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The Peril of Populism

For the past forty years, the United States has been dealing with recurrent waves of populism.  Moreover, Christianity in the United States was and remains an important part of the fuel supporting this populism. The election of Donald J. Trump, despite his nebulous relationship with Christianity, is one result of this latest wave.

The history of Christian populism goes back to 1800 with the beginning of the Second Great Awakening. That Awakening was an attempt to revive a Calvinist, Protestant understanding of Christianity that helped shape the foundation of the United States and counter the growing influence of the French Revolution, albeit without the anti-clericalist Catholic complaints, in American culture. However, the explosion of religious faith that the revival had inspired west of the Appalachian Mountains overwhelmed the Calvinist goals. There, Baptists, Methodists, and other Christian churches evangelized successfully a population that was expanding rapidly in what was then the American frontier. The Roman Catholic Church made its own efforts to organize itself in that same westward expansion in the US. 

The revival succeeded and Christianity identified itself as the religion of the people.  As a result of this identification, churches in the United States remained full for most years since.  Unfortunately, Christianity has paid a heavy price for this success. The revival gave Americans permission to privilege their individual, subjective experiences of God over any received Christian theological tradition or any authority who claimed, by virtue of God’s call or formal education for ministry, to interpret the Bible or sacred tradition for a congregation or church. Today, if a minister or priest attempts to teach the Word of God, congregants may not take to heart the lessons of that Word or seek to deepen their commitment to God since they have their own popularist-conceived interpretations. They’ll ignore the message given from the pulpit, change churches, or even start their own church. Christianity has become in the popularist initiative a consumable commodity, meant to satisfy the individual-subjective wants of congregations instead of a faith that challenges people to follow God’s will for Christian community. Such congregations become vulnerable to charlatans who claim to meet those wants and so feed their narrow interests.     

The populism unleashed by the Second Great Awakening was a major factor in the 1829 election of Andrew Jackson, the first populist to win the presidency. Populism helped drive the belief, still held by many Americans today, that their native, conniving, subjective genius is as good or better than the formal training of professionals. Ironically, rejecting the professional guidance and advice of educated, trained professionals makes more people more vulnerable to social and economic forces where such expertise could help them navigate life constructively. Nevertheless, when people begin to think that forces outside their control are holding them back, they turn to charismatic, messianic figures to save them. Those self-appointed saviors scapegoat outsider-despised minorities for causing the social and economic instabilities under which “true believers” suffer.

The native genius of a people, unless formed by theory tested over time and given a constructive direction by institutions of democracy, will yield incompetence, frustration, and the turning to despotism to save people from their own folly. False messiahs, like the populism that spawns them, always fail the people they are presumed to liberate, if for no other reason than their own self-aggrandizing interest.

Let’s hope, pray, and work for a New Year that awakens the US populace to a new order where peace, security, and the common good prevail.