Even though there are a number of persistent questions regarding the aims, constituency, and longevity of the Religious Right in America, most historians and political scientists agree on at least one thing—its emergence in the 1960s marked a change in the way conservative religious Protestants or fundamentalists, especially in the South, engaged the political sphere. And without question, the surge of religiously-motivated, theologically-conservative voters who supported Goldwater’s presidential run or were part of the calculus in Nixon’s “southern strategy” marked a notable shift in national voting alignments. As historians such as George Marsden and Joel Carpenter and political scientists such as Michael Lienesch have pointed out, we can, however, overstate the novelty of the Religious Right. Conservative Protestants, even fundamentalists, had been politically active as a movement in the earlier part of the twentieth century; in many ways, then, the emergence of the Religious Right marked a recovery of older patterns of political behavior or, as Lienesch argues, one more in a long cycle of Protestant hand wringing and subsequent moral crusading. But while these scholars call our attention to the William Jennings Bryans of the early twentieth century, the notion persists that, in the American South, at least, the Religious Right’s eruption in the most religious region in the nation was indeed something unprecedented. We certainly know how reticent southerners were to join various political-moral crusades of the early nineteenth century, and by the early twentieth century the malaise of “solid south” voting patterns had no doubt settled in—part of which meant that white southerners, regardless of religious preferences, simply acquiesced to the political status quo of Democratic white supremacy, at least until the 1960s.
Given these assumptions, events surrounding the election of 1892 in North Carolina seem far from normal—or were they? The election of 1892 saw perhaps the most powerful third-party movement in the nation’s history—the People’s or Populist Party—emerge as a national contender that consolidated workers and farmers across the nation. For a time, Populists threatened to overturn political convention and in particular white Democratic dominance in the South, all with the sense that they were acting in accord with the will of God. As they entered the political fray, the Populists of North Carolina demolished any purported wall between church and state. One religious paper, for example, in 1892 noted that many good Christians were “ready to consign to eternal punishment all who do not agree with them both in religion and politics. We heard a very good man consign a certain political party to hell and every man who voted for its nominees” (North Carolina Baptist, 26 October 1892). Moreover, Populists expressed absolute conviction that they were fighting on God’s side. One Populist warned: “There can be but two political parties to claim the suffrage of the people, the one having truth, justice and right on its side; the other the love of money, office and corruption....With God for the acknowledged leader of the former and the devil for the latter, all good people ought to know which will win” (Progressive Farmer, 10 May 1892, 17 October 1893). Populists often considered it a sin even to affiliate with another political party. One wondered how anybody “professing to be a Christian can vote the Democratic ticket”; another wrote that the Democrats represented “the abomination of desolation” and were “stenches in the nostrils of decent people”—a party crying “lustily to Baal.” Still others accused Democrats of “idolatry,” “harlotry,” “heathenism,” “iniquity,” of being the “whore of Babylon” and “of the Devil” (Hickory Mercury, 6 April 1892; Farmers’ Advocate, 24 August 1892).
These Populists, then, invite us to consider how conservative religion, in this case North Carolina evangelicalism, could galvanize such a radical political movement. Even though, as with the case of fundamentalism more broadly, many historians of southern religion have demonstrated that nineteenth-century southerners often mixed religion and politics, we still usually imagine theologically conservative southerners prior to the late 1960s as captive to the prevailing southern cultural ideals, willingly submitting to the “powers that be.” While such a view is not entirely mistaken, as we can see with these North Carolina Populists, it misrepresents the historical record with regard to all southern evangelicals. Moreover such a view rests on the dubious inference that conservative religion—traditionalist beliefs, institutions, and practices entrenched in a particular place—must invariably reinforce that status quo. North Carolina Populists demonstrate otherwise, for even though not every Populist was an evangelical (and vice versa), conservative evangelicalism shaped the Populists’ understanding of themselves and their movement as they wove their political and economic reforms into a grand cosmic narrative pitting the forces of God and freedom against those of Satan and tyranny. This narrative gave the movement an apocalyptic sense of urgency and in the process challenged the very southern sacred canopy that gave it birth.
Central to the Populists’ sense of urgency was their belief that the economic hard times, political corruption in the two old parties, and even the drift towards centralization among a number of Protestant denominations in the 1890s signaled a crisis in American democracy or “freedom.” For Populists, freedom meant economic independence on a personal level, laissez faire capitalism in the political sphere, freedom of conscience in politics and religion, and the absence of concentrations of population, wealth, and power—either in politics or the church. In their minds, the loss of freedom in any one sphere—economic, political, or religious—eventually would poison Christian civilization in America, leading to a victory for Satan and his minions.
