Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!


Three events this past fall suggest the need to grapple with the nature of populism again, especially religious populism and its relationship to renewal and the life of the mind. While each of these events deal with different slices of Christianity (Pentecostal, Evangelical, and Catholic), they all center upon a resurgence of the populist mind and thus have prompted some anxious reflections by commentators.

The first event occurred at a worship service in T. D. Jakes’ church during MegaFest 2013. At one point in the service, the well-known actor Tyler Perry went up on stage, pledged one million dollars to Jakes’ youth center, and then laid hands on Jakes after he spoke in tongues. The video of the event went viral, prompting a number of discussions within the African-American community. The combination of celebrity, large sums of money, and Neo-Pentecostalism revealed the diversity and anxiety within African-American religious life over these issues.

Marc Lamont Hill  hosted an online discussion at the Huffington Post in which Shayne Lee, a sociologist at the University of Houston, utilized the event to suggest that the black masses made better decisions than the black elite as to the direction of African-American life. Lee went on to connect the masses to the dynamism inherent to Pentecostalism and the way in which populism and Pentecostalism fuse together to produce new iterations of pop culture.

Lee’s comments bring to the fore a debate that occurred at the turn of the twentieth century between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois over the best way for African Americans to carve out political and economic space within American culture. Du Bois had proposed what he called the “talented-tenth” model in which African-American intellectuals would guide their communities whereas Washington preferred to rely upon the masses to bring themselves out if they had the proper educational structures to facilitate this movement. It should come as no surprise that early African American holiness leaders like Charles Price Jones consciously chose Washington’s populism over Du Bois’ top-down approach.

The second event was the publication of Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason in which she brought up the problem of anti-intellectualism, citing the criticism of evangelical Christianity by Richard Hoftstadter at the middle of the previous century. Hofstadter’s criticism was part of a larger argument against populism within America as a deeply problematic aspect of American culture.

Taken as a whole, Worthen’s volume could be viewed as an indictment of Hofstadter’s charge of anti-intellectualism and yet she refrains from taking him on directly. Given that Hofstadter’s narrative is utilized by Mark Noll in his own charge of anti-intellectualism (as I have suggested here and here ), it is important to engage his claims. While admitting that anti-intellectualism was a vague and unruly notion, Hofstadter still found a way to tame it by connecting a resentment of the life of the mind to a resentment of the person who represents that life, namely, the intellectual. To oppose the intelligentsia is to oppose the life of the mind, full stop. On this view, populism by its very nature must be anti-intellectual.

The third event was the publication of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation with its emphasis on populism. Francis reminded the world that populist expressions of Christianity not only facilitate renewal within the church, but the broader culture. As he states, “An evangelized popular culture contains values of faith and solidarity capable of encouraging the development of a more just and believing society, and possesses a particular wisdom which ought to be gratefully acknowledged.”

Francis is by no means a blind optimist when it comes to populism, but he understands (rightly in my view) that popular expressions of piety transform and transmit culture from within the people without whom there is no culture. The nervousness over Francis in general and his exhortation in particular is in part a nervousness over affirming the Spirit’s actions in the people of God in a way that can undermine the intelligentsia and thus certain kinds of institutional life.

As diverse as these three events are, they point to three significant features of religious populism.

First, they show how populist forms of Christianity contribute to the life of the mind, not through sustained academic analyses of various theoretical possibilities, but through a more ad hoc critique of certain forms of life in the broader culture. Much of the time such criticisms, as Francis’ recent interview implies , occur in the non-technical language of the people rather than the precision of academic discourse.

Ironically enough, in his The Liberal Imagination , Lionel Trilling offered an insight into how populism feeds the mind when he drew on Goethe to point out the natural connection between sentiments and ideas. For Trilling, this connection became a way of linking literature and politics if one takes political in the ancient sense of envisioning a way of life for the polis in light of its end. Literature, especially the literary realism of the late nineteenth century that Trilling promoted, both captures the sentiments of populism and re-directs the ideas they embody into a vision of life. One can criticize populist sentiments and the ideas they generate, but one should take them seriously rather than dismiss them as the ignorance of the masses that anxious public intellectuals need to control.

Second, they suggest that part of the logic of religious populism is to look to the future by recovering the past. This was certainly the case with early Pentecostalism’s effort to renew the churches of the holiness movement just as Methodism had done within Anglicanism and most Catholic religious orders seek to do within the Catholic Church. Renewal looks back to apostolic tradition in order to facilitate change in Christianity. One can criticize forms of renewal as cutting off too much of the great river of Christian tradition or as focusing exclusively on one dimension, but this ignores the fundamental conservative impulse to retrieve the tradition.

Finally , while populist movements within Christianity can renew, they do not represent some pristine version of the faith beyond criticism. All forms of populism combine extreme behavior with examples of authentic Christian witness. As a historian of Christianity, I cannot ignore the fact that monasticism began as a populist form of Christianity and transformed not simply Christianity, but the Roman and Persian cultures in which Christianity took root. It began as a series of sentiments about what it meant to be faithful to the call of Christ and led to a host of ideas about Christianity, humanity, and life in the polis . Yet, any close examination of the history of monasticism and the religious life reveals a wide range of behaviors, experiments in social living, and, sometimes, just plain craziness. Athanasius’ claim that St. Antony battled demons to the point that his flesh was lacerated and Gregory the Great’s assertions that St. Benedict raised a boy from the dead and prophesied that Rome would not fall to the Lombards are the tip of a very large iceberg comprising stories of all kinds about the lives of men and women warrior saints.

What is needed is a greater appreciation of the whole Christian tradition as the ground of discernment for any form of populism. This is a fundamental aspect of the conservative imagination, namely, that the dynamism that gives rise to new forms of Christianity issues from a deep immersion into the fabric of Christian life and witness in its many historic expressions. From the vantage point of the whole tradition, we can begin to understand the sentiments behind populist movements and the ideas they intend to transmit. We can also begin to discern how to integrate those ideas back into the fabric of the tradition from which they emerged and of which they seek to foster renewal.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles