Populist Christianity expresses an instinctive distrust of our overclass—a distrust that’s properly deserved.
No prejudice so completely unites the American overclass as contempt for morally conservative, religiously revivalist, and politically populist protestants. Every day, it appears, a status publication prints a brand new article describing them as sexist, racist, white-nationalist threats to democracy. Far greater than the socialists who see themselves as radicals, backwoods Baptists and TV preachers, holy-rolling religion healers and strip-mall seminarians are hated and feared by our ruling class. No different group of comparable dimension persistently opposes those that run our society. That is why they’re denounced so unsparingly, and why they deserve better reward.
Populist Christianity took kind within the early nineteenth century throughout the Second Great Awakening. Methodist circuit riders, Baptist preachers, and Mormon seers remade America’s non secular panorama, proclaiming a populist creed that was no much less revolutionary than the political transformation that had swept by means of the nation within the many years earlier than. As Nathan Hatch notes in his nice ebook, The Democratization of American Christianity, its leaders have been “short on social graces, family connections, and literary education.” They usually appeared “untutored” and “irregular,” however this solely proved their bona fides. Because they preached a creed that “associated virtue with ordinary people,” their lack of refinement vouchsafed their reliability.
The actions that sprang from the Second Great Awakening didn’t oppose all types of authority. They as a substitute tended to the elevation of a single chief, who was seen as vindicating the pursuits of the widespread man towards an unaccountable elite. These males have been entrepreneurial figures, adept within the newest strategies of mass communication. They understood and incessantly shared in style tastes. Unbound by previous establishments, they constructed new ones during which they exercised unquestioned authority. Hatch describes the sample: “The Methodists under Francis Asbury…used authoritarian means to build a church that would not be a respecter of persons.” Likewise, Mormons “used a virtual religious dictatorship…to return power to illiterate men.” Despite their tight management of their organizations, these males have been seen as heralds of freedom, for they gave their followers the “right to think and act for themselves rather than depending upon the mediations of an educated elite.”
Like a river overflowing its banks, the Second Great Awakening lower new channels by means of which American public life has continued to movement. As Hatch observes, “American Christianity has always been most dynamic at the periphery of high culture.” Its most vibrant actions “are fed by the passions of ordinary people and express traditional values of localism, direct democracy, ruralism, and individualism. They assume a conservative stand in opposition to liberal secular and church elites.”
Perhaps the easiest way to grasp populist Christianity is to take heed to the boys who made its music. When the Rev. J.M. Gates, a gospel singer, recorded “Amazing Grace” within the Nineteen Twenties, he offered the tune as an antidote to scientistic and cosmopolitan values. “We’re living in a scientific age now where people are trying to lay aside the old hymns,” he instructed his listeners. “We’re living in a time where Atlanta gets her style from New York and New York gets her style from Paris and Paris is getting her style from hell.”
For populist Christians, the previous is the mannequin of piety. Personal and social enchancment requires a return, quite than a easy advance. “Lord, bring back those happy days,” Rosetta Tharpe sang—the times “when the sweetness was in the land.” Populist Christians all the time lengthy to return to “the Old Landmark.” Because
… the folks don’t sing like they used to sing,
The mourners don’t moan like they used to moan,
The preachers don’t pray like they used to wish, [and]
That’s what’s the matter with the church at present.
Populist Christianity associates piety with fireside and residential, nation and place. The lead singer of the Pilgrim Jubilees, a gospel quartet, instructed an interviewer: “My brothers and I grew up in a little three-room shack in Houston, Mississippi. We didn’t have much back then, church, but we had a family altar.” This delight in a single place, nonetheless humble, and in a pious dwelling, nonetheless plain, is typical of populist Christianity. As one interviewee instructed Anthony Heilbut, the scholar of gospel music: “I got my religion one Tuesday evening in the clay hills of Alabama”—an affiliation of spirit and soil echoed within the nation track in regards to the “red dirt road” whereon a person discovered Jesus.
Populist Christianity rejects cosmopolitan, scientific, and bureaucratic conceits. Against these items, it asserts the authority of non secular, familial, and native traditions. Though it first emerged amongst Protestants, it’s not restricted by ecclesial divides. The Catholic charismatic renewal, incubated in America, has unfold across the globe. Even Catholic traditionalism, with its love of the old-time faith, suspicion of trendy concepts, and doubts in regards to the hierarchy, has one thing in widespread with a kind of religion to which it’s in lots of different methods opposed.
Populist Christianity expresses an instinctive distrust of our overclass—a distrust that’s properly deserved. Any Catholic, atheist, or excessive Protestant is certain to seek out it poor at factors, however its creed is extra sound, extra sane than the one preached by the elite. Undeterred by abuse, unashamed of its trigger, it continues to combat the excessive and mighty. That is why I’m grateful for populist Christianity.