Again, this narrative had such power because the ideals upon which it drew were so central to the religious beliefs entrenched in the region. Yet, because these religious beliefs were so embedded in southern culture, they also complicate the story, for conservative evangelicalism shaped not only Populism but opposition to it as well. Nineteenth-century evangelicalism displayed both countercultural and conservative tendencies. Evangelicals’ egalitarian, anti-elitist, and liberal strains helped engender Populism’s assault on the southern economic and political “powers that be,” but for many southerners, evangelicalism also sacralized political, economic, and cultural power. It led some evangelicals, usually white Democrats, to reject and ultimately quash the People’s Party as it threatened their hegemony. Even though the issue of race was deeply woven into this conflict over the sacred in southern culture, the volatility of southern politics in the 1890s and, in particular, the vehemence with which Populists and non-Populists did battle, reflected both sides’ alignment along this central fissure within an evangelicalism that informed basic southern understandings of politics, economics, and society. In other words, because evangelicalism so deeply molded southern ideals and ways, it was able to propel such a powerful movement of social change and such an equally forceful backlash against that change.
To make some sense of this conflict, the focus here, however, will fall on the religious presuppositions that shaped the Populists’ response to the economic, religious, and political problems they witnessed in the 1890s. What distinguished a Populist in 1892 from her Democratic neighbor down the road was a deep sense that the divine experiment begun in 1776 was failing and at fault were the hell-bound political parties that had failed to embody and protect American freedom. Redemption therefore required a new party that could restore those sacred ideals of freedom.
The Populists’ mixture of religion and politics drew on a long theological heritage concerning the relationship of church to state and more broadly about the nature of personal and political freedom. These patterns of thought derived from the evangelicalism that had become thoroughly established in the South by the late nineteenth century—so much so that religious life in North Carolina was in many ways akin to Puritan New England or Mormon Utah; evangelicalism was an inescapable presence.
As historians such as Charles Reagan Wilson and Donald Mathews have demonstrated, by having achieved such a central place in southern culture, evangelicalism stabilized or legitimated many elements of postbellum southern society; hence, the idea that the southern evangelicals were “captive” to predominant cultural mores is not without merit. Yet, evangelicals’ egalitarianism, values of justice and equality, and stress on individual conscience almost always complicated their relationship to their prevailing culture. Even the most socially conservative evangelicals often felt uneasy about an outlook that seemed elitist.
Evangelicals’ beliefs interacted with commonsense understandings of human beings and institutions that were widely-held in nineteenth century America. This commonsense way of perceiving the world—based on Scottish Common Sense philosophy—stressed the ability of all people to apprehend and conform to certain axioms, ideals, or “principles” by which God ruled heaven and earth. Evangelicals, in other words, imagined a world of oughts—things ought to be according to God’s static or axiomatic principles—and all people could or ought to understand and conform to these principles. Furthermore, most evangelicals linked this way of thinking to the idea of “God’s moral governance”—the idea that, since acting according to godly principles produced right behavior, if all members of a society acted rightly, that society experienced the “moral governance” of God, or more simply put, was in line with the way things ought to be.
By the late nineteenth century, commonsense thinking, in various degrees of sophistication, along with this notion of God’s moral governance, was well established in the southern evangelical mind and engendered a number of often contradictory intellectual and social trajectories. On the one hand, this outlook stressed conformity to absolute rules—an idea that could support relationships of power or social control, including oppressive ones. Evangelicalism in the late nineteenth century helped mythologize the Old South and undergirded conservative gender relations, and its ambivalence on vindictive justice and penchant for sacralizing hierarchies of race created an environment hospitable for lynching, Jim Crow, and black disfranchisement. This was especially evident in matters of race, gender, and sometimes class.
On the other hand, commonsense thinking also had egalitarian implications. These egalitarian strains in commonsense thinking, and evangelicals’ more general egalitarian tendencies, stemmed from their insistence that an individualistic conversion experience—a radically personal sense of knowing one belonged to God—was essential to salvation. Specifically, most evangelicals believed that all people were equal before God in a state of sin and likewise that all people could apprehend the divine without the mediation of priest or church. On the egalitarian side, for example, it stressed the innate “common” ability of all people to think and act morally regardless of social class, race, or gender. Drawing on this egalitarian, individualistic impulse (which was often combined with a strong anti-elitism), evangelicals insisted that an individual believer, armed with a sanctified conscience, could read the Bible, develop ethical and theological positions, and deliberate such matters without political, ecclesiastical, or in some cases creedal coercion. One Baptist insisted along that his denomination was “democratic” and bred “independence” because “the Baptist reads the Bible for himself and teaches his children to do likewise” (North Carolina Baptist, 17 February 1892).
