Vox Populi, Vox Dei: Themes of Civil Religion in the Public Speech of William Jennings Bryan
University of California, San Diego (UCSD) - Department of Political Science
Western Political Science Association 2010 Annual Meeting Paper
Writing in a time of economic upheaval and dramatic inequalities of wealth, William Jennings Bryan argued for popular sovereignty in all aspects of American political, economic, and institutional life. I argue that Bryan drew on the rhetorical tradition of American civil religion, being influenced by the public speech of figures as diverse as Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and literary editor John L. O'Sullivan, who coined the phrase Manifest Destiny. Combining the language of civil religion with his belief that the masses were all but infallible, Bryan described a vision of American politics in which the US is a community of belief in the political good of equality, which he believed fundamental to both Christianity and democracy. I show that Bryan deploys the language of civil religion as a vehicle for his argument that the people were competent to address any number of political questions, including the limits of the American polity, the proper role of the United States on the world stage, and the role of government in the economy. His solutions entailed a tacit approval of racist exclusion, a pacifistic view of America as a model of equality, and the claim that the economy should have as its focus not elite institutions, but the people at a mass level. Bryan's civil religious language and policy proposals have relevance in today's political environment, and show that Bryan's significance in American political history extends far beyond the Scopes trial.
Date posted: March 29, 2010
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