Protestantism and the Problem of Populism

I recently weighed in (again) on the questions surrounding the debate over so-called Christian nationalism in the United States. The debate seems to overlap significantly with the question of populism and its relationship to religious life in the United States. One some level, Evangelical Christianity is only Evangelical in as much as it owes its place in American society to populism. Stephen Stein observed this three decades ago in his review of Nathan Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity. My Hillsdale colleague D.G. Hart noted in That Old-time Religion in Modern America: Evangelical Protestantism in the Twentieth Century that Evangelicals—including figures like Billy Graham who later became more respectable from associations with prominent non-Evangelical politicians—relied on populist ecclesiology, sociology, and interpretative frameworks to maintain the celebrity status which propelled his revivalist crusades. The rise of Dispensationalism, Hart notes, lay in populist dispositions; so too did the rise of Billy Graham. [1]

The rising divisions within what has been called Evangelicalism map in some ways on to the breakup of the Reagan-era political conservative political coalition. Neoconservatives rejecting Trump have declaimed populism; so too have some National Conservatives who disliked the more idealistic domestic and foreign policy aspirations of the George W. Bush era. Among Christian academics and liberal-leaning clerics, populism is unpopular and often publicly censured. [2]

There are serious questions over the prudence of populist politics in the United States, and I echo the cautions. Rejections of populism present however a historic and historiographic problem on some level for academics and especially for Christian ministers. Historically, Protestant intellectual rejections of populism were wedded to anti-democratic polemics. It is difficult to separate the two. Thomas Smyth, a Presbyterian minister in Charleston, South Carolina during the Early Republic, denounced democracy and what passed for populism in his era. He based his denunciations on the Christian scriptures and on Presbyterian ecclesiology. When democratic-leaning members of his local presbytery proposed ruling elders only serving temporary terms and having to stand regularly for reelection, Smyth stated flatly that ordination was not something that could be subjected to democratic processes.

Smyth did not end with a simple nod to the particulars of ordination. Smyth made a broader point about democracy in general. “There is one point in which I would with, deference, differ from what I understand to be a view entertained by some leading men in the church: and that is in relation to the tenure of elders. I abhor democracy.” Smyth abhorred democracy “in all its aspects: and would not willingly assent to the periodical election of elders. It would produce evil, and only evil, continually.”  He preferred “a stable representative government. But none of your democracy, or congregationalism in church or state.”[3]

The problems with democracy extended farther than the Presbyterian Church, according to Smyth. In fact, flawed—democratic—ecclesiology had in Smyth’s mind corrupted the civil sphere as well. He believed “that the congregationalism of New England is father to all the anarchy of which we have had such bitter experience in the civil affairs of this state for so many years, and of which I see no happy end.” The Congregationalist Independents of England “ruined the noble struggle for popular government there. He feared “that the Independents of New England are ruining the noblest structure of government ever possessed by man, in America. Lord grant that I may be mistaken!”[4]

Rebukes of democracy (and what passed for populism) were commonplace among Early Republic Protestants, particularly Episcopalians and Presbyterians. They were not limited to the South. Episcopal Bishop Philander Chase of Ohio fought priests friendly to democracy in his diocese with some regularity, to the point the diocesan democrats pursued ecclesiastical trial against the bishop. Questions regarding populism from modern clerics, it seems, might be worthwhile, but it is intellectually important to explain how modern anti-populist denunciations are meaningfully divided from anti-democratic impulses. It seems especially important to explain if it’s coming from a pulpit.

[1] Miles Smith, “The Uselessness of Christian Nationalism,” Mere Orthodoxy, July 2022; Stephen J. Stein, “Review of Radical Protestantism and Religious Populism, by Nathan O. Hatch,”  American Quarterly 44, no. 2 (1992): 262–70; D.G. Hart, That Old-time Religion in Modern America: Evangelical Protestantism in the Twentieth Century (Ivan R. Dee, 2002), 36, 81.  

[2] Patrick Brown, “The Failure of ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ Offers Lessons for the Trumpian Right,” Politico (June 2022).

[3] Louisa Cheves Stoney ed., Thomas Smyth, Autobiographical Notes, Letters and Reflections (Charleston SC: Walker, Evans, & Cogswell Co., 1914), 288.

[4] Ibid.


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