This tension between conformity and conscience indelibly shaped evangelical political and social thought. Again, evangelicals believed that when Christians acted according to their converted consciences, their obedience to religious, economic, or political truth put them in harmony with God’s governance which insured a well-ordered society. Thus, they traditionally voiced opposition to the twin evils of ignorance and political coercion that could bind the conscience and thus thwart God’s governance. This emphasis on freedom of conscience was at the heart of Protestants’ assaults on Papal hierarchy, for example, and after it became politicized in the eighteenth century, this belief undergirded evangelical attacks on religious establishment and furthermore supported liberal ideals of toleration and especially republicanism or democracy. Evangelicals often further bolstered their support for the verity of democratic governance by pointing to the contradiction between hierarchical patterns of governance and the egalitarianism they saw as implicit in the command to love one another.
This stress on individual autonomy, especially as it combined with American democratic political thought, caused southern evangelicals by the late nineteenth century to think of themselves as historical champions of freedom of conscience and religious toleration, believing furthermore that religious liberty established a foundation for democratic government more generally. Most southern evangelicals believed, for example, that the vote was the voice of the conscience that in turn reflected the voice of God—vox populi, vox dei. They moreover considered religious liberty and their voluntary ecclesiastical institutions as tutors for civil liberty, for reliance on one’s conscience in religious matters, they believed, led to a general independence about the things of life, meaning one could cast a vote or serve one’s government independent of the suasion of party favors, greed, or self-interest.
While advocating the verity of democracy in church and state generally, nineteenth-century evangelicals usually stressed the particular importance of American democracy in God’s providential designs. Undergirding the idea that their denominations were central to American democracy was the notion that God had special designs for America as the beacon of democracy to the world—that America was Winthrop’s city on a hill, the culmination of all that was good in western Christian civilization. This idea permeated southern evangelicals’ speech. Disciple of Christ Miss Mattie Ham wrote that, because it had resisted British tyranny, “the American government more fully embodies the principles of Christianity than any other political system on the globe” (Watch Tower, 7 June 1901).
In proclaiming the verity of democracy and especially the sacred mission of the United States, how might evangelicals react if it appeared that American democracy was in peril? Here, we need again to go back to their commonsense patterns of thinking to understand their unique restorationist view of reform. Evangelicals argued that human beings and institutions were sacred—a part of God’s moral governance or in line with the way things ought to be—only insofar as they embodied God’s eternal principles. For human beings, the embodiment of these ideals commenced at conversion and grew as one reached true Christian manhood and womanhood, which meant exhibiting a fully integrated belief system rooted in an independent conscience—in other words, having the “backbone” or “courage” to act in accordance with one’s conscience—one’s internalized, eternal principles and hence in accord with God’s moral governance.
As with grown men and women, institutions of civil and ecclesiastical government were considered sacred only if these institutions—or, more specifically, their members—embodied God’s eternal principles. We can see this way of thinking in evangelical ecclesiology, for most evangelicals believed that their denominational organizations were subject to the voice of their members, who, by embodying God’s principles, spoke the voice of God—the institutions themselves were not sacred. Most moreover believed that ecclesiastical governing bodies—or any concentrated group of leaders—posed an inherent threat to autonomy or liberty. Even their churches, like all governing structures, were prone to centralization and therefore to “tyranny” and the loss of God’s governance. As many southern evangelicals looked out over the ecclesiastical horizon by the 1890s, they saw just such a state of centralized ecclesiastical and even political tyranny emerging.
While almost all evangelicals agreed that political parties, like ecclesiastical bodies, existed solely to express God’s principles as revealed by the vote or participation of a God-breathed conscience, their thinking became much more complex when applied to the actual temporal relationship of the church to the state.
Two contentious ideas informed the practical dimensions of Church/State relations—contentious ideas that reflected the conservative and countercultural tensions we already have seen. On the conservative side, many southern evangelicals articulated the doctrine often referred to as the “spirituality of the church” that relegated to the state all power in the political sphere and to the church all authority in the moral or “spiritual” sphere. Many also adhered to more vague ruminations about “the separation of church and the state.” From a commonsense view of obedience to the “powers that be,” other evangelicals simply thought politics was best left alone, and, as was usually the case, “leaving it alone” meant acquiescence to the status quo. Some expressed a fear going back to Roger Williams, that where the state and church mix, the state corrupts the church.
