VISION & VALUES CONCISE: Q&A with Dr. Michael Kazin

Editor’s Note: The “V&V Q&A” is a monthly e-publication from The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.  Each issue will present an interview with an intriguing thinker or opinion-maker that we hope will  prove illuminating to readers everywhere.
This month’s “V&V Q&A” features an interview by Dr. Gillis J. Harp, professor of history at Grove City College, with Dr. Michael Kazin.  Dr. Michael Kazin is a prominent historian, author, and professor of history at Georgetown University.  He is an expert in U.S. politics and social movements during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Question #1: How did you get interested in writing a biography of William Jennings Bryan?

Dr. Michael Kazin: In writing an earlier history of populist language and movements (“The Populist Persuasion: An American History”), I tried to understand how Bryan became admired, even loved, by many Americans and feared and/or ridiculed by even more. I also wanted to explain how he was able to combine a traditional theology with a progressive, even radical, analysis of society. And, as a writer, I thought it would be enjoyable and challenging to write a biography, which I’d never tried before.

Question #2: What most surprised you about your subject as you did your research?

Kazin: His ability to retain a major place in the politics of the nation—and the sympathies of his followers—for almost 30 years (from the campaign of 1896 until his death in 1925).

Question #3: What are some of the challenges of writing the biography of someone about whom you “feel passionately ambivalent”?

Kazin: I had to be careful not to claim more accomplishments and historical significance for Bryan than he deserves or to condemn him, retrospectively, for errors of judgment or ideology. But I have a tendency to be ironic and so it was easier for me to write about someone like Bryan than about a figure who I would have wanted either to celebrate or denigrate. His followers saw Bryan as “a godly hero,” but, if I did, it would have been difficult for me to write his biography.

Question #4: How can one reconcile the images of Bryan as both a liberal reformer in the political realm and a fundamentalist advocate at the Scopes trial?

Kazin: A short answer to a critical question: In each sphere, he believed he was defending the interests and upholding the beliefs of the great majority of  ordinary Americans—mostly workers and farmers. And he viewed both good politics and sound religion as moral endeavors.

Question #5: How do you understand your distinct roles as both an academic and a publicly-engaged intellectual?

Kazin: I’ve always loved both history and politics, and present concerns have motivated all my books and most of my articles. So it’s natural for me to try to engage readers beyond academia; all historians should try to do that, even if they don’t focus on politics. The scholars I most admire—Richard Hofstadter and Christopher Lasch, for example—never wrote for academics alone.

Question #6: Tell us about Dissent and your role on its editorial board.

Kazin: Dissent is a journal of social-democratic and liberal intellectuals. It was founded in 1954 and was edited for many years by Irving Howe, the literary critic and historian. As a member of the editorial board, I write for it fairly often and take part in quarterly meetings in New York City when I can.

Question #7: You have written that after World War II, “the liberal intelligentsia … [came to] view the close link between political crusading and evangelical faith to be an anachronism, vital mainly among ‘extremists’ on the right.” How did that “great transition” happen?

Kazin: Another short answer to a big question! As intellectuals became more attached to cultural modernism and sympathetic to socialism, they came to mistrust or even be hostile to anyone attracted to orthodox beliefs, particularly those justified by non-scientific texts and forms of reasoning. This began earlier in the 20th century but accelerated after World War II when white evangelicals began shifting to the political right.

Question #8: You have written that “Americans believe as strongly in individual freedom as they do in Christian morality, and only the former meshes routinely with the amoral operations of commerce.” Could you elaborate about that tension and its political consequences?

Kazin: To put it bluntly, whatever is desired by millions of people cannot be prohibited. That’s the logic of a capitalist society, particularly one founded on the belief that “the Creator” gives to all “the inalienable right” to “the pursuit of happiness!” So one can deplore pornography, same-sex marriage, embryonic stem-cell research, etc., but efforts by Christian conservatives—and others—to make them illegal will do little or nothing to stop the behaviors they deplore.

Question #9: You have noted that the left has simply “deplored” the role of religion in American political life rather than “engaging it” meaningfully. Why do you think that has been the case? How should the left change its tack?

Kazin: First, see my answer to Question #7. I think this attitude is changing to a degree, at least among liberals if not radicals. All the Democratic candidates currently in the front of the polls speak publicly about their faith, and such figures as Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles play a significant role in movements to combat poverty and discrimination against immigrants. Secular leftists should welcome this fact, as long as a profession of religious faith doesn’t become compulsory for politicians or activists.