Ryan Helfenbein, Executive Director of the Standing for Freedom Center. Follow Ryan on Twitter at @RHelfenbein.
“Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.” — Thomas Jefferson
Populism by definition is both common and ordinary. While academics today treat populism as a pejorative, historically, populist political movements have involved grassroots appeals to the people, pushing back against the elite in power. Though the French Revolution was a populist movement rooted in humanism that dissolved into anarchy before tyranny, the American Revolution was a populist movement rooted in religious principles borrowed from the Great Awakening, not just enlightenment philosophers. It required what John Adams called “a moral and religious people.”
Today’s intellectual and media elites frame populism as extremely destructive, unless it serves their own political ends, like many of the riots last summer during lockdown. Their greatest fear is a conservative populist movement that results in both political power and the preservation of American freedom along with national identity. This is not unlike the congressional elections of 2010 or the presidential election of 2016.
The entire American experiment could not exist without a strong moral and religious foundation and an unwavering trust in the people against organized corruption and tyranny.
Scottish Presbyterians, English Baptists, Wesleyan circuit riders, and Congregationalists were all responsible for shaping the public conscience not only towards spiritual freedom but against political tyranny based on the flawed divine right of kings.
In America, farmers, shopkeepers, haberdashers, soldiers, teachers, doctors, publishers, small-town lawyers, ministers, and fishermen have had just as much right and opportunity not only to elect political representatives but to represent themselves in office. This was the fundamental principle behind “of the people,” “by the people,” and “for the people.” This concept is in serious jeopardy, not just in secular academic circles but in Christian circles where modern group think is increasingly echoed.
Perhaps William F. Buckley articulated the principled-populist sentiment best when he said, “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”
Every great populist moment of history — from the Sermon on the Mount to the Protestant Reformation to the American Revolution — required an extraordinary appeal to the common and ordinary man.
Over the decades, secular elites have managed to erode public trust, not just in institutions but in the historic traditions that made America great. Wokism, for example, is a progressive movement heavily funded by elite interests that has just as much say about open borders, environmentalism, capitalism, and national security as it does about ethnic and racial division along intersectional lines.
Critical race theory, intersectionality, and social justice originated in the ivory tower and exist to divide communities and ordinary citizens against one another. Divide common and ordinary people against one another and the elite maintain unquestioned power.
While the elite thrive on tribalism, American populism is not about the unruly mob or maintaining political power, but about the common appeal to time-tested traditions and conserving principles of freedom. It is a tool for the ordinary citizen to maintain unalienable rights and keep the powerful in check.
As Christians we need a principled approach to populism now more than ever. George Whitfield preached in open fields and Billy Graham in open stadiums. Francis Schaeffer understood the importance of teaching worldview and apologetics to the average layman, while Jerry Falwell, Sr sought to evangelize and mobilize men and women into the public square. These were not elites who despised populism, but ordinary men who embraced it.
If we are to keep America free, we must recognize the indispensable appeal to the common and ordinary. More than pluralism, populism has a unifying effect that can mobilize citizens in the cause of freedom. While the progressive poison of Marxism divides, the unchanging principles of life, liberty, and truth must ensure American freedom remains. May God grant us courage to keep it.