On the more activist side, many southern evangelicals instead looked to eternal axioms to judge the status of society in terms of what it should be. And many evangelicals were, in fact, less than satisfied with the southern status quo. Many late-nineteenth-century evangelicals were concerned about growing economic inequalities and the partisan nature of politics; others were alarmed by the influence of the “whisky ring” on politics, while still others worried about the growing Roman Catholic “menace.” Together, these dangers indicated a general drift in the land towards tyranny. These sinister forces threatened to move America away from her millennial course, and evangelicals believed that they had a responsibility, through political involvement, to keep America on her democratic and Christian path.
From these anxieties emerged the Farmers’ Alliance, the most powerful farmers’ union in the nation’s history, which in turn begat the People’s Party. Blasting into North Carolina from Texas in 1887, the Alliance drew on Protestant evangelicalism for its basic intellectual orientation, its moral fervor, and, most importantly, its apocalyptic fears that greedy, unscrupulous plutocrats had adulterated God’s New Israel. The Alliance began as a non-partisan movement, although most members in North Carolina were Democrats. Originally, the Alliance cooperated with the Democratic Party in North Carolina, but by 1892 many if not most North Carolina Alliancefolk had grown disaffected, believing the Democratic Party had succumbed to the diabolical forces of tyranny. In evangelical Alliancefolks’ minds, just as an ecclesiastical body might forsake the ideals of Christianity, so might political parties and institutions forsake the true ideals or “principles” of political economy, and for the Populists, that is just what the old parties had done. Hence, with righteous indignation, North Carolina Alliancefolk likened themselves to Protestant reformers and the patriots in 1776 and formed a third party, the North Carolina People’s Party.
The Alliancefolk did not just mimeograph evangelical ideals. Within the Alliance, evangelical patterns of thought and Jeffersonian yeoman ideals merged into a uniquely evangelical and rural reform agenda involving progressive farming, economic cooperation, religious or moral reform, and political action. What for many evangelicals had been somewhat vague notions of political action took crystalline form within the Alliance as a program of economic and political cooperation. In the process, the lines between the Alliance and Christianity, between farmers and Christians, and between Jesus and Thomas Jefferson, blurred. Jesus became a radical agrarian reformer and his circle of disciples a Galilean sub-alliance, while the Democratic and Republican Parties became the Pharisees and Sadducees in league with the money changers (monopolists) in the temple. One preacher and Alliance advocate went so far as to label the Alliance “Christianity in concentrated form,” while others believed it was the salve provided by God to heal the church of tyrannical “churchianity”—a hollow institutional shell, devoid of Christ’s principles and devoted only to self-preservation (Progressive Farmer, 4 November 1890).
By casting the economic and political situation in terms of centralization and especially “tyranny,” Populist leaders like W.R. Lindsey (the first state chairman of the North Carolina People’s Party and a deeply evangelical lay leader who denounced the Democrats as satanic and “Popish”) tapped into values beyond the ethereal laws of political economy. Centralization in the broader political economy had a trickle-down effect on personal liberty and independence. Economic centralization robbed farmers not only of fair compensation but more insidiously of their freedom to earn a living and hence their personal independence as they became enslaved to non-producers. Moreover, not only were individual producers enslaved, but because present and future generations would not benefit from economic independence, the entire system of democracy was exposed to decay from within. The decay inevitably would spread back into the political realm, as emasculated, spineless dupes and slaves led by political partisans would fail to vote according to a God-breathed conscience and hence halt God’s governance of the nation.
Again, these assertions were part of a larger frame in which an eschatological battle between organizational tyranny and individual liberty. Populists argued that individual freedom, no matter where it existed, was constantly threatened by the Satanic forces of institutional centralization. As the President of the Alliance put it: freedom, “. . . like the manna that fell from heaven, because it is perishable, must be contended for every day” (News and Observer, 17 September 1895). Importantly, contending for this manna required a new institution, since the fault in old parties (or the ecclesiastical institutions Populists likewise attacked) was not bad “governing principles” but the multiple failures of their leaders to embody those principles. Reform therefore required a new party, made up of committed, disciplined members who embodied the principles of freedom necessary to bring the nation’s political economy back under God’s governance.
