Eminentoes

William Jennings Bryan Redux

In attacking Darwinism, liberal evangelist Tony Campolo risks obloquy.

By 3.10.09

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Liberal evangelist Tony Campolo, a prominent Obama supporter, is challenging Darwinism and discomfiting traditional allies on the left. Campolo served on the Democratic Party platform committee last year, amending the party's abortion language slightly to assuage pro-life evangelicals. In the 1990s, Campolo was arrested in the Capitol Rotunda in protest against the new Republican Congress. A prominent defender of Bill Clinton before and after Monicagate, Campolo served as one of Clinton's three advertised spiritual counselors.

So left-wing bloggers feel somewhat betrayed that Campolo has challenged orthodox Darwinism in a recent column published in Britain, which also appeared last year in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Darwin's writings, when actually read, express the prevalent racism of the nineteenth century, and endorse an extreme laissez faire political ideology that legitimates the neglect of the suffering poor by the ruling elite," Campolo opined.

Campolo's critique that hard-line Darwinism exposes the poor and weak to exploitation echoes another dome-headed liberal evangelical, William Jennings Bryan. The Democrats' thrice presidential standard-bearer, Bryan is most recalled as the public relations disaster of the 1926 Scopes-Monkey trial, where he defended Tennessee's prohibition against teaching evolution in public schools. Wary of his Christian "fundamentalism," most modern Democrats prefer to forget that Bryan transformed the Democratic Party into the party of liberalism. Bryan's populism touted state control of the economy beyond what even the New Deal later would propose.

A not insincere champion of the downtrodden, Bryan opposed Darwinism not so much on scientific as moral grounds. Like Campolo, he expected that doctrinaire Darwinism, in its social ramifications, would diminish the humanity of persons already vulnerable because of poverty or physical weakness. Unlike Campolo, Bryan did not critique Darwinism as racist. Although probably not personally racist, Bryan's populist coalition and the Democratic Party included the segregated South, so blacks were omitted in his appeal to the common man. Sadly, Bryan's final great political act was urging the 1924 Democratic Convention, successfully, to table an anti-Klan resolution.

Not similarly constrained, and frequently the pastor of a black congregation, Campolo condemned Darwin as a racist, asserting that Darwin advocated the elimination of "savage races whose continued survival was hindering the progress of civilization." Campolo claimed that Darwin's classic The Descent of Man (1871) ranks ostensibly lower races in proximity to gorillas. And Darwin, according to Campolo, warned that the higher birth rates of supposedly inferior races would potentially exhaust "the resources needed for the survival of better people, and eventually dragging down all of civilization." Campolo also has Darwin dismissing the insane and the deformed as not worthy of survival. Darwin's dismissive views on "inferior" people make him sound like a Nazi, Campolo surmised, and eventually inspired Nazi theorists who orchestrated the Holocaust. 

Campolo urged that creationists who fear Darwin's refutation of a literal biblical creation should instead rebut Darwinism's "ethical implications" and its "great threat to the dignity of our humanity that they suppose." Whatever "science discovers about our biological origins," Campolo concluded, humans retain a "mystical quality" that "makes each of us sacred and of infinite worth." There is an "infinite qualitative difference between the most highly developed ape and each and every human being," Campolo insisted. Darwin never recognized this distinction, which is why "his theories are dangerous."

Angry blogging responses to Campolo, while admitting that he has traditionally been a friend in common battles against the Religious Right, vow that Campolo has misunderstood Darwin. After all, they say, Darwin opposed slavery, and his overall racial views were no worse than was a common in the 19th century. They contend that Campolo confused Darwin with Herbert Spencer's extreme view of laissez faire expressed through "survival of the fittest." And they aver that Nazism exploited and misconstrued Darwinism, and that Darwin is no more responsible for Hitler than is the Bible responsible for slavery proponents who cherry picked Scripture for support.

Although a long-time sociologist at Eastern University, Campolo is more an impulsive pulpiteer than a careful scholar. An aging survivor of the protest generation, he remains naively wedded to the 1960s era belief that the Great Society can be achieved by government fiat. Campolo's Red Letter Christians, which is both a book and a movement for liberal religionists, superficially ascribes elevated importance to the red-lettered, Jesus-originated words of some Bibles. This Jesus-only emphasis among some evangelicals falsely pits Scripture against itself, minimizes Christian moral traditions, and ends up posing absurd questions for political effect, such as "Who would Jesus bomb?"

But give Campolo some credit for his Darwin op-ed. He commendably risked the irritation of his liberal allies by openly wondering how to protect vulnerable persons, ostensibly liberalism's goal, against a worldview that, in its strictest form, views human life as accidental and utilitarian. Campolo, at times, may be as bumbling and wrong-headed as William Jennings Bryan often was. The modern welfare state that Campolo acclaims no more ensures human justice than would Bryan's proposed nationalization of the railroads. Yet Campolo, like Bryan, proclaims a transcendent and unique moral purpose for humanity that their secularist critics never could.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.