister from 1901 to 1905.

This career did not seem likely when he took a pastorate in Beesd after seminary in 1863. During university studies, Kuyper had not shown much sympathy for the orthodoxy of theologians like John Calvin. In Beesd, a young evangelical woman, Pietje Baltus, stopped going to church because of his liberal sermons. Baltus even refused to shake his hand, but Kuyper decided to hear her out. Over time his views changed so dramatically that he left the Dutch Reformed Church in 1886 and helped start a more conservative rival denomination in 1892.

Kuyper did not remain in ministry long. In 1874 he won a seat in Parliament, where he championed Christian education. He founded the Free University in 1880 and delivered his hallmark phrase at its inaugural convocation: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry 'Mine!'”

He brought his message to America in 1898 when B. B. Warfield invited him to lecture at Princeton. Kuyper explained Calvinism's implications for all spheres of life, including science and art. “The sovereignty of the state and the sovereignty of the church exist side by side, and they mutually limit each other,” Kuyper said of his belief in “sphere sovereignty.”

Kuyper preached a lofty view of God's sovereignty and pointed out his acts of “common grace.” “The world after the fall is no lost planet, only destined now to afford the church a place in which to continue her combats; and humanity is no aimless mass of people which only serves the purpose of giving birth to the elect,” Kuyper said. “On the contrary, the world now, as well as in the beginning, is the theater for the mighty works of God, and humanity remains a creation of his hand, which, apart from salvation, completes under this present dispensation, here on earth, a mighty process, and in its historical development is to glorify the name of Almighty God.”

By Collin Hansen

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #92 in 2006]

Collin Hansen is an associate editor of Christianity Today.
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