Populism’s critics, drawing on conservative views of church and state, were unable or unwilling to make this distinction between eternal principle and temporal institution. They cast the institutional church or their political parties themselves as the basis and defender of peace, civilization, the “powers that be,” and ultimately the status quo; Populism therefore threatened all things sacred in the southern order. One Populist critic announced, for example, that a Populist “turns his back on his Bible and sneers at the churches,” while pushing the South down “the road to anarchy” (Caucasian, 21 November 1895).
Populists, however, believed—in commonsense fashion—that implementing God’s axioms was the only way to secure harmony in the political economy, and therefore placed their principles above party fealty. In doing so, they imagined themselves as heirs to the other great Christian reformers or restorationists who had placed principle over party or ecclesiastical body in order to assure eschatological victory. In that context, State Alliance President and Populist office holder Cyrus Thompson called on the church to follow John the Baptist who “. . . inspired His prophets to meddle with politics and to say that national evils were consequent upon national sins” and Jesus who “was himself the model of indignant rebuke of sin in high places.” Thompson had witnessed such activity in the Alliance, which, for him, had come “together on grounds of purest patriotism and Christianity” (Caucasian, 6 February 1896).
With such ideas shaping their self-conception, it is easy to see why Populists leapt into the political fray with such devotion. Perhaps, in fact, the more difficult question is why voting in the early twentieth century these evangelicals did indeed become more passive about political involvement or even. Certainly southern Democrats’ successful use of white supremacy to destroy the Populists and disfranchise blacks played a critical role, as the ultimate result of these campaigns was a devastating drop in voter registration among both blacks and whites. Why vote, Populists might have asked, if one’s apocalyptic forebodings actually came to pass—if the Devil won?
It is then correct to assume that the emergence of the Religious Right in the mid-twentieth century marked a shift in religious and political thinking in the South, but only if one’s point of comparison is the first half of the twentieth century rather than the last half of the nineteenth. One might even argue that the Religious Right marked a recovery of older nineteenth-century patterns of mixing religion and politics in America. Such a statement, however, needs qualification, for the political activism of Populists differed in significant ways from the twentieth-century’s Religious Right. Whereas political and religious commitments were of a single cloth in the nineteenth century—commitment to American democratic values and processes equaled one’s commitment to Jesus since both derived from God-given, axiomatic truth—the twentieth-century Religious Right has seemed content using American systems of governance to address, recover, or restore particular religious values without necessarily preserving or restoring those political processes themselves. For the Populists, however, America’s political process was a sacred entity worth fighting for or preserving.
In a more general sense, the Populists’ mixture of religion and politics suggests that we continue to reckon with the ability of conservative religion to stimulate movements that challenge the status quo. As sociologist Christian Smith has argued so effectively, especially where it is central to or legitimates a predominant culture, religion can shape the social and political agenda of movements offering a radical, although often complex critique of that very culture. Populists’ religious convictions had an inner cultural logic that drew on ideological, social, and religious traditions foundational to their understanding of what it meant to be Christian and American. For Populists, a political and economic reform program fused with evangelical hopes of eternal life in the arms of Jesus and the establishment of the millennium. This produced a movement baptized in a religious fervor matching the ultimate, eschatological certainty and seriousness of the ideals and hopes that propelled it. Populist editor J.F. Click epitomized this sense of ultimate concern. For Click, the failure to enact Populist measures, in this case monetary reform, would mean “abject slavery to your children and their posterity. It means damnation to your children whom you have tried to teach to reverence God as the great Ruler of the Universe. When your children realize that this claims to be a Christian nation and that the religion of the Lord Jesus reigns, they will be loath to accept such Christianity and such religion that underlies a government that has no humanity in it, and that would oppress the poor, those Christ...wanted...free from want and misery which is brought upon them by uncivil, immoral and unjust laws, instigated at all times by the devil himself.” For Click, monetary or economic reform was “not only a political question, but…a great moral principle that is too vital to be trifled with”—one for which his contemporaries would be held “morally responsible to God and man.” Click warned that, “unless they repent, hell will be full of editors, politicians and even professed Christians for the ignorant and reckless manner in which they have exercised the rights delegated to them by God Himself, in the way of giving the people just and civil laws” (Hickory Mercury, 6 April 1898).
Joe Creech is lecturer in history and humanities in Christ College at Valparaiso University. His book Righteous Indignation: Religion and the Populist Revolution in North Carolina will be published in 2006.
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